Pending climate bill makes coal-fired plants a gamble

Belleville News DemocratMay 24, 2010 

LIVELY GROVE, Ill. — The Prairie State Energy Campus under construction here represents a nearly $4 billion bet that King Coal will remain on his throne in Illinois for many decades to come.

But if Congress passes either of two pending energy/climate bills, both of which set decreasing caps on carbon emissions, then traditional coal-fired power plants like Prairie State would become a dying species, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"It's a huge gamble," said Ron Burke, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' office in Chicago. "Investing in coal right now is a gamble because carbon-dioxide regulation is coming." Sheri Bilderback, a spokeswoman for Prairie State Generating Co., which is managing the 1,600-megawatt plant, rejected Burke's description of Prairie State as a gamble or poor investment.

"Rather, quite the opposite," she said. "In fact, it is a great investment and necessary bridge of technologies to get us to the next generation."

Burke's gloomy assessment of Prairie State's future occurred amid the group's media campaign to win passage of the Democratic-sponsored energy/climate bills in Congress. The organization is touting provisions in both measures that promote greater energy efficiency and renewable, clean energy sources such as solar and wind power.

In this connection, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a nationwide analysis last week that pinpoints the states that spend the most money on imported coal. Entitled "Burning Cash, Burning Coal," the group found that Illinois imported the fourth-most coal in the nation — 37.2 million tons, the bulk of it from Wyoming — and spent the 14th most on net coal imports, or nearly $700 million.

"That's money that's leaving the state and instead could be invested in clean energy, renewable energy," Burke said.

By embracing energy efficiency and renewable power, Illinois residents will create many new jobs, realize big savings on their electric and gas bills and make a big dent the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming, Burke said.

"You're also buying an insurance policy against extreme volatility in the fossil fuel marketplace," he said.

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