Coal Power's Deja-Meltdown

Submitted by Charles Frost on Fri, 03/21/2008 - 09:22.

Coal Power's Deja-Meltdown

By Denis Du Bois


The government's futuristic "clean coal" power project has joined the long list of scuttled coal plants. The death spiral of coal energy is reminiscent of the 1980s popular blockade of nuclear plant construction. Investors and even the Bush administration are backing out.

Was "An Inconvenient Truth" the "China Syndrome" of coal?

"To build a future of energy security, we must trust in the creative genius of American researchers and entrepreneurs and empower them to pioneer a new generation of clean energy technology ... Together we should take the next steps: Let us fund new technologies that can generate coal power while capturing carbon emissions."

That was President Bush in his State of the Union address in January. Even reading between the lines wouldn't tip us off that a major "restructuring" of the FutureGen project had already been decided.

Two days later, this is how a Department of Energy (DOE) press release explained the cancellation of the billion-dollar "clean coal" research project:

"Under this [restructuring] plan, DOE's investment would provide funding for no more than the CCS [carbon capture and sequestration] component of the power plant -- not the entire plant construction, compared with the FutureGen concept announced in 2003 where the federal government would incur 74 percent of rising costs."

The DOE press release is a masterpiece of double-speak and spin, careful not to make a direct statement about FutureGen's fate until the fifth paragraph.

Coal is burned to produce about 43 percent of America's power. The process also churns out 2 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually.

The FutureGen program would have built an integrated coal gasification power plant, which would convert coal into electricity and hydrogen while capturing and sequestering the carbon dioxide underground. It was intended to be a living laboratory for developing similar plants around the country and the world. An alliance of utilities have invested time and money in the project. Almost exactly five years after FutureGen was born, it is dead, with little to show for the effort.

Public concern over climate change has put billions of dollars in corporate profits at stake for the coal industry -- the companies that extract the nation's most abundant domestic fuel and turn it into electricity.

The private-sector FutureGen Alliance members are, needless to say, livid. Accusations have been flying from both sides.

The Bush administration knew more than a month earlier that the government would pull its funding. Trouble had been brewing since March 2007, when Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman and Deputy Energy Secretary Clay Sell first acknowledged the project's 100 percent cost overrun. Sell admitted in an Associated Press interview that he tried to postpone site selection in December 2007, to avoid the inevitable disappointment for residents of Illinois, the chosen location.

It's Deja-Nuke All Over Again

According to a report released by Synapse Energy Economics Inc., utilities with proposed new coal-fired power plants now face "comparable risks and uncertainties" to those that derailed the U.S. nuclear power industry in the 1970s.

When the American people turned against nuclear energy, each new plant was fiercely opposed in court, which led to construction delays, which caused cost overruns, which set investors running for the door.

This new report, prepared for a coalition of nearly 300 faith-based institutional investors known as the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), concludes that "coal is losing its appeal as a predictable investment and is instead fraught with uncertainty."

The full ICCR report -- "Don't Get Burned: The Risks of Investing in New Coal-Fired Generating Facilities" -- is available online.

"Until the 1970s, building new nuclear power plants appeared to be a relatively low risk investment because construction and operating costs were relatively stable and easy to predict," the ICCR analysis notes. "However, starting in the 1970s, the costs of building new nuclear power plants began to spiral out of control. As a result, the actual costs of new plants were two to three times higher than the costs that had been estimated during licensing or at the start of construction ..."

Several major investment banks recently announced that their financing for new plants would be contingent on addressing greenhouse gas emissions.

Can't Buy Me Love

The coal industry is spending tens of millions of dollars to influence members of Congress and the top presidential candidates.

"With 59 coal power plants scrapped last year, the industry is fighting to make sure it can emerge from the climate change debate with a guaranteed spot in the nation's energy future," two AP writers explain in "Coal industry spends millions on election-year ads."

The coal industry is promoting new uses for its product, such as converting it into synthetic fuel. TV ads in key primary states promote coal as a clean alternative to foreign oil.

Industry group Americans for Balanced Energy Choices expects to spend some $40 million this year, more than double its 2007 spending. ABEC has paid $5 million to co-sponsor CNN presidential debates and to air spots.

Can the coal industry spend enough in this election year to hold its prized position as the largest source of electricity in America? The companies behind ABEC include Peabody, Consol, and Arch Coal (coal mining); Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, BNSF and CSX (railways); and Southern Company, American Electric Power and Duke Energy (utilities). Those companies together are worth more than $200 billion.

Nonetheless, it has some strong political opposition in both chambers of Congress.

"There's no such thing as clean coal," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at Renewable Energy World in February. And House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman recently called for a ban on new coal-fired power plants unless they reduce carbon dioxide emissions. When presidential candidates talk about greenhouse gases, they're careful not to rule out a carbon cap.

Counting on Grandfather

Meanwhile, over 800 "grandfathered" coal plants are operating exempt from the Clean Air Act of 1970, which restricted toxic emissions such as sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and mercury. Today, 22 new coal-fired power plants are under construction, and more are on their way, in a rush to get them online before stricter carbon-emissions standards are enacted.

Denis Du Bois is editor of Energy Priorities Magazine, where this article was originally published.


Dinosaur Blocks Parking But Can It Block Coal Power?

