Xcel's move away from coal: One step ahead of the feds?

comanche plant.jpg
Xcel's coal-fired Comanche plant.
Xcel's evolving proposal to retire several aged coal-fired power plants to comply with a tough new Colorado law has been hailed as bold and innovative. But similar plans may soon be cropping up around the country as utilities face a new round of federal antipollution laws aimed at coal-belching plants.

Acording to this report in the Christian Science Monitor, a new analysis of the power industry by Wall Street's Credit Suisse indicates that the tougher rules and other factors could close one in five American coal plants.

The EPA's plan to cut down on mercury and other toxic emissions is a driving force behind the expected change, which will involve shutting down plants or converting them to natural gas. But so is the changing economy, which has made coal (and associated emission control costs) less attractive compared to gas. Ironically, King Coal's cheapness was one reason for a rush to launch more coal plants in recent years, including one in Lamar that has drawn protests, lawsuits and air quality violations, as detailed in my September feature "Black Out."

Although details are still being hammered out between the company and the Public Utilities Commission, Xcel's move to convert its most antiquated coal-burners couldn't come at a better time. "If the EPA rules were not bad enough for coal generators, we think a large chunk of the US coal fleet is vulnerable to closure simply due to crummy economics," the Credit Suisse analysts report.

In addition, the new EPA measures are only a first step, not an endgame, in the increasing efforts to regulate carbon emissions. The real battle will be waged next year, after the dust settles from this election, when a new Congress will doubtless revisit the economic and environmental quandaries involved in trying to provide cheap, reliable power and clean air at the same time.

More from our News archive: "Xcel clean energy plan: Poll shows wide support for dumping coal plants."

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