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Sun, Nov 21, 2004 - Page 12 News List

US companies rediscover coal-fired power plants

More than 100 coal-fueled plants are vying for approval around the US amid intensifying fears that natural gas will become scarce


John and Rachel Bogard are used to living off the grid in this desert hamlet, generating their own electricity with solar panels. They have been doing so for nearly 30 years.

But now the grid is rushing toward them, in the form of a source of electricity even more futuristic than solar power: coal.

Sure, coal sounds dirty and dated, the kind of energy source that went out of fashion with big Buicks and bell-bottom jeans. But a coal project here in northern Nevada is one of more than 100 coal-fueled plants that are vying for approval around the country, the largest increase in such projects since the 1970s.

The reason for coal's resurgence is an intensifying fear in the US that supplies will become scarce in electricity's other main fuel source, natural gas. And coal is a lot cheaper.

Altogether, energy companies in the US have announced plans to build more coal-fired power plants in the last 12 months than they did in the last 12 years. If all those projects get off the ground, utilities would invest more than US$100 billion.

The electricity industry's back-to-the-future approach to coal is soon expected to pit dozens of communities around the country against energy companies that are planning coal-based expansion strategies in their midst.

The Bush administration has significantly shifted policy away from three decades of federal efforts to reduce the nation's dependence on coal, which is significantly cleaner than it once was but still dirtier than natural gas.

Now the administration is supporting the push for a new wave of coal-fueled energy, with the US Energy Department investing US$2 billion in ventures intended to make coal less polluting.

But until coal-fired plants become even cleaner, clashes over their impact on air quality are expected to multiply. Because of restrictions elsewhere, many of these coal-fired power plants will be put in places with pristine air quality and relatively relaxed pollution restrictions.

Gerlach's is situated near Nevada's border with California, an energy-hungry state where environmental standards make it nearly impossible to build coal-fired plants, making it attractive for the builder, Sempra Energy. Gerlach, which has fewer than 200 residents, is at the crossroads of rail lines that can haul coal from Montana strip mines and an electricity transmission line that can send the power southward to Los Angeles and San Diego.

Gerlach has a "combination of ideal factors," said Marty Swartz, a director for project development at Sempra. As for Gerlach itself, he said, the project would generate about US$30 million in tax revenue for Washoe County, which encompasses this hamlet as well as Reno, a two-hour drive south.

Prospects of new wealth for the town have done little to calm people's nerves here.

"If it's such a great deal, then let them build the thing in California," Bogard, 56, the owner of a pottery business, said. "I'm not sure if anyone involved with this realizes what a nightmare it is to have a plant spewing coal fumes go up in their backyard. This would simply destroy our life out here."

The tensions arising from Sempra's plan, known as the Granite Fox Power project, and from similar plans for other coal-fueled plants are an inevitable outcome of energy policies pursued during the 1990s. During that period, nearly every new electricity plant was built to be run on natural gas, which is cleaner burning and was generally thought at the time to be in ample supply in North America.

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