Midwest Has 'Coal Rush,' Seeing No Alternative

MidAmerican Energy Holdings chief executive David L. Sokol says coal is the only way to meet Iowa's growing demand for electricity in the near term.
MidAmerican Energy Holdings chief executive David L. Sokol says coal is the only way to meet Iowa's growing demand for electricity in the near term. (By Steven Mufson -- The Washington Post)
By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 10, 2007

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa -- From the top of a new coal-fired power plant with its 550-foot exhaust stack poking up from the flat western Iowa landscape, MidAmerican Energy Holdings chief executive David L. Sokol peered down at a train looping around a sizable mound of coal.

At this bend in the Missouri River, with Omaha visible in the distance, the new MidAmerican plant is the leading edge of what many people are calling the "coal rush." Due to start up this spring, it will probably be the next coal-fired generating station to come online in the United States. A dozen more are under construction, and about 40 others are likely to start up within five years -- the biggest wave of coal plant construction since the 1970s.

The coal rush in America's heartland is on a collision course with Congress. While lawmakers are drawing up ways to cap and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, the Energy Department says as many as 150 new coal-fired plants could be built by 2030, adding volumes to the nation's emissions of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent of half a dozen greenhouse gases scientists blame for global warming.

Even after a pledge last month by a consortium of private equity firms to shelve eight of 11 planned coal plants as part of their proposed $45 billion buyout of TXU, the largest utility in Texas, many daunting projects remain on drawing boards. Any one of the three biggest projects could churn out more carbon dioxide than the savings that a group of Northeast states hope to achieve by 2018.

Utility executives say that the coal expansion is needed to meet rising electricity demand as the U.S. population and economy grow. Coal-fired plants provide half the electricity supply in the country.

"A lot of congressmen ask me, 'Dave, why are you building that coal plant?' " says MidAmerican's Sokol. "And I say, 'What are my options?' "

Sokol says he wants to help customers improve efficiency by 10 percent. His holding company, which is more than 80 percent owned by Berkshire Hathaway, includes the utility PacifiCorp in the Northwest and Rocky Mountains as well as MidAmerican; together they generate 16.7 percent of their power from renewable resources. The Iowa subsidiary alone gets 10 percent from renewables. Between 2000 and 2005, the company cut the amount of carbon emitted for every unit of energy generated by 9 percent.

But half of that reduction in the rate of emissions was offset by higher overall output. Electricity demand in Iowa is growing at a rate of 1.25 percent a year, and Sokol says that until new technologies become commercial or nuclear power becomes more accepted, coal is the way to meet that demand.

It remains unclear how Congress will cope with this problem. Although climate-change experts hope that new technology will deliver a way to capture and store carbon dioxide produced by coal plants, that technology remains in the pilot stage; it could take another decade before it is proven.

Companies say the new coal plants are better than old ones, though both use the same approach: pulverizing coal, then burning it in huge boilers to power giant turbines. The new $1.1 billion MidAmerican facility will be one of the nation's biggest, with 790 megawatts of capacity. Its boilers and pulverizers will devour 400 tons of coal every hour, 3.5 million tons a year, Sokol says. Combined with an existing plant next door, it will require a fresh train of coal every 16 to 17 hours; each train will be nearly 1.5 miles long and lug 135 cars about 650 miles from Wyoming's Powder River Basin.

While newly constructed plants cough up a tiny fraction of the pollutants environmental regulators have focused on in the past -- sulfur dioxide, mercury and nitrogen oxides -- they emit only 15 percent less carbon dioxide. They do that simply by being more efficient. Scrubbers like those used to extract other pollutants from a plant's exhaust don't exist for carbon dioxide.

Environmentalists worry that the new pulverized-coal plants, built to last 40 to 50 years, will saddle the country with high greenhouse-gas emissions for decades. Peabody Energy, for instance, has proposed two giant 1,500 megawatt plants, one for western Kentucky and one for southern Illinois.

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