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Pace of coal-power boom slackens

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"This is a big deal," says David Hawkins, climate director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We can be sure that most if not all proposed plants will face intense opposition from community and national groups and increased scrutiny by regulators and investors."

Overall, coal-fired power plants in the construction pipeline fell to 121 from 151 in May, according to a new report by the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), a division of the DOE. Eight were removed from the NETL list because they were canceled, nine because they were put on hold, and three for unspecified reasons. Another 10 power plants were removed from the in-the-pipeline list because they were completed.

Not listed at all were eight power plants planned for Texas but canceled in February.

To many in the industry, the drop in numbers is not a big a surprise.

"Any time you see a big new push for construction, you have a lot of plants that just don't make it through to completion," says Ed Legg, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), a trade group that represents investor-owned utilities. "It could be carbon awareness, you're certainly seeing that. But it's not really the main thing. Any time factors like cost change as much as they have, that can put the brakes on."

Construction abroad – notably in China and India, which are building power plants and factories at a fast clip – has led to a shortage of steel, concrete, and engineering expertise. That drives up costs, changing the construction calculus. Costs for the average new US coal-fired plant have risen by about 40 percent since 2000, according to a new EEI study.

The setbacks for coal plants worry some experts. "These plants are clearly not coming in as quickly as announced," says Ken Kern, director of the office of systems, analyses, and planning at NETL. "The question we have now is: Are these coal plants going to arrive in time to meet the nation's growth in power demand?"

Forty-five new coal plants are currently listed by NETL as "progressing," meaning they are under construction or near construction, or have received some permits. Projects in late stages of development are more likely than not to be completed.

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