Pace of coal-power boom slackens
Rising construction costs and potential climate legislation in Congress halt at least 18 proposed power plants in the past nine months.
Sunflower Electric Power's two new 700-megawatt generators near Holcomb, Kan., were supposed to be part of a wave of new coal-fired power plants heralding coal's comeback as America's fuel choice for cheap energy. They were to join at least two dozen other coal-power projects already under construction in the US.Skip to next paragraph
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But that was before last week. That's when a Kansas regulator pulled the plug on Sunflower's proposal, citing concerns that the plants' emissions would contribute to global warming.
It's the latest hiccup – perhaps even a major interruption – in plans for a big resurgence in coal power, which already provides about half of US electricity. Among other concerns that are unsettling to coal advocates: soaring construction costs due to international competition for building materials, and worry among utilities that Congress will craft climate legislation that attaches a high price tag to greenhouse-gas emissions.
Just nine months ago, the federal government listed more than 150 coal-power plants as "in development." Since then, at least 16 have been canceled, and many others have been put on hold, according to data from the US Department of Energy (DOE). Sunflower's plants appear to be the 17th and 18th coal plants to get bumped this year – but not the first to get bumped because of regulators' climate concerns.
At least two plants in Florida were halted this summer amid climate concerns. Regulators in Oklahoma, also citing fears that coal power's costs would increase with federal climate legislation, last month rejected a proposal for a $1.8 billion coal-fired plant by a subsidiary of American Electric Power, the big Ohio-based utility.
While Sunflower officials vowed to fight the Kansas order, environmentalists were cheering the regulators.
"This is a big deal," says David Hawkins, climate director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We can be sure that most if not all proposed plants will face intense opposition from community and national groups and increased scrutiny by regulators and investors."
Overall, coal-fired power plants in the construction pipeline fell to 121 from 151 in May, according to a new report by the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), a division of the DOE. Eight were removed from the NETL list because they were canceled, nine because they were put on hold, and three for unspecified reasons. Another 10 power plants were removed from the in-the-pipeline list because they were completed.
Not listed at all were eight power plants planned for Texas but canceled in February.
To many in the industry, the drop in numbers is not a big a surprise.
"Any time you see a big new push for construction, you have a lot of plants that just don't make it through to completion," says Ed Legg, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), a trade group that represents investor-owned utilities. "It could be carbon awareness, you're certainly seeing that. But it's not really the main thing. Any time factors like cost change as much as they have, that can put the brakes on."