By Lester R. Brown
In a report compiled in early 2007, the U.S. Department of Energy listed 151 coal-fired power plants in the planning stages and talked about a resurgence in coal-fired electricity. But during 2007, 59 proposed U.S. coal-fired power plants were either refused licenses by state governments or quietly abandoned. In addition to the 59 plants that were dropped, close to 50 more coal plants are being contested in the courts, and the remaining plants will likely be challenged as they reach the permitting stage.
What began as a few local ripples of resistance to coal-fired power is quickly 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 September 2007 national poll by the Opinion Research Corporation about which electricity source people would prefer, only 3 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 Texas from 11 to 3. And now even those 3 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 $5.7-billion, 1,960-megawatt coal plant because the utility could not prove that building the plant would be cheaper than investing in conservation, efficiency, and renewable energy sources. This argument by Earthjustice, a non-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 for coal plants in the state. Republican Governor Charlie Crist, who is keenly aware of Florida's vulnerability to rising seas, is actively 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 concern about climate change. Another emerging reason is soaring construction costs. And then there are intensifying health concerns about mercury emissions and the 23,600 U.S. deaths per year from power plant air pollution. (See data:www.earthpolicy.org/Updates/2008/Update70_data.htm.)
Utilities have argued that carbon dioxide (CO2) from coal plant smokestacks could be captured and stored underground, thus helping keep hope for the industry alive. But on January 30, 2008, the Bush administration announced 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 million when the project was announced in 2003 had climbed beyond $1.5 billion by early 2008, with further rises in prospect. 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.