WASHINGTON - July 20 - Energy companies are planning to build over 150 coal-fired power plants across the United States, according to a report released today by US PIRG, the National Association of State PIRGs. Far from enhancing America’s energy security, the wave of proposed plants – most of them powered by dirty, last-generation technologies – would dramatically increase global warming emissions and pose energy security and economic problems.
“We’re lining up for a sprint in the wrong direction on US energy policy,” said Rob Sargent of US PIRG. “Expanding our dependence on coal would only worsen its impact on global warming emissions and intensify the other environmental impacts and economic risks.”
The US PIRG analysis, based on information from the US Department of Energy and published reports, documented the potential impacts of completing the 150 plants proposed across the US Among the impacts would be the following:
A 10 percent increase in US global warming emissions. This increase would occur amid urgent scientific warnings about the dangers posed by global warming and growing consensus that, to avoid the worst consequences, America and the world must achieve steep cuts in global warming emissions by the middle of this century.
A 30 percent increase in US coal demand, which would require the opening of new mines and expanded infrastructure for delivering that coal to power plants. The increase in coal demand would exacerbate the environmental devastation caused by coal mining, which has already denuded more than seven percent of Appalachian forests, buried 1,200 miles of streams in fill, and resulted in the release of hundreds of millions of pounds of toxic chemicals. It would also increase the likelihood of future cost increases for coal.
Expanding America’s coal demand would come at a high price,” said Joe Lovett of the Appalachian Center. “New mines would level more mountains, permanently bury hundreds of miles of pristine mountain streams under billions of tons of mining waste and continue to devastate local communities located near the mines.”
$137 billion invested in dirty, outdated coal-burning technology. Despite recent hype about the promise of “clean coal” – including the prospect of capturing and storing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants underground – only 16 percent of the proposed plants nationwide would use coal gasification technology, and none would incorporate carbon capture and storage. The rest would use older technologies that are already responsible for massive global warming emissions and the release of large quantities of pollutants responsible for human health problems.
Lost opportunity for investment in cleaner technologies. Investing the $137 billion slated for new coal-fired power plants into cleaner alternatives would yield economic and energy security benefits for the United States. If invested in energy efficiency, those funds could reduce US electricity demand by about 19 percent in 2025 vs. business as usual – obviating the need for the all of the coal plants on the drawing board. If invested in wind energy, the United States could develop 110 gigawatts of the best wind energy locations in the western US, which could produce electricity at an overall cost comparable to coal.
“We could avoid the need to build any new coal plants if we simply invested the same amount of money in energy efficiency,” said Travis Madsen, a policy analyst who authored the report for USPIRG, “and we’d save money at the same time.”
Economic risks for ratepayers, utilities and generators, who could be liable for the cost of complying with any new rules to limit global warming emissions from power plants – rules that are increasingly likely as evidence mounts of the potential environmental and economic impacts of global warming.
“Companies that build coal-fired power plants today are gambling with their investors’ money,” said Leslie Lowe of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a coalition of investors promoting social responsibility. “They are betting that operating coal fired power plants will continue to be cheap, despite the near certainty that global warming pollution will be regulated within the lifetime of the plants.”
Despite these problems, the “coal rush” appears to be accelerating across the United States. In April, TXU Corporation announced plans for eight new coal-fired units in Texas, adding to three previously announced projects, for a total of 8,600 MW and $10 billion in capital investment. In June, NRG Energy announced six new coal-fired projects from Texas to Connecticut. And in July, PacifiCorp announced plans for two new coal-fired facilities to serve markets in Oregon.
The report, Making Sense of the Coal Rush: The Consequences of Expanding America’s Dependence on Coal, calls for several steps to stem the “coal rush.” First, our leaders should join Idaho officials in establishing a moratorium on new coal plants in, in order to evaluate the environmental and economic impacts. Second, our leaders should establish a cap on carbon dioxide pollution, to be lowered over time. Third, public money should not be spent on coal technology. Finally, our leaders should dramatically expand programs to develop energy efficiency and renewable energy resources.
At the federal level, on June 20, Rep. Waxman introduced the Safe Climate Act in the US House of Representatives. It would require the US to reduce its global warming pollution 15 percent by 2020 and by 80 percent by 2050. To achieve these targets, the bill calls for improved energy efficiency and a greater reliance on clean, renewable energy sources, while providing companies flexibility in meeting the pollution-reduction goals through a “cap-and-trade” program. Senator Jeffords of Vermont is introducing a similar bill in the Senate today.
“America could substantially reduce its global warming pollution using existing technology to improve energy efficiency and increase the use of clean, renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and biomass,” said Sargent. “What’s more, these steps would be good for America’s economy; creating jobs and improving productivity. But, none of this is possible if we stake our future on coal.”