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U.S. Coal Plant Boom Poses Major Ecological, Economic Questions

The resurgence of the energy source sparks debate about pollution, cost and technology.

October 16, 2006|From the Associated Press

DALLAS — A building boom that would add scores of 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 unproven technology?

How those questions are answered will have huge implications over the next few decades. It could determine how Americans light, heat and cool their homes and businesses, the rate of return on utility investments and the potential environmental effects of the new plants.

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

TXU's five-year, $10-billion plan is considered a bellwether and is closely watched by industry analysts, lawmakers, competitors and environmentalists across the U.S.

The company is hardly alone, however. About 154 coal-fired plants are on the drawing board in 42 states. Energy analysts say factors driving coal's resurgence are soaring power demands, volatile natural gas prices and a favorable investment market.

Coal now accounts for about 50% of the power generated in the U.S. By 2030, that share will increase to 57%, the 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.

TXU says the proposed plants will meet the state's growing demand for power, give a sorely needed economic boost to nearby small towns and reduce toxic emissions by replacing older, less efficient plants.

"The coal plant of today is so much cleaner. It makes so much less emissions than what most Americans and Texans can conjure," said TXU's Mike McCall.

Critics, however, say the company is driven by the profit motive and is rushing to beat more stringent federal restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions in an era of escalating concern about global warming. Texas already produces more carbon dioxide than any other state, a fact that worries big-city mayors downwind of the proposed plants.

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," Addison said.

"The only way to get these issues resolved is at the highest level and reviewed under the appropriate law," he added.

The battle lines were drawn April 20, when TXU Chief Executive C. John Wilder announced the company's plans after much of Texas underwent a rolling power blackout. Since then, each side has assembled a team of backers comprising affected residents, lawmakers and lawyers.

In Colorado City, Texas, a town of 4,100 about 10 miles from where TXU wants to place one of the plants, civic leaders and public officials support the venture, saying it will be an economic boon to the sleepy West Texas town, said Mayor Jim Baum.

But Dallas Mayor Laura Miller and Houston Mayor Bill White recently formed a coalition of 17 mayors opposing TXU's 11 proposed plants and five being considered by other Texas firms.

Miller recently spent a week visiting existing TXU plants, as well as a plant in Tampa, Fla., that turns coal into gas and removes the pollutants before the fuel is burned.

Such coal gasification plants can cost up to 20% 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.

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