Dinosaur On Coal Pile

Greenpeace activists marched in front of the offices of Vatenfall in Hamburg, installing a dinosaur on top of a pile of coal to emphasize the point declared on their banners: "Stop dinosaur technology". Vatenfall, a Sweden-based energy company, plans a 1600 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Hamburg, investing two billion euros ($3 billion). The contested coal plant, planned in Moorburg, is one of three brown coal burning facilities Vatenfall has planned for Germany.

Greenpeace advocates construction of a natural gas-fired power plant of 800 megawatt capacity, measures to dramatically improve all coal plant efficiency by heat recovery, and more investment in renewable energy such as offshore windfarms as an alternative to brown coal. Protesters hope that defying the Moorburg plans will send a signal that coal plants in Boxberg and in Berlin are also not welcome. The three plants, if realized, will add 18.2 million tons of carbon dioxide per year to the total releases of Vatenfall, currently the second largest CO2 emitter in Europe.

Vatenfall has countered with promises to install CO2 capture technologies on the Moorburg plant by 2013. Critics call this ploy extremely optimistic, projecting that such technology will not be market ready before 2020, and noting that the fines in case of failing to meet this deadline may not be an effective deterrent. Furthermore, critics challenge the installation of retrofitted carbon capture systems by a company making great claims for its "oxyfuel" process, which needs to be built from the ground up and cannot be added later. TreeHugger earlier reported the failure of the Saskatchewan oxyfuel construction after costs spiralled out of control.

The dinosaur of rusted steel towered 5 meters (16 feet) over a 3 ton pile of coal which Greenpeace protesters dumped, under cover of darkness, in front of the entry to Vatenfall employee parking. The dinosaur, bedded in concreted and well bolted, blocked entry to Vatenfall employee parking quite successfully. It remains to be seen if the dinosaur can block plans for construction of more brown coal plants, which German chancellor Merkel advocates for energy independence, in parallel with commitments to renewable energies.

Via ::yahoo


because we want cheap electricity

People in our neighboring state of West Virginia endure this:

This strange slurry builds up in the toilet tanks in Prenter, West Virginia. How'd you like to look at this when you lift the lid on your toilet tank, Matt Zone?

You can learn more about Prenter's water here. Watch the shiny new penny tarnish in minutes in the well water these folks drink. Listen to the little girl talk about the illness she and her family endure.  Think about the slap on the wrist given to Massey Coal by the EPA and rest comfortably about driving the hard bargain for coal-fired power for your constituents, Matt.

Did you ever go to the Mountains, Matt? Did you ever meet the folks who live in the hollers? Have you visited mining communities in the US? Did you ever think about the culture and the history of our country that was stored for generations in those peaks and valleys just to our immediate east and south? Have you heard the songs? Ever camped out on a starry night on a hillside in the Appalachians or hiked alongside a mountain stream? Did you ever see the dogwoods bloom in the Blue Ridge in spring? Did you ever stop for a catfish dinner in the Smokies? Do you think these people would object if it was a problem and since they don't seem to mind and actually seem to depend on the mines for their livelihood. Clearly they would welcome the new AMP Power plant so that we can have initially cheap energy? They wouldn't strike would they? I mean, even if the water they drink and the catastrophes they endure, the degradation of their natural resources and the illness and poverty - all these things wouldn't make them angry would they? Is the history of coal filled with sweet stories of wealth acculmulation for the people of mining communities? There is a precedent in US History that tells a story of striking mine workers. These are stories of the ultimate respect politicians have for their constituents, right? How much we have historically cared for the "common man", right? Did you ever read about Ludlow, Colorado?

Coal is not the future of energy independence. This natural resource leaves a bloody trail, underground, on the ground and in the air. Get in line Cleveland. Get in line with the likes of Rockefeller and Bush. I guess we're there.

Ever read the UN reports on natural resources?

I mean, if coal fired power plants are dangerous to the communities in which they are built  or the communities that supply the coal to them, we can just buy them out? Right? How many communities will AMP have to buy out with their new power plant? Think long term now... think 50 years, Matt. What will our children pay to turn on a light?

Here you go - take a look at mining. What is wrong with us? Why can't the US move forward? Maybe we need to try, just try to not poison the next generation. Maybe they will be able to think clearly if they are not poisoned. It's a long row to hoe, but we must move forward not back.

So what is status of AMP contract?

So did Cleveland sign and seal a deal to buy coal for 50 years? What is the status of AMP contract and what further action is required?

Disrupt IT

oh yeah, Cleveland got in line

See Jeff's post here.
We can only hope that there will be another development that will stall and end these discussions of more coal burning.

Here's the latest from the OEC:
Mar 20: Banks hope to expand carbon rules to public utilities

"Lenders also fear that expensive plants built without explicit disclosure of carbon risks could become white elephants, like nuclear plants a generation ago. If their costs became too great, regulators might expect utility shareholders or bondholders to absorb part of the expense in order to insulate customers from rate shocks..."

The AMP plant could become a white elephant like the El Toro Airport.

This could turn out to be as feasible as a "signature bridge" across the Cuyahoga or the West Shoreway (curb cuts for developers) project.

With the world's financial markets waking up to the costs of externalities, we may see many white elephants that are on the drawing boards now simply evaporate or be archived away as the historic record of a time of change. It would be interesting to hear years from now from a grandchild, "You were going to buy into and build that!?! What in the world were you guys thinking!?! You must have been crazy to even entertain such a stupid idea!"

I guess we'll have to wait and see just how dumb municipalities in the midwest are in the first decade of the 21st century.