In a recent piece that was picked up in outlets from blogs to the mainstream media, Matthew Brown of the AP reported that in the U.S., there is a major boom in the construction of new coal-fired power plants. According to Brown, 16 large coal-fired power plants have gone online since 2008 and another 16 more are under construction. And in 2009 alone, eight plants generating a total of 3,218 megawatts became operational, the largest in a single year since 1991, according to figures from the National Energy Technology Laboratory (pdf).
While the new wave of plants do have technological advancements to remove most of the nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and other acid-rain pollutants, because of a lack of coordinated federal action to cap or limit greenhouse gas emissions, those new plants do nothing to control carbon emissions. And emit they will, to the tune of roughly 125 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, Brown reports.
But there’s much more going than a sudden boom in coal-fired power plant production. In fact, when one considers the growing and relatively effective anti-coal movement in the U.S., the fractious nature of federalism, and the approaching phase-out of 66 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants, one can easily argue that coal-fired power production is actually on the decline in the U.S.
A race to the bottom? Or a race to the top?
Over the last three or four years, as public awareness in the United States seems to have peaked about the impact coal-fired electricity generation has on the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere--and its effect on the global climate--getting a coal-fired power plant has become increasingly difficult. Environmentalists celebrated impressive and well-publicized victories over coal power plant developers in the 2000s. Between 2001 and late 2009, an upswell in public opposition to new coal-fired power plants led to the cancellation of more than 100 coal-fired power plants.
But because the U.S. is made up of 50 semi-autonomous states with 50 unique political cultures and 50 sets of laws governing power plant licensing and construction, the pattern of opposing and then stopping power plants hasn’t necessarily been the case in all parts of the country. In the AP article, Matthew Brown writes:
“The construction wave stretches from Arizona to Illinois and South Carolina to Washington, and comes despite growing public wariness over the high environmental and social costs of fossil fuels, demonstrated by tragic mine disasters in West Virginia, the Gulf oil spill and wars in the Middle East.”
One only need be a casual observer of American politics to know that the three of the four states Brown mentions in that first sentence are governed by Republican majorities. While in the states that are controlled by Democrats, the pattern is almost always the exact opposite. Continued...