U.S. coal power plants scuttled, Sierra Club cheers

LOS ANGELES Fri May 1, 2009 6:26pm EDT

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Cancellation of a coal-fired power plant in Michigan announced on Friday brings to 97 the number of plants scuttled since 2001, said the Sierra Club, an environmental group that opposes coal plants because they are major emitters of gasses blamed for global warming.

Plans remain active for only 59 of the 220 coal coal-fired plants planned and in various stages of permitting since 2001, said Bruce Nilles, head of the Sierra Club's campaign to eliminate coal-fired power plants in the United States.

In 2008, 24 coal projects were canceled, according to Sierra Club's count. This year, nine plants have been dropped.

The rest are "on ice" and will likely never be built, Nilles said.

The Sierra Club wants existing coal-fired power plants to be replaced by cleaner power, but the U.S. Department of Energy's statistical arm expects coal to provide the largest share U.S. electric generation for years.

Coal is expected to fuel 47 percent of generation in 2030, down just 2 percentage points from 49 percent in 2007, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) said in its 2009 Annual Energy Outlook. Overall, electricity from coal-fired plants in 2030 would be 19 percent higher than in 2007.

New coal-fired capacity will be limited by concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and the potential for mandated limits, but EIA noted that existing plants will keep operating.

Other factors besides environmental worries are working against coal plants: higher construction costs and lower prices for natural gas, a cleaner alternative for generation.

The recession also has hurt prospects for a number of abandoned coal projects, including the Michigan plant scuttled on Friday by LS Power.

Renewable power will not keep pace with growing demand, even if energy efficiency programs succeed, said Jim Owen, spokesman for Edison Electric Institute, an industry lobby.

He noted that the nine plants that have been scuttled in 2009 would have generated about 6,650 megawatts of power -- enough to serve almost 5 million homes.

Owen said the power industry hopes to advance so-called clean coal technologies that include capturing CO2 emissions for underground storage.

"We must deal with higher demand for power and carbon constraints," he said.

Owen said the recession has cut into electricity demand, but he expects that within a few years, power demand will match annual U.S. GDP growth of 2 percent to 3 percent.

Nilles of the Sierra Club said coal power opponents "have a long way to go. We can declare victory when we've ended coal's contribution to global warming."

Coal-fired power plants are the biggest single contributor of CO2 emissions in the United States, making up more than 30 percent of all such emissions. All forms of power plants contribute 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse emissions.

CO2 is by far the leading contributor to global greenhouse gases which cause global warming.

Despite its success in fighting coal plants, the Sierra Club noted that a number of public-power agencies - rural electric cooperatives and municipalities - "continue to push forward with new coal plants despite the increasing financial risk."

Nilles scored the election of Barack Obama as a major victory for his cause, as reflected in changes at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Nilles hailed this week's withdrawal of a permit for the 1,500-megawatt Desert Rock plant in New Mexico and the pronouncement two weeks ago that CO2 endangers public health and welfare as evidence of a new EPA.

"The EPA has been moving very fast which is in sharp contrast to eight years when the EPA was very much on the sidelines," said Nilles.

(Additional reporting by Scott DiSavino and Eileen O'Grady)

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