The push is on for 'clean coal'

  • Proposed coal-fired plants in Magic Valley

    Diane Sylvain

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Magic Valley Uprising."

Westwide, the power-plant industry has proposed building several dozen new coal-fired plants — the biggest such buildup since the 1980s. But at the same time, the industry is moving toward a new “clean coal” era, nudged by citizen uprisings like the one in Idaho’s Magic Valley, along with other, surprising forces: coal companies, the Bush administration, members of Congress, and the West’s most muscular Republican, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

They all share a common goal: figuring out how to build coal plants that are less polluting than conventional plants that burn pulverized coal. The best hope is IGCC technology, which stands for “integrated gasification combined cycle.” IGCC converts coal to a “synthesis gas,” mostly hydrogen, which burns relatively cleanly in turbines. It allows companies to capture many pollutants, and an additional process can sequester carbon dioxide, the main contributor to global warming. (Stashing carbon dioxide underground in geologic formations is considered the most likely method of sequestration.) But there are only two IGCC plants operating now, in Indiana and Florida, and although companies have proposed building more, the technology is not yet perfected.

That’s why the Bush administration launched a public-private partnership called FutureGen in 2003. It offers financial incentives to spur research and construction of the world’s first “zero emissions” coal plant. The Department of Energy has already invested $45 million in FutureGen, and the administration promises to add more than $550 million within a few years. Coal giants Peabody and Kennecott, along with China’s biggest coal-plant utility, have joined FutureGen, promising more than $200 million. India kicked in $10 million in April. FutureGen aims to select a U.S. site for its first plant later this year, and have it up and running by 2012.

Congress provided a boost to clean-coal technology with the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which offers billions more in incentives. Western states and companies are putting together proposals to get subsidies, an effort that the Western Governors’ Association supports.

Where does Schwarzenegger fit in? “I call him the ‘Coal-Plant Terminator,’ ” says Jon Wellinghoff, an attorney with Western Resource Advocates, a Colorado-based environmental law firm that is pushing for IGCC technology.

Schwarzenegger issued an executive order in June 2005, saying that California utilities must stop buying electricity from power plants that contribute to global warming. California uses 20 percent of the West’s electricity, so the governor’s ultimatum effectively pressures the industry to shift to IGCC and carbon sequestration. The loss of California customers likely figured in Sempra’s decision not to build a conventional merchant plant in Idaho. The Nevada Clean Energy Coalition, which fought off a similar Sempra proposal this year, considers Schwarzenegger a de facto ally.

This combination of forces will kill all but a handful of the West’s proposed coal plants, because most would burn pulverized coal, says John Barth, director of the Western Clean Energy Campaign. And at least two IGCC proposals are already edging toward reality in the West, one near Longview, Wash., and the other outside Pocatello, Idaho.

But even a clean-coal plant rubs some communities the wrong way. Pocatello, for example, is trying to move beyond heavy industry, says Mayor Roger Chase. He’s courting tech companies and medical facilities, and says an IGCC plant “would be bad for us, image-wise.”

Idaho’s two-year moratorium only applies to conventional coal plants, so the Pocatello IGCC proposal, pushed by a subsidiary of a New England company, is still alive.

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