The end of coal?
Response from industry leaders has evolved from denial of culpability to recent attempts to green their industry. "Clean coal" is their new oxymoronic mantra.
Can the U.S. really break free from the stranglehold oil and coal have on our economy? Can we do it in time to save ourselves? (GW)
Last May, protesters took over James Rogers's front lawn in Charlotte, North Carolina, unfurling banners declaring "No new coal" and erecting a makeshift "green power plant" which, they said in a press release, was fueled by "the previously unexplored energy source known as hot air, which has been found in large concentrations" at his home.
And so it goes for Rogers, the chief executive of Duke Energy. For three years, environmentalists have been battling to stop his company from building a large coal-fired power plant in southwestern North Carolina. They say it will spew six million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually, in addition to producing toxic gases and mountains of fly ash similar to the muck that engulfed a Tennessee community recently.
All Rogers asks, he said in jest, is that protesters let him know when they want to camp out on his lawn. "Maybe next time we can have a little notice and ask them to join us for coffee or tea," he says.
Rogers and his colleagues may be forgiven for feeling a little under siege these days. The coal industry, which powered the industrial revolution and supplied America with much of its electricity for more than 60 years, is in a fight for its survival.
With concerns over climate change intensifying, electricity generation from coal, once reliably cheap, looks increasingly expensive in the face of the all-but-certain prospect of regulations that would impose significant costs on companies that emit large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
As a result, utilities' plans for new coal plants are being turned down left and right. In the last two-and-a-half years, plans for 83 plants in the United States have either been voluntarily withdrawn or denied permits by state regulators. The roughly 600 coal-fired power plants in the United States are responsible for almost one-third of the country's total carbon emissions, but they are distinctly at odds with a growing outlook that embraces clean energy.
A new campaign against coal by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a prominent environmentalist, and the Waterkeeper Alliance is called "The Dirty Lie." Other clean-energy advocates are equally passionate.
"If you care about being a leader on solving global warming problems, you don't build new coal plants, especially ones that don't have a way to capture carbon," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southeastern Alliance for Clean Energy. (Smith's group was not involved in the decorating of the Duke executive's lawn. That was the handiwork of a small group called Rising Tide, in Asheville.)
This green chorus also includes Al Gore, the former vice president, Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google, and Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, who has called for a moratorium on new coal plants.
Reid and other Democratic leaders in Congress, emboldened by support from the Obama administration, have promised climate change legislation by the end of the year. While the exact outlines are yet to be determined, lawmakers are discussing plans to force companies to reduce carbon emissions or be required to pay some form of penalty.
Some conservatives in Congress, and the coal industry itself, say the clean energy push is an affordable luxury — and a pet cause — for people in states that don't have to rely primarily on coal to produce electricity.
"The costs for those customers in the heartland who get more of their electricity from coal, not only residential but commercial customers, could be significantly higher, at a time when we can least afford it," says Jim Owen, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, which represents electric utilities. "So we want to make sure that a climate change program is properly designed."
Moreover, getting more and more of our energy from squeaky-clean sources like wind, solar and biomass sounds like a great idea, but whether renewables can keep the lights on and our iPods charged remains an open question.
THE coal industry is aware of all of these issues and is fighting back. An industry-financed group called the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity spent $38 million last year informing Americans, via TV and newspaper ads, that coal is the source of 50 percent of their electricity, that it is an abundant domestic resource and, most importantly, that there is the promise of "clean," or carbon-free, coal. This argument is what Kennedy's group calls "the dirty lie."
Nevertheless, the industry sees clean coal technologies as its best hope for joining the ranks of green power. The problem is that the technology, called carbon capture and storage, is still being developed and could make electricity generated by coal more expensive than power from other sources.
"There are 16 gigawatts of new coal-fired generation coming online in the next few years," said Kevin Book, an energy policy analyst at FBR Capital Markets. "They may well be the last plants."
Rogers, 61, may adhere to the pro-coal sentiments of many of his peers, but he is hardly a typical captain of the energy industry. Five years ago, he began advocating for climate change legislation at a time when some companies were still saying human activity had nothing to do with global warming. Rogers, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, considers himself an environmentalist and calls his decision to move forward with the new plant, made shortly after he became chief of Duke in April 2006, a difficult one.
The estimated 240 million tons of carbon dioxide that will be generated over the 40-year life of the plant, known as Cliffside, will probably never be captured, when or if such technology becomes viable. Most proposals to capture gas involve injecting it deep into the earth. But in North and South Carolina, where Duke operates, the underground rock is too porous to contain any gas.
"There's always been a tension between affordability and clean," Rogers said in mid-January, sipping a cappuccino on his way to a meeting in Washington with Carol Browner, the White House coordinator of energy and climate policy. "Ultimately we need to be able to meet the energy needs of our customers. That's my biggest obligation."
