More Coal and More Greenhouse Gas Emissions

More Coal and More Greenhouse Gas Emissions

We’re apparently not close to moving away from fossil fuels if the current dirty coal plant building boom is any indication. A recent Associated Press assessment of U.S. Department of Energy records and information provided by utilities and trade groups revealed that at least 30 traditional style coal plants have either been completed or have broken ground since 2008.

The construction boom in traditional coal burning plants appears to provide confirmation of three industry beliefs:

* The first being that power generation from “clean coal” is still years off. Put forward with great promise as a domestic source of clean power generation, clean coal has not gotten any traction in terms of replacing standard coal burning methodologies.

* The second is that renewable energy sources aren’t advanced enough to meet energy demands efficiently.

* Lastly, that carbon emission regulation will not be enacted in the near term, if at all. The last carbon emission bill make it to the Senate was rejected on both sides of the aisle as Democrats from coal mining states sided with Republicans to defeat the bill.

Hoping for the development of equipment that could capture greenhouse gasses emitted from the burning of coal, the Obama administration allocated $3.4 billion in stimulus spending to build the foundation for the construction of “clean-coal” plants. The tacit rejection of the program has now become pretty clear considering that the money spent on traditional coal plants totals more than 10 times that amount at $35 billion.

Utilities are justifying these expenditures on burning dirty coal by pointing to the abundance, domestic availability, and lower cost of coal versus natural gas and nuclear energy. Utilities are also standing by coal as a more reliable and cost effective energy source than intermittent or inconsistent power sources like as wind and solar. These characteristics are the primary reasons for coal being responsible for providing about half of the nation’s power.

Despite its abundance, these coal powered plants could cost consumers up to 30% more due to the costs of building the new plants. Representatives from the utilities building the plants say those increases would be even steeper if they were forced to utilize more expensive fuels or if carbon emissions were regulated.

While supporters for clean sources of energy may be frustrated by the ongoing coal plant construction, they can at least take heart in the fact that campaigns to limit the coal rush have had their share of success. The 32 plants either finished or started over the last two years pale in comparison to the 150 coal burning plants which were projected, with many being turned back through lawsuits and other legal challenges.

The bad news is that the plants which have either gone online or are about to will produce about 125 million tons of greenhouse gases per year, according to emissions figures from the sponsoring utilities and the Center for Global Development. That’s the equivalent of putting over 20 million additional automobiles on the road.

Despite the stimulus money put toward reducing the emissions from coal plants, the new ones will not have the capacity to capture carbon dioxide. While capturing carbon dioxide sounds simple in theory, industry watchers are currently estimating that the widespread application of carbon capture technologies for coal plants remains at least 15 to 20 years away. The problem is that separating and capturing greenhouse gasses before they leave the plant is actually quite complicated and very expensive.

For now at least, it appears that reducing greenhouse emissions will be taking a back seat to cheap but dirty energy production.