Speaking of Coal Power: Shedding More Heat Than Light

When Charles Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities with, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," he was referring to the French Revolution of the late 18th century. But Dickens’ words apply equally well to the American generation industry of the late 20th century. A decade of overbuilding U.S. gas-fired combined-cycle plants is now giving way to a new generation of advanced coal-fired plants, and not everyone is happy with the transition.

Here’s an example. TXU’s ambitious plan to build a fleet of state-of-the-art pulverized coal-fired plants in west Texas has drawn heavy criticism from several environmental groups bent on sidetracking the projects. Hyperbole is the norm in their screeds against burning coal, but inflammatory remarks about "spewing" this or "belching" that just aren’t helpful. I worry that civil discussions between people with an honest difference of opinions are becoming impossible, especially when the two parties are the scientific/engineering community and our technology-challenged populace.

A Better Solution, Anyone?

The problem is, the naysayers aren’t proposing any viable alternatives to burning coal to satisfy rising U.S. demand other than burning more gas (California’s solution), building more wind farms (useless for baseload supply), or carpeting the Southwest with solar cells. Texas has already supplanted California as the state with the most wind power capacity. Natural gas – fired plants remain vulnerable to unstable prices and supply availability. Texas has many clean, efficient gas-fired facilities that are rarely dispatched in ERCOT because natural gas prices are unpredictable. Fuel diversity is critical — just ask Calpine.

Other than nuclear, coal remains the only practical alternative for fueling the next generation of baseload power plants. TXU says that integrated gasification combined-cycle technology is too immature and unproven to rely on in the near term, and I agree. The company has chosen supercritical technology for the proposed new plants as the next-best thing and has committed to making the plants "carbon capture- and -storage ready." That seems a reasonable approach for a utility that is averse to technology risk and concerned about long-term fuel supplies, system reliability, and affordable electricity.