WASHINGTON—Thanks to the high prices of oil and natural gas, the electricity industry is turning back to coal, America's oldest and most abundant fossil fuel, to drive a new generation of power plants. The upshot is that even as politicians take the threat of global warming more seriously, the problem may get much worse.
Utilities are proposing to build 154 coal-fired power plants in the next 25 years, according to "Coal's Resurgence in Electric Power Generation," a recent Department of Energy report.
Most of those new plants would use conventional coal-burning technology, which would increase carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. coal plants by more than 50 percent by 2030, according to the Energy Information Administration, the analytic division of the Energy Department. A traditional coal plant produces three to four times more CO2—a potent "greenhouse gas" that traps the sun's heat and helps raise the Earth's temperature—than comes from a modern plant that uses natural gas as its fuel.
Operators of 66 of the proposed coal-fired plants plan to adopt more efficient, advanced technologies—such as turning coal into a gas before burning it—that produce less CO2 and other pollutants, said Erik Shuster, an analyst at the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Morgantown, W.Va.
But the rest would continue to use a 50-year-old technology that burns pulverized coal to create steam. The exhaust going up the stack contains 12 percent to 18 percent carbon dioxide.
Only one power company, Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy Corp., is planning to capture part of the carbon and store it before it enters the atmosphere.
Capturing carbon could reduce CO2 emissions by 80 percent to 90 percent, according to a 2005 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The United Nations created the panel in 1988 to study the effect of human activities on the world's climate.
But carbon capture is expensive. It would raise the cost of coal power from 4 to 5 cents per kilowatt hour to 6 to 10 cents, the panel estimated.
"It's always cheaper to emit CO2 to the atmosphere than to capture and store it," said Howard Herzog, an energy researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "With no carbon policy in place to control CO2 emissions, there is no incentive to consider carbon capture and storage technology."
Some experts think the electricity industry is headed in the wrong direction.
"We are living in two parallel worlds: a world of potentially what we should be doing about climate change and energy security, and the real world of what we are doing," said Martin Hoffert, an emeritus professor of physics at New York University.
New coal-fired plants are proposed in every state but three—Alabama, Hawaii and Tennessee—including 17 in Illinois and 12 in Texas. If they all were built, they'd add 93 billion watts of electric-generating capacity—enough to service 93 million homes—by 2030. Existing plants produce about 300 billion watts of electricity.
As a result, coal's share of U.S. electricity production is projected to rise from 50 percent today to 58 percent in 2030.
Some authorities think the electricity industry is making a mistake by investing billions of dollars in a technology that will be outdated soon. They predict that future federal and state regulations probably will restrict carbon emissions. That would force utilities to refit their pulverized-coal plants with carbon-capture systems when it could be done more cheaply now.
"CO2 capture is not federally mandated, but many decision-makers in the electric power industry expect that policy to change within 10 to 15 years," said Richard Bonskowski, an Energy Information Administration geologist.
"It's a real lost opportunity to install a huge new fleet of old technology like pulverized coal when we have an opportunity to spend a little bit more up front and be better prepared to manage carbon in the next few years. Why spend billions of dollars on old technology?" said Sasha Mackler, an analyst with the National Commission on Energy Policy.
"Conventional new pulverized coal steam-electric plants are likely to undermine ... a future carbon management regime," the commission—a bipartisan group of energy experts from government, industry, academia, and consumer and environmental organizations—declared in a December 2004 report on energy policy.
The Energy Policy Act passed by Congress last year offers loan guarantees and tax incentives to utilities that use advanced technologies. Some states, such as Colorado, will permit companies that capture carbon to charge their customers more.
Several carbon-capture research and demonstration projects are under way. So far, however, Xcel Energy's proposed Colorado coal plant is the only such commercial operation. It hopes to remove 10 to 50 percent of the carbon in its emissions.
"We got out ahead of the curve," said Mark Stutz, an Xcel spokesman.
"Carbon regulation is coming down the road. It's better for a utility to do things voluntarily rather than having regulation come down on you."
To see a state-by-state list of the proposed new coal-fired plants online, go to www.netl.doe.gov/coal/refshelf/ncp.pdf and go to page seven of the document.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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