Old-Time Coal

The grassroots rebellion against coal that swept the United States has been a startling and striking development. Until quite recently it seemed impossible to build a new nuclear power plant under any circumstances; almost from one moment to the next it was new coal one couldn't build--or so it seemed.

Actually, according to a recent compilation by the Associated Press, that's not quite so. Since 2008, 16 large coal plants have been completed in the United States, and 16 more are under construction, according to AP's Matthew Brown. "Combined they will produce an estimated 17,900 megawatts of electricity, sufficient to power up to 15.6 million homes--roughly the number of homes in California and Arizona," writes Brown. "They also will generate about 125 million tons of greenhouse gases annually."

To be sure, until recently Federal regulators expected about 150 new coal plants to be built by now. So, 16 is a much smaller number, but still quite big enough to keep coal in its position as the largest U.S. generator of electricity and by far its single most important source of carbon emissions.

The continued construction of traditional coal plants represents an "acknowledgment that highly touted 'clean coal' technology is still a long ways from becoming a reality," as Brown sees it--and it's hard to argue. About $35 billion is being spent on the old-time coal plants, about ten times what the Obama Administration's stimulus bill earmarks for development of clean-coal plants that can capture and store carbon.

Brown also sees an implicit confidence on the part of the utility industry that carbon emissions will not be penalized, but if that's the industry's attitude, it may turn out to be mistaken, despite this year's demise of the administration's proposed cap-and-trade legislation. The Environmental Protection Agency still has the authority to regulate carbon directly as a pollutant, and though that's sure to be challenged in Federal courts, the Supreme Court would have to reverse a rather recent ruling for EPA to be blocked.

Meanwhile there are other ideas on the table. Media magnate Ted Turner, oilman T. Boone Pickens, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Kirsch, Grist blogger Ted Nace, and--last and indeed least--yours truly have all proposed that we simply pay owners of dirty coal plants to shut them down, on the model of the cash for clunkers program. Paying rather than penalizing could defuse a divisive issue and give the economy an added boost, the same way bribing people to buy new cars did.

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