King Coal's crown is losing some luster

In the US, plans to add coal-fired power plants are curtailed, as environmental and political opposition builds.

Because of its link to carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas causing global warming, coal sometimes seems like the Rodney Dangerfield of energy sources: It gets no respect.

In recent days, there's been a new report on the dirtiest power plants in the United States, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) has said he opposes new coal-fired power plants in his home state of Nevada, and an increasing number of proposed plants reportedly are either being canceled or delayed. A new Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) report, meanwhile, finds that "a significant reduction of carbon emissions is possible" in burning coal for power, but "only when a significant price is placed on CO2 emissions."

The report on dirty power plants comes from the Environmental Integrity Project, a research and advocacy group in Washington founded by the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency's regulatory enforcement office. Among the report's findings:

"… the carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution linked to global warming from large, old, and inefficient electricity-generating facilities continues unchecked and could rise 34 percent by 2030...."

In its coverage of the report, the Environment News Service notes that 50 plants identified as the worst polluters – out of the 378 largest US power plants in the study – are scattered around the country.

"The 12 states with the heaviest concentrations of the dirtiest power plants, in terms of total tons of carbon dioxide emitted, are – Texas, which has five, including two of the top 10 dirtiest plants; Pennsylvania with four; Indiana with four, including two of the top 10 dirtiest plants; Alabama with three; Georgia with three, including two of the top three dirtiest plants; North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia have three apiece; while Wyoming, Florida, Kentucky and New Mexico each have two."

Such news seems to be part of a pattern around the country, indicated in the headline over an editorial in the Independent Record newspaper in Helena, Mont.: "Coal plant prospects poor."

"Last week was a tough one for proposed coal plants in Montana – the Bull Mountain plant near Roundup hit a permit snag and an environmental group filed a federal lawsuit to stop the Highway Generating Station near Great Falls – but coal-plant woes aren't limited to Montana.
"Across the country, prospects for new coal-fired generators just keep getting blacker."

According to The Wall Street Journal, "plans for a new generation of coal-fired power plants are falling by the wayside as states conclude that conventional coal plants are too dirty to build and the cost of cleaner plants is too high."

"As recently as May, US power companies had announced intentions to build as many as 150 new generating plants fueled by coal, which currently supplies about half the nation's electricity. ... But as plans for this fleet of new coal-powered plants move forward, an increasing number are being canceled or development slowed."

An early sign of the changing momentum, reports the Journal, came earlier this year with the $32 billion private-equity buyout of the TXU Corp. As part of that deal, the buyers eliminated 8 of 11 coal plants TXU had proposed in Texas. The Journal report cites a change of plan in other states as well.

"Recent reversals in Florida, North Carolina, Oregon and other states have shown coal's future prospects are dimming. Nearly two dozen coal projects have been canceled since early 2006…."

National political concern over climate change is at play here. Other plants are in trouble in Nevada, where Senator Reid has announced he will "do everything I can" to stop three proposed coal-fired power plants, reports The Salt Lake Tribune. The newspaper cites a letter from Reid to the energy companies planning to build the plants, in which the senator wrote:

"Because I believe that developing renewable energy in Nevada is far preferable to coal for the sake of our economy, public health and the environment, I will use every means at my disposal to prevent the construction of new coal-fired power plants in Nevada that do not capture and permanently store greenhouse gas emissions."

Coal will continue to play a large role in a world where greenhouse gases are constrained, MIT researchers report. The capturing and storing of carbon that Reid refers to "… is the critical enabling technology to help reduce CO2 emissions significantly while also allowing coal to meet the world's pressing energy needs," they state in their March report, "The Future of Coal."

The use of that technology will make the cost of electricity significantly higher than it would otherwise be, the MIT experts found. But they also identify a way to blunt the cost impact.

"Disciplined technology development and innovative advances can … narrow the cost gap and deserve support."

As with so much that has to do with energy policy and climate change, political will may be more important here than engineering skills.

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