A new kind of cleaner, coal-fired power plant will soon be built somewhere in the Midwest. American Electric Power, the nation’s largest producer of electricity, says the new plant will be more efficient and pollute less than traditional coal plants. But critics say if utilities were doing more to promote energy efficiency, they wouldn’t need to build new power plants that burn fossil fuels. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner
A new kind of cleaner, coal-fired power plant will soon be
built somewhere in the Midwest. American Electric Power, the nation’s
largest producer of electricity, says the new plant will be more efficient
and pollute less than traditional coal plants. But critics say if utilities
were doing more to promote energy efficiency, they wouldn’t need to build
new power plants that burn fossil fuels. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Erin Toner reports:
Coal-fired power plants are blamed for contributing to air pollution and global warming and aggravating health problems such as asthma. In the 1970s, Congress passed the Clean Air Act to reduce air pollution. But since many coal plants were built before the Clean Air Act, they’ve been exempt from pollution control updates.
So there are a lot of older, dirtier power plants out there. At the same time, demand for electricity is increasing. To meet demand, many utilities, including Ohio-based American Electric Power, are looking at building new plants, or adding on to their old ones. American Electric Power spokesperson Melissa McHenry says the company needs a new plant that will last at least 30 years.
“As we looked forward, you’re looking at increasingly stringent air quality regulations, so we wanted to ensure we would have a plant that would have improved environmental performance.”
And McHenry says the cleanest, and most efficient coal-burning process, is something practically brand-new to the industry. It’s called Integrated Gasification Combined-Cycle, or IGCC. It converts coal to gas, and then removes pollutants from the gas before it’s burned. The process results in almost zero emissions of sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain, nitrogen oxides, which cause smog, and mercury, which is toxic to people and animals. There’s also much less carbon dioxide pollution, which is believed to contribute to global warming. And gasification is said to be twice as efficient as traditional coal plants.
There are a couple of IGCC plants in the US, but they’re small – only about a quarter of the size of a traditional coal plant. American Electric Power’s IGCC plant would be the biggest one to date – a full-size plant that would serve the power needs of more than a million homes in the Midwest. American Electric Power Spokesperson Melissa McHenry says this plant be only the first of its kind.
“We’re stepping up to build the first one and we think there will be more as we need additional generation capacity. And we think other utilities, you know, obviously other utilities have announced plans to look at this since we have announced ours. The U.S. has significant reserves of coal available, and we think it’s very important that we are able to use this domestic fuel source in a more environmentally responsible way going forward.”
Most environmentalists agree that IGCC is a much improved way to make power. But they say it’s not the best way, since it still depends on a non-renewable energy source – coal. Environmental groups say relying on coal is not a long-term solution to growing energy needs. Although, the coal industry says there is at least a 200-year supply. Marty Kushler is with the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. He says utilities should consider ways to reduce the need to build new power plants.
“There are a number of other resource options available that can be achieved at a lower cost than building and fueling and operating a new power plant, such as energy efficiency. Energy efficiency can save electricity at a cost that is less than half the cost of building, fueling and operating a new power plant.”
But getting people to use less power isn’t that easy. Kushler says more states should implement power bill surcharges to fund programs to encourage the public to use more energy efficient appliances and cut electricity use.
But even with those kinds of programs, almost everyone agrees coal will be a part of the American energy mix for some time. And people in the energy industry say gasification is the future of coal power.
Jim Childress is with the Gasification Technologies Council. He says the only drawbacks right now are money. IGCC is about 20 percent more expensive than traditional coal power production. And he says there are a lot of bugs to work out in engineering one of these plants.
“The base technology is set. The question mark is based upon marrying that technology with about three, four, five major components and getting the darn thing to run right.”
Childress says the tough part is getting technology that’s working now on a small scale to work in a full-size coal plant.
American Electric Power says its Integrated Gasification Combined-Cycle plant will cost 2 billion dollars, and should be online by 2010. The company is expected to announce a site for the new plant by summer.
For the GLRC, I’m Erin Toner.