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.
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.
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.
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.