By: Tina Casey
You can put a fork in a gigantic new coal fired power plant proposed for rural Sugard, Utah, because it’s done. Yesterday the Utah Supreme Court struck a major blow against the plant by ordering it to start back at square one in the pollution permit application process.
As reported by Paul Foy in an Associated Press story, the do-over exposes the pie-in-the-sky mentality behind so called “clean coal.” Among the reasons for the court’s decision was the failure of regulators to look into gasification, a cleaner coal technology. They went along with Nevco, the company behind the plant, which proposed a more polluting conventional pulverized-coal burn method because gasification was too expensive. In other words, without some big help from some deep pockets, clean coal is a no go.
What if We Built a New Technology and Nobody Came?
The failure of the Sugard plant underscores one of the main problems behind so-called clean coal (and the reason why dozens of proposed coal fired plants are on hold). Aside from being not altogether clean, and aside from involving catastrophic mining practices such as mountaintop removal, and aside from involving a huge carbon footprint and infrastructure investment for transportation alone, “clean coal” technology is phenomenally expensive to build and operate. It spells an end to the days of ultra-cheap coal-generated energy, and that puts coal squarely in competition with renewable resources including biomass, wind, solar, and geothermal.
Coal, Competition, and Government Funding
Fossil fuels have long enjoyed a headlock on the marketplace, but now the field is wide open and power companies also have to consider the potential for competing feedstocks in their financial planning, along with the potential for inter-industry synergy that is practically nonexistent with coal. For example, just this week a power company in Michgan announced the conversion of an existing coal plant to biomass, which will power a nearby ceiling tile factory and also burn scrap from the factory, recycling tons of waste that were formerly landfilled. As for government subsidies, coal and other fossil fuels are facing new competition especially from solar power, which is winning support from federal stimulus funds and from states like Arizona that are actively competing to attract solar industries.
The Coal that Broke the Camel’s Back
According to Western Resource Advocates, the conventional burn method proposed for the Sugard plant (to be built by Sevier Power, an affiliate of Nevco) would potentially emit at least 100 tons of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide annually, along with carbon dioxide. For a coal-loving state that already gets 95% of its energy from the fossil, that would seem like just another drop in the bucket, but apparently the citizens of Utah and its judicial branch have decided that enough is enough. It looks like Utah could be the canary in the coal mine for, well, coal. The fuel will be with us far into the future, but as an increasingly marginalized and exotic resource.
Image: Grandfathered coal plant in Illinois by Senor Codo on flickr.com.