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America's new coal rush

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"I certainly wasn't aware it was 62 gigawatts. That's an awful lot more coal to burn," says Dan Becker, director of global warming and energy program at the Sierra Club. "I think most Americans would be shocked that utilities are dragging the 19th century into the 21st century."

Illinois leads the nation with 10 proposed coal-fired plants that would create 8 gigawatts of new power capacity, the NETL report says. Yet state officials were surprised to be the national leader. "It's definitely something we're keeping track of, but I personally wasn't aware it was nine or 10 plants," says Rishi Garg, an energy policy adviser to Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn.

From the point of view of energy security, such moves make sense, proponents say. The US is considered the Saudi Arabia of coal. It sits on 250 years' worth of reserves. Coal already generates about half the nation's electricity.

The economics have also swung in the fuel's favor. Low-cost, low-emission, natural-gas turbines sprouted like mushrooms in the '90s and their contribution to the nation's generating capacity reached 19 percent. But in the past four years, the cost of natural gas has roughly tripled: from $2 per 1 million British thermal units of heat generated to over $6 per million BTUs. By contrast, coal costs less than $1 per million BTUs. That has put utilities in the position of paying more for the gas they burn to make power than they can get for the electricity it produces.

But the move back to coal raises environmental concerns. Mr. McIlvaine estimates that if 50 of the 94 planned projects are built, they would add roughly 30 gigawatts or 10 percent of base load generating capacity nationwide. Using industry rules of thumb, he estimates coal consumption would rise about 10 million tons, or 1 percent, from today's 1 billion tons annually. That, in turn, would add 120 million cubic feet of exhaust gases from the stacks every minute of every day for decades to what is currently vented.

The burning of coal already produces more airborne mercury and greenhouse gases than any other single source. Robert Dickinson, an atmospheric scientist and climate modeler at the Georgia Institute of Technology, calculates the new US coal plants would add roughly one-tenth of 1 percent to the world's annual carbon-dioxide emissions.

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