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Coal's Future Fading To Black

Oct 10, 2007 - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services - Tampa Tribune

Florida, a state that has fought hard to preserve the ban on oil production off its shores, has effectively closed the door on another traditional source of energy.

Coal, the black rock used to generate half of the nation's electricity, is getting the heave-ho in Florida for its hefty output of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that scientists have linked to global warming.

This year, five planned power plants have been scrapped in the wake of Gov. Charlie Crist's crusade against coal. Two coal plants were rejected by state regulators while three other coal projects were dropped as Crist's opposition to coal resonated across the state.

Altogether, the five plants would have generated 4,642 megawatts of electricity, enough power for nearly 3 million homes in Florida.

The need for that power has not disappeared, and if coal is no longer an option, electric utilities will be forced to turn to more expensive, less reliable and riskier forms of energy.

But without coal, keeping the lights on in Florida will be almost impossible.

Demand for electricity in Florida is expected to rise 76 percent by 2030, almost twice as fast as U.S. demand, according to the Department of Energy.

"It's difficult to imagine a scenario in which Florida's electricity demands can be met entirely without any new coal-based generation," said Jim Owen, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group for the nation's electric utilities.

Utilities have other options to meet demand, and though those options are cleaner, they do have disadvantages:

--Natural gas is significantly more expensive than coal.

--Wind and solar can't be counted on as a steady source of electricity because the wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine.

--Nuclear power plants are risky and require long lead times to build.

Bad For Business

Without new coal-fired generation, electricity in Florida will be less reliable and more expensive, and that's bad for Florida's businesses, said Barney Bishop, president and chief executive of Associated Industries of Florida.

"There's no way to deliver power at the levels Floridians need without fossil fuel," Bishop said.

Despite claims from environmental groups, Florida's soaring demand for electricity can't be met through conservation, Bishop added.

"That's a nice platitude, but there's no proof to show that," he said.

Last week, Tampa Electric Co. scuttled plans to build what the industry refers to as a "clean-coal" plant amid state concerns about the plant's carbon dioxide emissions. It would have been located about 40 miles southeast of Tampa in Polk County.

The plant would have used a highly regarded clean-coal technology known as coal gasification, which has significantly less emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, the primary causes of smog and acid rain. But the 630-megawatt plant still would have emitted about 4.1 million tons a year of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas suspected of causing climate change.

Tampa Electric feared it was going to be required by the state to capture and store the carbon before the rules for limiting carbon emissions are finalized. Capturing carbon and storing it underground is expensive, and no one knows for sure whether it can be done safely in Florida.

Until the rules are finalized and certain obstacles are overcome, Tampa Electric wasn't willing to make such a risky investment.

The utility must still find a way to generate an extra 150 megawatts a year over the next 10 years to meet growing demand. Tampa Electric President Chuck Black said the utility may turn to natural gas, which is significantly more expensive than coal.

Already, natural gas is used to produce 37 percent of the state's electricity, while 24 percent is derived from coal. Utility executives and state officials have repeatedly said the state is too dependent on natural gas and should diversify its fuel mix.

"We believe coal is important, not only for the state but for the country, from a fuel diversity perspective," Black said.

In June, members of the Public Service Commission, including two recently appointed by Crist, rejected Florida Power & Light Co.'s proposal to build a coal plant near the Florida Everglades. Later that month, another company suspended plans to build a coal plant near Tallahassee because of "growing concerns" about greenhouse gas emissions. Under pressure to change, Lakeland Electric also dropped its plan to build a coal-fired power plant.

In August, Florida's Department of Environmental Protection denied a clean-coal power plant proposed by Seminole Electric Cooperative of Tampa, citing the plants' potential effect on air and water quality. The project was denied even though there were no "disputed issues of fact or law."

Seminole has appealed the decision in Putnam County, where the plant was proposed.

Don't Overlook Coal, Director Urges

Seminole said it's a mistake to exclude coal from the state's plan to meet rising demand for electricity.

"It's a domestic fuel, it's plentiful and it's low-priced compared to natural gas," said Jim Frauen, director of projects for Seminole Electric.

Coal has been used to generate electricity in the United States since the late 1800s. Its political appeal is obvious: The United States has 250 billion tons of recoverable coal, a 240-year supply based on current consumption. Those coal reserves have as much energy content as about 800 billion barrels of oil.

"There is more BTU value in the coal we have in the United States than in all of the oil in the Middle East," Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said about British Thermal Units, a measure of energy.

In July, Crist signed executive orders requiring utilities to lower their emissions, including carbon dioxide, to 1990 levels by 2025. The governor's order also calls for utilities to produce 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources of energy, although no deadline has been set for that mandate.

"The governor has been pretty clear on his commitment to addressing these issues in our state," said Erin Isaac, spokeswoman for Crist.

Limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants means nuclear power will play a greater role in meeting demand in Florida and elsewhere, Black said.

But it takes years to build a nuclear plant. Coal would thus be essential in meeting demand until nuclear capacity is built, Black said.

"In a world where you're moving toward nuclear, coal has to be part of that transition," he said.

Reporter Russell Ray can be reached at (813) 259-7870 or


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Copyright (c) 2007, Tampa Tribune, Fla.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


Updated: 2016/06/30

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