Impetus for more to 'coal power'

Replacement of costly foreign oil with domestic coal as a fuel for generating heat and power is one phase of the United States energy program that is accelerating -- but not fast enough for the Carter administration.

The President signed legislation in November 1978 requiring greater use of coal by utilities and industries. Among other things, the Power Plant and Industrial Fuel Use Act gave the Department of Energy (DOE) authority to order facilities using oil or natural gas to switch to coal if they were technically capable of doing so. The emphasis so far has been on reducing consumption of imported oil by electric utilities.

DOE has doubled the number of coal conversions it will order this year because the "risk of depending on oil gets higher every day," says James Workman , director of the conversion program.

Mr. Workman told a recent Austin, Texas, conference on air quality management in the electric power industry that so far some 21 power plant units have been told to convert to coal. And the DOE plans to issue 40 more such orders by September, he said.

To speed up coal conversion, the Carter administration is preparing legislation that would provide $12 billion in federal grants to help power plants switch from oil to coal or other alternate fuels. The bill contains a provision that would enable the DOE to issue a single order requiring some 140 generating units in the US to make the fuel switch. Under the current system the department must order conversions one by one.

"Our objective with this bill is to reduce the use of oil, and to do it more quickly," said Jerry Pfeffer, DOE assistant administrator for utility systems, in a phone interview. He said the bill would be sent to Congress sometime in February.

The DOE figures that by 1990 the US can cut oil imports by a million barrels a day through greater use of coal by electric utilities.

Many utilities have balked at the idea of converting to coal, claiming a variety of federal environmental regulations make it too costly.

Coal is a dirty fuel, and its use requires expensive pollution- control equipment. Installation of such devices represented 10 percent of the total capital cost of building a coal-fired power plant in 1965. Because of tougher federal standards, the cost of pollution controls will rise to 66 percent of the investment by 1985, said Kurt E. Yeager of the Electric Power Resource Institute , speaking at the Austin conference. Tougher pollution standards will boost the average consumer's electric bill fourfold between now and 1985, he projected.

Utilities are waiting to assess the financial impact of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976. The Environmental Protection Agency is developing regulations in compliance with the act which will define how utilities must dispose of waste from burning coal.

Another factor discouraging some utilities from using coal is escalating rail transportation rates. In Texas, the cost of importing low-sulfur coal from the rich fields of Montana and Wyoming is greater than the price of the raw material.

All these factors have made utilities reluctant to use coal. "Litigation and the regulatory process involved in ordering conversion are resulting in delays," Mr. Pfeffer said. Under the current approach of ordering utilities to convert one by one, and with no federal grants as incentives, Mr. Pfeffer expects it to take four to five years in many instances before coal actually replaces other power plant fuels.

If the new bill were passed, it would reduce the time involved for coal conversion, in many cases, to one year, Mr. Pfeffer estimated.

Mr. Yeager lauded the Carter administration effort to provide funds to help utilities use more coal. "It's enough money to help speed up the process, but the main factor remains whether environmental regulations are eased or keep getting tougher," he added.

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