Good and bad news on coal.

Two pieces of news about coal came out today.

First, the good news: A judge has ruled that Texas Governor Rick Perry overstepped his authority when attempting to fast-track the review of a string of new coal power plants TXU is hoping to build.

The office of administrative hearings had been scheduled to make its recommendation on about a half-dozen plants in April, but that schedule might be scrapped.

The ruling “allows Texas to take a deep breath and consider the impacts of these plants,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith of the watchdog group Public Citizen. “It allows us to fully examine the evidence and get experts in, really analyzing impacts on the health.”

TXU Corp., which has proposed building or expanding 11 coal-fired power plants, said it was disappointed with the ruling.

“Every day a solution is delayed leaves older, less efficient power plants online, affecting prices and clean air, and bringing us one day closer to widespread, rolling blackouts,” said Kim Morgan, a spokeswoman for TXU Corp.

Now, it’s likely true that these new coal plants would be cleaner than existing plants, but that’s only because so many of these old plants were grandfathered in–sheltered from having to comply with environmental/health laws that were passed after they were built. TXU is hoping to get in under the wire before another set of new laws are on the books, regulating CO2 and other greenhouse gases. So, call it a short-term negative for a potential long-term gain if these new plants don’t come on line.

And now, the (unsurprising) bad news: An article in the New York Times discusses the debate about “clean coal” technologies. There’s uncertainty about what strategy will work best–gasification or using pulverized coal–or even if the technologies will work at all. Because of the uncertainty, power companies are hoping to build about 150 coal plants in the coming years without the technology to “capture” pollutants, and then retrofit them later.

Environmentalists are worried, but they put their faith in a technology that gasifies the coal before burning. Such plants are designed, they say, to be more adaptable to separating the carbon and storing it underground.

Most utility officials counter that the gasification approach is more expensive and less reliable, but they say there is no need to worry because their tried-and-true method, known as pulverized coal, can also be equipped later with hardware to capture the global warming gas.

But now, influential technical experts are casting doubts on both approaches.

“The phrases ‘capture ready’ and ‘capture capable’ are somewhat controversial,” said Revis James, the director of the energy technology assessment center at the Electric Power Research Institute. “It’s not like you just leave a footprint for some new equipment.”

TXU’s proposed plants in Texas are intended to use pulverized coal, with no current means for employing gasification. It’s clear that they–and other power producers–are scrambling to build as many coal plants as they can before new regulations are passed.

Coal is the cheapest source of energy to produce (it helps that the coal industry is so heavily subsidized), but also the most environmentally damaging:

One 500 megawatt coal plant emits greenhouse gases equivalent to about 600,000 cars. Coal accounts for 83% of carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation. And that’s just the beginning… In a year, a typical coal plant puts out as much CO2 as cutting down 161 million trees. Burning coal is also the largest source of mercury, nitrogen oxide, mercury, and other pollutants. And that’s not getting into water use, waste and the environmental damage of strip mining.


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