Fulfilling that responsibility through renewable energy wasn't an option, he said. Duke, which gets 71 percent of its electricity from coal, has only recently delved into solar energy, promising to buy the entire output of a large solar farm in North Carolina and it is seeking final approval to put solar panels on rooftops at hundreds of customer sites. Its first purchase from a wind farm has started flowing to customers in Indiana. All that combined, though, will give Duke only 124 megawatts of energy, compared with 800 planned from Cliffside.
Hoping to mitigate some of the environmental impact of Cliffside, Rogers has promised to shut down more than an equal amount of older, more polluting power plants by 2018.
Environmentalists are not impressed. They say that Rogers hasn't pushed for clean energy with the same vigor he has expended on Cliffside; for instance, he personally lobbied North Carolina utility regulators for Cliffside but not for the solar program. "Among the utility guys he's the most dangerous because he talks a good game, but his actions are among the worst," said Bruce Nilles, who oversees anti-coal initiatives for the Sierra Club.
Not so, says Rogers. He says that he's just a pragmatist, not a hypocrite, and that he has given his full support to Duke's solar program.
Even if they want to, it's going to be hard for utilities to wean themselves off huge coal plants, which are much simpler to plan and build than a collage of smaller alternative energy projects that cannot be counted on for continuous power.
"Utilities like to plan their world around big traditional power plants," said Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "Only when they are forced are they willing to rethink that business model."
Rogers, after all, was hoping to build two plants at the Cliffside site, but the state awarded only one permit.
Other utilities, though, have sworn off coal for the time being and are eagerly embracing alternative energy. Xcel Energy, for example, has erected 274 cloud-colored turbines on the gusty plains of northeastern Colorado. It gets about half of its electricity from coal, but it also draws more of its power from wind, almost 3,000 megawatts, than any other utility.
"It's not always easy, but we're wanting to provide our customers with cleaner and cleaner energy," said Frank Prager, vice president for environmental policy at Xcel.
Others have even broader ambitions. Dan Reicher, Google's director for climate change and energy initiatives, is confident it's possible to wean Americans off coal. Last year he devised a plan, called Clean Energy 2030, that calls for America to go almost fossil fuel-free by 2030.
His proposal entails keeping electricity demand flat by aggressively pursuing energy efficiency, thus bypassing the need for new coal plants to meet growing demand. All existing coal generation and about half of our current natural gas production would be replaced with a medley of clean electricity propelled by wind, solar, nuclear and other sources.
Michael Morris, chief executive of American Electric Power in Columbus, Ohio, also one of the largest utilities in the country, dismisses Google's plan, particularly the idea of eliminating coal-fired electricity by 2030. "Absolutely impossible," he scoffs. "If you can make the wind blow 24/7 that would be good. Maybe Google's got a plan for that."
Environmentalists counter that there are innovative ways to deal with the fact that wind and solar farms don't generate nonstop electricity, namely pairing them with natural gas plants, and using emerging energy storage technologies.
Even with creative approaches, clean energy still presents huge challenges. Lots of new wind and solar farms are going to require huge amounts of new transmission lines that will carry that power from remote places to more populated areas, an endeavor that a consortium of grid operators projects will cost as much as $100 billion. Solutions like advanced geothermal, a promising way to get clean, always-on energy, are still in the development stage and will require huge investments.
For their part, nearly all utility companies yearn for the day when coal isn't a dirty word and when plants can capture and store their carbon dioxide. No one is a bigger cheerleader for this idea than Morris of American Electric.
This fall, the 150-foot smokestack at the company's Mountaineer coal plant in New Haven, West Virginia, will be outfitted with technology that uses chilled ammonia to trap carbon dioxide. The greenhouse gas will then be turned into a liquid and injected into the ground. It will be the first such project that will both capture and store carbon from an existing plant, and Morris is wildly optimistic. "At the end of the day we will develop this technology," he says.
BUT Morris's plans, as ambitious as they are, say a lot about just how far away "clean coal" is. Of the 8.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted annually by the Mountaineer plant, only 100,000 to 300,000 will be removed with the new technology. And American Electric and the maker of the technology, Alstrom, are spending $100 million on the initiative — a daunting expense for some producers.
Then there is the cost of doing the carbon removal, which Book, of FBR Capital Markets, estimates would more than double the price of electricity generated from coal, possibly making it too expensive relative to other sources. "The economic case isn't there for private companies to do it," he says. "The government is going to have to fund it."
Until then, coal's image problem is likely to persist. "Coal is the dirtiest possible fuel," said Patrice Simms, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We need to move away from our 19th-century fuel source."