From his rolling green soybean fields above a slow river in eastern Iowa, Don Shatzer looks out over the farm where he was raised, across land he and his neighbors have farmed all their lives. Below him are the garden beds where his wife Linda grows organic vegetables to safeguard the family's health, and the farm pond and beach he built for the grandkids. A few miles to the west lies the city of Waterloo, with a population of about 66,000. The sky is clear and the southwest wind sweet on a humid summer day.
Shatzer's land is some of the most fertile in North America, part of the fecund breadbasket on which a continent relies. And if New Jersey's LS Power wins the fight it has started, a 750-megawatt pulverized-coal electrical generation plant will sit right next door by 2011.
The Shatzers, along with a dedicated coalition of local citizens, have gathered 3,000 signatures on petitions against the proposed plant. They have lawn signs, car decals, a growing library of informational handouts for public meetings, and even a blog. The couple's whole lives are invested in this land. They say they have not yet begun to fight.
And they aren't alone. Across the nation, 153 new coal plants are currently proposed, enough to power some 93 million homes. Of those 153 proposals, only 24 have expressed an intent to use gasification technology, which offers a way to handle the large amounts of carbon dioxide produced by coal combustion. A recent report from the National Energy Technology Laboratory anticipates the construction of up to 309 new 500 MW coal plants in the U.S. by 2030. If NETL's projections are correct, U.S. coal-generation capacity will more than triple by 2010, with corresponding air pollution and greenhouse-gas increases.
Speculation not need is driving the construction of these plants. It is companies like LS Power and Peabody coal not utilities who are doing the construction. Both public and private utilities have to pay at least some attention to the wishes of their customers. Companies like Peabody and LS Power do not and can concentrate on profits.
Some of the 153 proposed coal plants will add capacity for existing public utilities. Others, like those by developers LS Power and Peabody, are speculative "merchant" coal plants, which ultimately intend to sell the power -- or even the plant itself -- to the highest bidder. Local need for power is not part of the calculations behind these merchant plants. The concept isn't new, but the voracious expansion plans are.
Economic projections indicate that demand for electricity will continue to rise, so developers are gambling that the need for power and the low price of western coal will make them very rich. Merchant-coal developers are also finding ways to minimize the risks posed by possible carbon regulation on the horizon. A recent Business Week analysis approvingly cites Peabody's plan to sell ownership stakes in its new plants to municipal utilities and electric cooperatives, along with 30-year Peabody coal-supply contracts. If and when federal carbon regulation pushes up the cost of coal-fired generation, a smart developer like Peabody will have insulated itself from that expense. The utilities and cooperatives will pay ever-higher prices to generate electricity, passing those costs on to the consumer -- but Peabody's profits will never falter.