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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED PROGRAMS COORDINATOR
    Are you looking for a positive and success oriented work environment, the opportunity to join a (small but) dynamic group of people supporting watershed activities...
  • BACKCOUNTRY FILM FESTIVAL MANAGER
    Boise-based Winter Wildlands Alliance is looking for an experienced and highly motivated individual to organize our annual Backcountry Film Festival and Tour and coordinate additional...
  • LAND CONSERVATION MANAGER
    SUMMARY Leads, administers and manages the land conservation, conservation easement stewardship, and property management activities of the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department within...
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM ATTORNEY, NEVADA
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Staff Attorney who is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.