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Can the US really build a power plant a week?

It's a key component of Cheney's energy plan, but experts see it as a monumental task.

Even Dick Cheney, chief architect of the now-evolving US energy policy, concedes his proposal is "ambitious."

Ambitious might be an understatement.

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The vice president's suggestion that America build, on average, "one new [electric power] plant per week, every week, for 20 years running" is expected to encounter so many roadblocks that analysts wonder if the goal can realistically be achieved.

Adding at least 1,300 electric power plants to America's landscape is just one component of a broad national energy policy Mr. Cheney sketched out in a speech Monday - and probably not even the most controversial. His emphasis on energy production over conservation, his allusions to oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, his insistence that fossil fuels are America's energy savior - all are likely to generate more political heat, at least in Washington.

But adding more electricity to the grid, in effect building twice as many power plants in the next 20 years as in the previous 20, is a pillar of the administration's overall energy plan - and one over which it may have the least control. Local opposition to siting power plants is widespread, and the federal government has only limited leverage to force its will in this area.

"Given that we haven't built at that pace since the early 1980s, it's certainly going to be a challenge," says Alan Deamon, an economist at the Energy Information Administration, a government agency.

From 1949 to 1999, the US built enough power stations to add about 11 gigawatts of electricity capacity each year. (That's more than twice the amount of electricity the city of Los Angeles can produce at one time today.) Under Cheney's scenario, about 20 gigawatts' worth of new capacity - or four times what L.A. produces - would be needed every year.

In any rush to build plants, finding places to put them may be the biggest problem.

"Power plants - just like any sort of large industrial facility - face more challenges these days," says Mr. Deamon. "There are fewer and fewer properties to develop, because you're either in somebody's backyard or you're in an environmental preserve."

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Indeed, pushing plans for a new plant through the web of community and environmental constraints can be time-consuming and expensive.

Just licensing a power station takes between one and three years. Add more time to build it. Coal plants take six to 10 years to site and license. And the government hasn't allowed a nuclear plant to be built in 20 years.

Given all this, Amy Jaffe, an energy analyst at the James A. Baker Institute at Rice University in Houston, summarizes the one-plant-per-week plan this way: "That's not possible."

A big obstacle is that the US government has little say over how a certain parcel of land is used. Mostly, states and cities have that job. "The governors have made clear that they're not going to cede authority to the feds," says Ms. Jaffe.

Rather than risk a dust-up with states, the federal government may play power broker between them, encouraging several governors in one region to hammer out deals beneficial to each of them.

What it can do, however, is offer incentives for plant construction. Cheney is mum on specifics, but says Washington will boost tax incentives for new plants.

Power companies are ready for them. The group that stands to gain the most is the natural-gas industry, because 9 in 10 new electricity-generating plants will run on natural gas, experts say. That means massive new drilling in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, in the Rocky Mountains, and elsewhere.

It also means more miles of pipelines to carry natural gas to generating plants - as many as 38,000 more, according to Cheney. A single pipeline that long would stretch around Earth's equator 1-1/2 times.

Meanwhile, coal will continue to be a major source of supply for electricity plants. It currently supplies about 51 percent of electricity-generation needs.

"We're the Saudi Arabia of coal," says Joe Lucas of Americans for Balanced Energy Choices. "We have a 250-year supply." He says the cleanliness of coal has improved 70 percent in the past 30 years.

Critics counter that coal is still a dirty fuel - the cause of acid rain and other environmental and health complaints. Experts expect coal to provide about 6 percent of future electricity-generation needs.

Cheney, too, defended coal, calling it the "most plentiful source of affordable energy in this country." He added: "To try and tell ourselves otherwise is to deny blunt reality."

Mr. Bush's proposed budget calls for an extra $2 billion over 10 years for research into clean-coal technology, while renewable-energy research would lose $277 million.

In the end, critics say, US energy policy must be about more than just boosting America's production capability. "If we just come up with a lot of supply, prices go down" and the incentive to create more fades, says Jaffe. "But if you're conserving and creating new technologies as well, you're getting yourself out of the cycle of boom and bust."

Craig Savoye in St. Louis and staff writer David Francis in Boston contributed to this article.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor