DARK DAYS?: At least 16 new coal-fired power plants throughout the U.S. have either been cancelled and many more have been delayed due to concerns about pollution, particularly the carbon dioxide that drives climate change. Image: ©ISTOCKPHOTO.COM
New coal power plants won't find a home in Kansas, according to the state's Department of Health and Environment (KDHE). The agency, tasked with protecting the state's environment and public health, denied air quality permits for two 700-megawatt, coal-fired power plants proposed by Sunflower Electric for Holcomb, a municipality in the southwestern corner of the state.
"After careful consideration of my responsibility to protect the public health and environment from actual, threatened or potential harm from air pollution, I have decided to deny the Sunflower Electric Power Corporation application for an air quality permit," Roderick Bremby, KDHE secretary, said in a written statement. "I believe it would be irresponsible to ignore emerging information about the contribution of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to climate change and the potential harm to our environment and health if we do nothing."
The Kansas decision is just one of a string of setbacks for proposed new coal-fired generation and builds upon a Supreme Court decision in April that carbon dioxide meets the definition of an air pollutant under the federal Clean Air Act.
For example, four separate proposed coal-fired power plants in Florida have either been rejected by state authorities or withdrawn, including a nearly 2,000-megawatt coal plant near the Everglades and an additional unit at an existing plant outside Tampa—one of the U.S.'s few integrated gasification and combined cycle (IGCC) power plants, which use an advanced coal-burning technology with fewer emissions. All told, utilities have canceled 14,000 megawatts of planned coal-fired generation and delayed an additional 32,000 megawatts, according to the latest survey by the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in Pittsburgh.
Investors have rejected coal-fired generation as well; Texas-based utility TXU found itself under new ownership after announcing plans to build as many as 11 new coal-fired power plants. Instead, a private consortium of investors, including investment bank Goldman Sachs and private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., purchased the power generation company and last week changed its name to Energy Future Holdings Corporation after withdrawing eight of the planned applications.
"I look forward to working with management and employees to demonstrate our commitment to being a leading corporate citizen, to implementing stronger environmental policies, and to providing reliable and affordable power," Donald Evans, new chairman of Energy Future, said in a statement last week.
But there are technology options on the horizon that might allow for future coal-fired power plants to avoid the average emissions of more than four million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year per plant. Such carbon capture and storage can either be built into the smokestacks of existing plants or into the combustion cycle of advanced plants, like those using IGCC technology. Once the carbon dioxide is captured, it is compressed and pumped as a liquid deep underground. "The bad news is [that] it increases the cost of power roughly 60 to 70 percent for a new plant and probably by more than double for an existing plant," says L. Doug Carter, senior energy advisor at Washington, D.C.–based law firm Van Ness Feldman.
It also has yet to be demonstrated on a single power plant, though the DOE has several projects underway. "You can't get to stabilization without having to deal with carbon capture and storage from both the coal fleet [of power plants] and the natural gas fleet," says Scott Klara, NETL's director of the office of coal and power systems research and development. "It will take from 15 to 20 years for these to come online, assuming they are successful in research and development."
Until that happens, it may remain difficult to build coal-fired power plants. "I think that this decision represents a clear and powerful recognition of how serious the threat of global warming is and that our reliance on coal for power generation needs to be changed," says Eric Young, spokesman on global warming at New York City–based environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council. "Instead, we need to become more energy-efficient, build more efficient cars and trucks, and also produce a greater share of our electricity from renewable sources like wind, especially in a state like Kansas."