With electricity produced by oil-fired power plants getting more and more expensive, and with nuclear power in trouble, coal is coming back strong. In fact, almost unnoticed by the American public, coal once again has become the unchallenged leader.
And, before long, experts in the US electric utility industry say, increasing reliance on coal will be showing up in savings on consumers' electric bills.
Once indication of the move to coal surfaced here this week when the New York State Electric Generating Siting and Environment Board killed a proposed nuclear power plant for Long Island and recommended a coal-fired facility instead.
Up to now, Long Island has had only oil-fired plants. But the siting board now says that the Long Island Lighting Company should build an 800-megawatt, coal-fired facility at Jamesport, on the eastern tip of the island.
The company said it was reviewing the recommendation carefully.
Nationwide, however, companies are not simply reviewing the possibilities of coal, they are constructing coal-fired plants at a record rate.Today there are 168 such generating units under construction, up dramatically from 1973, according to the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), a utility trade association.
There are these examples:
* The Alabama Power Company recently finished construction of one coal-powered unit and has three more in the works -- the last of which will be finished by 1983, company officials say.
* The Arkansas Power & Light Company is constructing four coal-powered plants.
* Detroit Edison Company has two units under construction.
* The Florida Power & Light Company is building three units.
* The Texas utility system is currently constructing six new units to produce coal-fired electricity.
The entire direction of the electric power industry turned toward coal and nuclear plants because of the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74.
As of 1978, coal-generated power accounted for 50 percent of the nation's total thermal generation. By 1985, industry experts say, coal probably will account for 60 percent or more. Thermal generation is defined as all power generation except hydroelectric.
The growing switch to coal received a big boost from the federal Fuel Use Act of 1978, which said, in essence, that new oil-fired plants could be built only under extraordinary circumstances.