Front Porch Blog

Coal Power in Your Backyard

The National Energy Technology Laboratory, a division of the US Department of Energy, recently released a report entitled Tracking New Coal-Fired Power Plants that dropped a metaphoric bombshell on environmental efforts in the US today. This report lists 140 new coal-fired power plants planned for the United States, as of March 20, 2006. There are 22 new coal-fired power plants going into our eight state area (NC, SC, VA, WV, GA, AL, TN, KY). Most of these plants will be old-style, pulverized coal power plants. They will be nasty, polluting monsters, and they will be grandfathered into the existing air quality legislation so that they will not have to install pollution controls for a decade or so after construction. I think we can all agree that this is a bad thing. Not that I have anything against coal power. I think it’s a great idea, so long as you slap about $20 million in pollution controls on each plant, dispose of the waste in specified containers, and quit blowing up mountains to get at coal veins. But other than that, it’s peachy.

So how does this concern you? I could rattle off some statistics if you like, and I will if anyone asks me to, but the long and the short of it is this: if you like kids, you’d better hate coal-fired plants with no pollution controls. These plants emit three things which are really quite harmful to young children: nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and mercury. Now, I can feel the blank stares and “I didn’t take chemistry” complaints through the ether, so I’ll explain. Nitrogen oxide in the atmosphere converts to ozone. Breathing ozone is really bad for children; it causes asthma and other respiratory diseases. As a matter of fact, the American Lung Association has linked ground-level ozone to a rather staggering number of asthma cases (about 500,000). The next contestant, sulfur dioxide, does pretty much the same thing, causing wheezing, coughing, general respiratory irritation and making asthma worse. On to contestant number three, my personal favorite, mercury. Mercury, which occurs naturally in coal, causes all sorts of neurological problems in babies. It can cause mental retardation in high doses, and a whole slew of physiological and intelligence-related problems at lower doses. Here’s the kicker: nationally, 400,000 babies are born every year with defects caused by mercury poisoning in the womb. (Additional information on mercury poisoning can be found here.) These kids are affected permanently; there’s no going back on in-vitro mercury poisoning. In case anyone’s wondering, yes, all of these conditions apply to adults as well, but children are more susceptible to harmful effects from all of these pollutants. That’s just the way it is.

Now I know a lot of people are saying, “Well if not coal, what then?” and I hear you. The alternative fuel market is rough, and oil just gets more politically charged every day. At the beginning of this post, I talked a little about “old style, pulverized coal” powerplants, implying that there were other kinds. There are, in fact, two new types of coal power plants. They are called Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) and Fluidized Gas Bed plants (FGB), and they improve in every way on the old pulverized coal plants. Both of these new varieties are more efficient and pollute a little less than traditional pulverized coal plants. Oddly enough, neither one is exclusively limited to coal as a fuel. In fact, they’ll both burn pretty much anything, as long as that “anything” started life as a biological something or other, but coal is cheap and available. These new plants are what people are talking about when they let the words “clean coal” escape from their lips. Let’s get one thing straight. These plants, by themselves, do not constitute a “clean coal” solution. The both pollute, just a little less. They both require coal, and that coal has to come from somewhere (see the MTR page for more details on that). However they are much better than pulverized coal plants, and only slightly more expensive. Honestly, I have to say “only slightly more expensive” with a wink and a grin, since we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars, but that’s an investment the power companies would recoup very quickly. An average 1000 megawatt coal plant will earn its company anywhere from 5 to 7 BILLION dollars in net profit over a 25-year lifetime. Wait a minute, did I just drop the B word? Yep! I did! Why, next to that, a hundred million more for an IGCC of FGB plant and another twenty million or so for pollution control just doesn’t seem like much. Like maybe a drop in the bucket.

But I digress, quite often and with great enthusiasm. I was saying something earlier about 140 new coal power plants. Ah, I remember, they’re being planned and permitted as you read! Now, 140 is a big number and pollution talk quickly leads into the abstract, so let’s get back to concrete examples. Like, for instance, Los Angeles. That’s about as much concrete as you can find anywhere. Now, in my time I’ve been to a few places on this ol’ planet of ours, and I count myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit a country that exists on coal: China. Why am I talking about China? Well, a good day in China looks like the worst day anyone in LA has ever seen. 140 new pulverized coal plants are a step in that direction. It ain’t pretty. It ain’t healthy. It’s not what I would like to envision when I look to the future. Now, in a very short time Appalachian Voices is going to start putting up information on air quality and these 140 new coal plants. It’ll be under the air pollution heading. If anything in this post intrigued you, please, take a look at the rest of the information.

And make sure to check your backyard. A coal plant might have moved in.





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