Coal-reliant power companies ponder their future

Whacked by recession, the vagaries of Congress and an untimely disaster in Tennessee, the coal industry that supplies much of America's electricity is under siege.

In quick succession Wednesday, opening speakers at the Coal-Gen industry conference in Charlotte delivered sober messages tempered by can-do optimism. Chief among them: legislation working its way through Congress to cap emissions of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas of which coal power is a major source.

If it becomes law, as is widely expected, the historic legislation would force utilities to build cleaner new coal plants that capture and store carbon dioxide with technology that's only now being tested. If the technology fails, or is too expensive, coal could lose ground to nuclear and natural gas-powered plants.

"This shift is going to be a life-changer for all of us," said Lee Lushbaugh, fossil power chief for Bechtel Power Corp., which designs and builds power plants.

Coal generates about half of U.S. electricity, but 70 percent of the power Charlotte-based Duke Energy produces in the Carolinas and Midwest. Duke illustrates both the industry's liabilities and best hopes.

Its 108 million tons a year of carbon emissions rank Duke third-highest among U.S. utilities. The company's contributions to global warming, use of coal mined by blasting Appalachian mountaintops and construction of a new coal-fired boiler at its Cliffside plant prompted hundreds of protestors to march on Duke's headquarters in genteel Charlotte in April.

But Duke is also building a new-generation coal plant, in Edwardsport, Ind., that might be able to capture and store up to half its carbon emissions. Success for plants like Edwardsport, experts say, is key to securing the coal industry's future.

Duke executive Jim Turner, president of its regulated business segment, assured his audience that the company won't turn away from coal, in which it has invested $5 billion for non-carbon pollution controls.

"But there is a balance here," he said, "because the cleaner we try to get, the more it costs."