Coal Rush Reverses, Power Firms Follow

A 30-day supply of coal sits ready to burn in front of the Sunflower power plant in Holcomb, Kan. Recent legislation has helped prompt Sunflower, a rural electric cooperative, to scale back plans for coal-fired power plants in western Kansas.
A 30-day supply of coal sits ready to burn in front of the Sunflower power plant in Holcomb, Kan. Recent legislation has helped prompt Sunflower, a rural electric cooperative, to scale back plans for coal-fired power plants in western Kansas. (Photo By Charlie Riedel -- Associated Press)

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By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The mayor of Missoula, Mont., is the latest person to discover just how unpopular coal plants have become.

In early August, Mayor John Engen (D) won city council support to buy electricity from a new coal-fired plant scheduled to begin operation in 2011. He said the city government would save money on its electric bills.

But three weeks later, Engen pulled out of the deal after receiving hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from constituents upset that Missoula would contribute to the creation of a coal plant and concerned about what the town would do if the plant never got built.

"Coal is a double-edged sword," Engen said. "I sort of felt both edges."

A year after the nation appeared to be in the middle of a coal rush, widening alarm about greenhouse gas emissions has slowed the efforts of electric companies to build coal-fired power plants from hills of eastern Montana to southern Florida.

Recently, proponents of coal-fired power plants acquired a new foe: Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid. In late July, Reid (D-Nev.) sent a letter to the chief executives of four power companies in which he vowed to "use every means at my disposal" to stop their plans to build three coal-fired plants in Nevada. Last month, after a speech in Reno, Reid said he was opposed to new coal-fired plants anywhere.

"There's not a coal-fired plant in America that's clean. They're all dirty," Reid told reporters after speaking at a conference on renewable energy. He said that the United States should turn to wind, solar and geothermal power in an effort to slow climate change. "Unless we do something quickly about global warming, we're in trouble," he said.

Reid's opposition to coal plants is the latest in a series of new obstacles for power companies seeking to use the fuel to generate electricity. A combination of rising construction costs, state mandates for the use of renewable energy and lawsuits by environmental organizations have forced many utilities to drop or postpone coal projects this summer.

In June, all four members of Florida's Public Service Commission -- including two appointed by the new Republican governor -- rejected an FPL Group proposal for coal plant near Lake Okeechobee. The following month, another of the state's utilities withdrew its application for a new coal-fired plant.

Gov. Charlie Crist said approvingly that the Public Service Commission "sent a very powerful message" and that the state "should look to solar and wind and nuclear as alternatives to the way we've generated power in the Sunshine State."

In July, Citigroup coal analysts downgraded the stocks of coal companies across the board. "Prophesies of a new wave of coal-fired generation have vaporized, while clean coal technologies . . . remain a decade away, or more," their report said.

The Citigroup analysts said that by 2008 "election politics are likely to turn progressively more bestial for coal. Candidates are already stepping up to 'ban coal.' " The Citigroup report said that coal producers' earnings would probably be hurt by "new regulatory mandates applied to a group perceived as landscape-disfiguring global warming bad guys."


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