October 22, 2006

TEXAS: Fossil Fuels... and Fossil Thinking

The urgency for developing and deploying clean coal-gasification alternatives to coal combustion could not be any more clear than reading that "154 new coal-fired plants are on the drawing board in 42 states." In the Lone Star State 16 new coal-fired power plants have been announced - 11 by power giant TXU Corp.

According to the article below - "Coal gasification plants can cost up to 20 percent more to build than a conventional plant." It should read "ONLY 20 percent more to build" and TXU should take the coal gasification option. The social costs from CO2 emissions of coal-fired plants have obviously not been taken into consideration. If they are only comparing to the older power plants they will be replacing they should think again - compare the "new and improve" coal-fired plants against the next generation available. Considering that there will be 16 more plants in Texas, even more efficient plants are likely to produce substantially more emissions than their current output unless there is a fundamentally cleaner technology at its base.

One wonders if even a few nuclear power plants would be environmentally preferable compared to the liabilities of the proposed coal-fired plants.

Below are excerpts from a recent Time/CNN Business & Technology article...

U.S. Coal Plant Boom Poses Big Environmental and Economic Questions
Should power companies be permitted to build new plants that pollute more but are reliable and less expensive?

A building boom that would add scores of new coal-fired power plants to the nation's power grid is creating a new dilemma for politicians, environmentalists and utility companies across the United States. Should power companies be permitted to build new plants that pollute more but are reliable and less expensive? Or should regulators push utilities toward cleaner burning coal plants, even if it means they will cost more and are based on newer, yet still unproven, technology?

Nowhere do these competing interests play out with such force as in Texas, where 16 new coal-fired plants are proposed — 11 of them by Dallas-based TXU Corp., the state's biggest power company.

"TXU put its stake in the ground and said it will (build the plants) faster and cheaper than anyone else," said Daniele M. Seitz, analyst with investment firm Dahlman Rose. "So they have something to prove." The company is hardly alone, however. Some 154 new coal-fired plants are on the drawing board in 42 states. Texas and Illinois are the only states where 10 or more plants are planned, according to the National Energy Technology Laboratory.

Coal now accounts for about 50 percent of the power generated in the U.S. By the year 2030, that share will increase to 57 percent, according to Energy Department forecasts. The U.S. has the world's largest coal reserves, enough to last for the next 200 to 250 years, analysts believe.

Larry Makovich, managing director for consulting group Cambridge Energy Research Associates, said the urgency to bring more power-generating plants online cannot be understated. "A fundamental reality of the power business is there is no single fuel of choice, so if you are going to survive in the long run, you need to have a good mix of fuels and technologies," he said. "If we are going to keep supply and demand in balance, you're looking at a five-year lead time, so you have to get started building these plants now."

The debate soon could end up in federal court. Dallas attorney Rick Addison recently announced plans to sue TXU, alleging potential violations of the federal Clean Air Act. "It's remarkable and unnecessary the amount of pollutants they are going to put in the air," said Addison, a member of the Houston-based Locke Liddell and Sapp law firm. "The only way to get these issues resolved is at the highest level and reviewed under the appropriate law." The battle lines were drawn April 20, when TXU Chief Executive John Wilder announced the company's plans shortly after much of Texas underwent a rolling power blackout. Since then, each side has assembled a team of backers comprised of affected residents, lawmakers, and lawyers.

Coal gasification plants can cost up to 20 percent more to build than a conventional plant. But they also can be more efficient to operate and save utilities the hassle and expense of adding pollution-control devices. Already, American Electric Power, of Columbus, Ohio, Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy Inc. and Charlotte-based Duke Energy Corp, are reviewing plans to implement this technology. Mike Morris, chairman for American Electric Power, said the pressures on power companies to burn fuel in the cleanest way possible will only gain momentum in coming years.

"From our vantage point we think the technology for clean coal is there," he said. "It can be done, but there is a challenge." For it's part, TXU says turning the coal into synthetic gas remains an unproven technology and not as reliable as burning pulverized coal — the process the company's new plants would be designed to use. Several analysts agree. "For purposes of generating electricity, a pulverized system is well-proven," said John Mead, who heads the Southern Illinois University Coal Research Center in Carbondale, Ill. "Gasification has much more limited commercial experience," Mead said. "There are still some unknowns as to just what the operating costs would be and how reliable would such a system be."

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