America's new coal rush
Utilities' dramatic push to build new plants would boost energy security but hurt the environment.
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But the move back to coal raises environmental concerns. Mr. McIlvaine estimates that if 50 of the 94 planned projects are built, they would add roughly 30 gigawatts or 10 percent of base load generating capacity nationwide. Using industry rules of thumb, he estimates coal consumption would rise about 10 million tons, or 1 percent, from today's 1 billion tons annually. That, in turn, would add 120 million cubic feet of exhaust gases from the stacks every minute of every day for decades to what is currently vented.Skip to next paragraph
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The burning of coal already produces more airborne mercury and greenhouse gases than any other single source. Robert Dickinson, an atmospheric scientist and climate modeler at the Georgia Institute of Technology, calculates the new US coal plants would add roughly one-tenth of 1 percent to the world's annual carbon-dioxide emissions.
"It doesn't sound as bad as SUVs, but we really should be going the other direction," he says. "All these little things add up. How much is east Asia going to add? The rest of the world?"
Utility-industry spokesmen don't confirm or deny the trend. "It kind of runs counter to the information we have, but that said, it doesn't mean it's untrue," says Jason Cuevas, a spokesman for Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities. "Fuel diversity is a good thing. Clean-coal technologies have improved.... Certainly some utilities may believe coal presents a better option."
Some critics say coal's comeback is stealthy because most new plants are still in private planning, and the public permitting process hasn't started for most.
Gerald Heinrich first heard about the new coal-fired power plant proposed for Elwood, Ill., when Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich unveiled plans for the plant last April. The 495-foot smokestacks would be just eight miles from his home and immediately next to the first federally designated tall-grass prairie preserve.
"It was a total shock to everyone," he says. "It was done in a way to keep it secret, to make sure it was a done deal when it became public."
Illinois officials deny the process has been anything but open. "We've got vast coal resources, so we've been openly very supportive of coal and we've promoted it," says Laura Hunter, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
Elwood is one of the few places in the nation where private planning has reached the public stage. Residents of this quiet, semirural community of about 1,000 people knew a plant was planned - but were told repeatedly it was for a gas-fired turbine generator, not a coal-burning power plant, Mr. Heinrich says.
Then last spring, construction permits were filed for a coal plant. A petition drive last fall showed overwhelming opposition to the plant. The Sierra Club has filed two legal challenges, stalling the project.
Indeck Energy Services, based in Buffalo Grove, Ill., expects its new 660-megawatt plant in Elwood to start up in 2007, employ 80 workers, and create 200 state coal-mining jobs. Calls seeking comment were not returned.
"We're all done making public comments," says a secretary who answered the phone for an Indeck official.