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Dousing the Coal-Fired Plant

Sep 21, 2008 - USA Today

In a report compiled in early 2007, the Department of Energy listed 151 coal-fired power plants in the planning stages and talked about a resurgence in coal-fired electricity. However, over the next several months, 59 proposed coal-fired power plants either were refused licenses by state governments or quietly abandoned. In addition to the 59 plants that were dropped, close to 50 more are being contested in the courts, and the remaining plants likely will be challenged as they reach the permitting stage. What began as a few local ripples of resistance quickly is evolving into a national tidal wave of grassroots opposition from environmental, health, farm, and community organizations and a fast-growing number of state governments. The public at large is turning against coal. In a recent national poll by the Opinion Research Corporation about which electricity source people would prefer, only three percent chose coal. One of the first major coal industry setbacks came in early 2007, when environmental groups convinced Texas-based utility TXU to reduce the number of planned coal-fired power plants in that state from 11 to three-and now even that trio of proposed plants may be challenged. Meanwhile, the energy focus within the Texas state government is shifting to wind power. The state is planning 23,000 megawatts of new wind-generating capacity (equal to 23 coal-fired power plants).

In May, Florida's Public Service Commission refused to license a huge $5,700,000,000, 1,960-megawatt coal plant because the utility could not prove that building it would be cheaper than investing in conservation, efficiency, and renewable energy sources. This argument by Earthjustice, a not-for-profit environmental legal group, combined with widely expressed public opposition to any more coal-fired power plants in Florida, led to the quiet withdrawal of four other proposals. Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who keenly is aware of Florida's vulnerability to rising seas, actively is opposing new coal plants and has announced that the state plans to build the world's largest solar-thermal power plant.

The principal reason for opposing new coal plants is the mounting worry about climate change. Moreover, construction costs are soaringand then there are intensifying health concerns about mercury emissions and the 23,600 U.S. deaths per year from power plant air pollution.

Utilities have argued that carbon dioxide from coal plant smokestacks can be captured and stored underground, thus helping keep hope for the industry alive. Yet, on Jan. 30, 2008, the Bush Administration announced that it was pulling the plug on a joint project with 13 utilities and coal companies to build a demonstration coal-fired power plant in Illinois with underground carbon sequestration because of massive cost overruns. The original cost of $950,000,000 when the project was announced in 2003 had climbed beyond $1,500,000,000 by early 2008, with further rises likely. The cancellation effectively moves the date for any coal plants with carbon sequestration so far into the future that this technology has little immediate relevance.

Some utilities are being refused licenses for coal plants because they have not examined alternative methods of satisfying demand, such as increasing the efficiency of electricity use. For example, insulating buildings greatly reduces energy needs for heating and cooling. Shifting to more efficient light bulbs would save enough electricity to close 80 U.S. coal power plants.

The Sierra Club, a national leader on this issue, is working with hundreds of local groups to mount legal challenges in state after state. Other national groups that actively are involved include the Rainforest Action Network, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Environmental Defense. States that are working to reduce carbon emissions are banding together to discourage other states from building new coal plants simply because it would cancel their own carbon reduction efforts. In late 2006, for instance, the attorneys general of California, Wisconsin, New York, and several other northeastern states wrote to Kansas health officials urging them to deny permits for two new coal power plants of 700 megawatts each. The permits subsequently were denied, citing that carbon dioxide is an air pollutant and should be regulated, as determined in an April 2007 Supreme Court ruling, hi a letter on Jan. 22,2008, a similar grouping of states urged South Carolina's Department of Health and Environmental Control to refuse a permit for the proposed 600- megawatt Pee Dee coal plant.

Coal's future prospects also are suffering as Wall Street turns its back on the industry. In July 2007, Citigroup downgraded coal company stocks across the board while recommending that its clients switch to other energy stocks. In January 2008, Merrill Lynch downgraded coal stocks. In early February 2008, investment banks Morgan Stanley, Citi, and JP Morgan Chase announced that any future lending for coal-fired power would be contingent on the utilities demonstrating that the plants would be economically viable with the higher costs associated with future Federal restrictions on carbon emissions. Later that month, Bank of America announced it would follow suit.

In August 2007, coal took a heavy political hit when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who had been opposing three coalfired power plants in his own state, announced that he now was against building coal-fired power plants anywhere in the world. Investment banks and political leaders are beginning to see what has been obvious for some time to climate scientists, such as NASA's James Hansen, who points out that it makes no sense to build coal- fired power plants when we will have to bulldoze them in a few years.

In early November 2007, Rep. Henry Waxman (D.-Calif.) announced his intention to "introduce legislation that establishes a moratorium on the approval of new coal-fired power plants under the Clean Air Act until EPA finalizes regulations to address the greenhouse gas emissions from these sources." If a national moratorium is passed by Congress, it will mark the beginning of the end for coal-fired power in the U.S.

"... NASA's James Hansen points out that it makes no sense to build coal-fired power plants when we will have to bulldoze them in a few years."

Lester R. Brown, Ecology Editor of USA Today, is president of Earth Policy Institute, Washington, D.C., and author of several books; his latest is Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.

Copyright Society for Advancement of Education Sep 2008

(c) 2008 USA Today; New York. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.

Updated: 2016/06/30

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