America's new coal rush
Utilities' dramatic push to build new plants would boost energy security but hurt the environment.
After 25 years on the blacklist of America's energy sources, coal is poised to make a comeback, stoked by the demand for affordable electricity and the rising price of other fuels.Skip to next paragraph
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At least 94 coal-fired electric power plants - with the capacity to power 62 million American homes - are now planned across 36 states.
The plants, slated to start coming on line as early as next year, would add significantly to the United States' generating power, help keep electricity prices low, and boost energy security by offering an alternative to foreign oil and gas. But they would also pump more airborne mercury and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur dioxide into the air.
Apparently, economic concerns are trumping environmental ones in utilities' plans.
Surprisingly, few state officials or even environmentalists are aware of the magnitude of the new coal rush.
One major reason is the sudden nature of the turnaround for the plentiful fuel. "The situation has changed 180 degrees in the last year, so that we're almost back to point where we were in the 1970s with a slew of coal-fired plants on the drawing board," says Robert McIlvaine, president of a Northfield, Ill., company that tracks energy industry development. After a decades-long drought, when few large coal plants were added to the power grid, "it's become a flood. We've been getting a new one announced almost every week since December."
The jump in proposed coal-fired plants over the past three years - which would add 62 gigawatts or another 20 percent to the US's current coal-generating capacity - was documented in a report last month by the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), an arm of the US Department of Energy. But experts caution that perhaps no more than half of all proposed plants will ever be built. It can take seven to 10 years for a coal power plant to go from planning to construction - and legal action and public protests often halt them.
Aside from the report, buried on the agency's website, the push to coal power and its estimated $72 billion investment has been largely untouted by industry and overlooked by the public. Even state officials and environmentalists who knew more coal power was coming are amazed.
"I certainly wasn't aware it was 62 gigawatts. That's an awful lot more coal to burn," says Dan Becker, director of global warming and energy program at the Sierra Club. "I think most Americans would be shocked that utilities are dragging the 19th century into the 21st century."
Illinois leads the nation with 10 proposed coal-fired plants that would create 8 gigawatts of new power capacity, the NETL report says. Yet state officials were surprised to be the national leader. "It's definitely something we're keeping track of, but I personally wasn't aware it was nine or 10 plants," says Rishi Garg, an energy policy adviser to Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn.
From the point of view of energy security, such moves make sense, proponents say. The US is considered the Saudi Arabia of coal. It sits on 250 years' worth of reserves. Coal already generates about half the nation's electricity.
The economics have also swung in the fuel's favor. Low-cost, low-emission, natural-gas turbines sprouted like mushrooms in the '90s and their contribution to the nation's generating capacity reached 19 percent. But in the past four years, the cost of natural gas has roughly tripled: from $2 per 1 million British thermal units of heat generated to over $6 per million BTUs. By contrast, coal costs less than $1 per million BTUs. That has put utilities in the position of paying more for the gas they burn to make power than they can get for the electricity it produces.