By Matthew Brown
Wyodak, Wyo. — Utilities across the country are building dozens of old-style coal plants that will cement the industry’s standing as the largest industrial source of climate-changing gases for years to come.
An Associated Press examination of U.S. Department of Energy records and information provided by utilities and trade groups shows that more than 30 traditional coal plants have been built since 2008 or are under construction.
The construction wave stretches from Arizona to Illinois and South Carolina to Washington, and comes despite growing public wariness over the high environmental and social costs of fossil fuels.
The expansion, the industry’s largest in two decades, represents an acknowledgment that clean coal technology is a long way from becoming a reality and underscores a renewed confidence among utilities that proposals to regulate carbon emissions will fail. The Senate last month scrapped the leading bill to curb carbon emissions following opposition from Republicans and coal-state Democrats.
“Building a coal-fired power plant today is betting that we are not going to put a serious financial cost on emitting carbon dioxide,” said Severin Borenstein, director of the Energy Institute at the University of California-Berkeley. “That may be true, but unless most of the scientists are way off the mark, that’s pretty bad public policy.”
Federal officials have long struggled to balance coal’s hidden costs against its more conspicuous role in providing half the nation’s electricity.
Seeking a technological solution, the Obama administration devoted $3.4 billion in stimulus spending to foster clean coal plants that can capture and store greenhouse gases. Yet new investments in traditional coal plants total at least 10 times that amount — more than $35 billion.
Officials at utilities say they are clinging to coal because its abundance makes it cheaper than natural gas or nuclear power and more reliable than intermittent power sources such as wind and solar. Still, the price of coal plants is rising and consumers in some areas served by the new facilities will see their electricity bill rise by up to 30 percent.
Industry representatives say those increases would be even steeper if utilities switched to more expensive fuels or were forced to adopt emission-reduction measures.
Current construction is far more modest than projected a few years ago when 151 new plants were forecast by federal regulators. But analysts say the projects under way are more than enough to ensure coal’s continued dominance in the power industry for years to come.
Sixteen large plants have fired up since 2008 and 16 more are under construction, according to records examined by the AP.
Combined, they will produce an estimated 17,900 megawatts of electricity, sufficient to power up to 15.6 million homes — roughly the number of homes in California and Arizona combined.
They also will generate about 125 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, according to emissions figures from utilities and the Center for Global Development. That’s the equivalent of putting 22 million additional automobiles on the road.
The new plants do not capture carbon dioxide. That’s despite the stimulus spending and an additional $687 million spent by the Department of Energy on clean coal programs.
DOE spokesman John Grasser acknowledged the new plants represent a missed chance to rein in carbon emissions. But he said more opportunities would arise as electricity consumption increases.
Producing clean coal power appears straightforward: Separate the carbon dioxide before it goes up the smokestack, then store it underground in geological formations.
“We are pushing the envelope as far as what’s possible,” said Jon LaCour, manager of the 115-megawatt Wygen III coal plant, which came online in northeastern Wyoming this spring. “We have no way of capturing carbon.”