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Published: Tuesday, 10/14/2008

ON THIN ICE

Midwest has lots at stake in 'clean coal'

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Ohio gets about 80 percent of its electricity from plants that burn coal from mines like this one near Salineville, Ohio, but carbon dioxide from coal burning is the major greenhouse gas. Ohio gets about 80 percent of its electricity from plants that burn coal from mines like this one near Salineville, Ohio, but carbon dioxide from coal burning is the major greenhouse gas.
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Coal is king when it comes to generating electricity in the United States, producing nearly half of the nation's power.

Industry-heavy Ohio gets about 80 percent of its electricity from coal-fired power plants. Michigan consumes slightly less energy than Ohio but is still among the nation's leaders for industry and is also heavily reliant on coal.

Because it is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, coal's future has become one of the world's largest policy issues.

Can it be pulverized and burned in the traditional way without releasing so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? Is it worth the cost of replacing old coal-fired power plants with newer ones?

And will the most idealistic scenario, the "clean coal" technology in which carbon is captured and forever sequestered underground, ever be viable?

READ MORE: On Thin Ice -- How global warming is changing our world

To date, it hasn't been, in part because carbon dioxide is a light gas that wants to rise, making it hard to keep trapped. Plus, there are questions about the necessary geology.

There's a lot at stake, especially for the Great Lakes region. And big money is being spent to find answers.

Earlier this year, the Midwest Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership - a group that includes scientists from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York - got another $61.1 million for carbon research being run out of Columbus by Battelle Memorial Institute.

It was the latest major grant issued by the U.S. Department of Energy to the group, one of seven doing similar research across the country.

Containing carbon emissions was to be the backbone of the much-ballyhooed FutureGen project, which was a $1 billion bonanza and a cornerstone of President Bush's energy policy when it was announced in 2003. The winner was to become the nation's center for clean-coal research as host of the first such plant deploying that technology.

Mr. Bush pulled the plug on it earlier this year, though, citing costs rising to $1.8 billion. Opponents claimed the decision was largely because Mr. Bush's home state, Texas, was beaten out by Illinois as the host state.

Ohio had been making a push for it, too.

In England, BP is leading a $25 million carbon sequestration research project involving eight countries. Results could conceivably help ensure the viability of BP's oil refineries, including one in eastern Lucas County.

Only three industrial-scale projects on carbon-capture and sequestration are under way worldwide. One is off the Norway shoreline, another in a western Canada oil field, and another in an Algerian gas field. Each handles a million tons of carbon dioxide.

An abundant resource

Coal is the only fossil fuel that America has in abundance. The United States has more than any other nation except Russia, enough to generate electricity for hundreds of years, according to U.S. government estimates.

It is abundant in southern Ohio, although much of it has sulfur too high for it to be burned unless better pollution controls are developed.

This part of the country is the nation's biggest coal consumer.

After Texas, the next four states for coal consumption are Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A year ago, Ohio was second only to Texas, according to the Energy Information Administration, an agency within the Energy Department.

Energy diversification

Ohio is one of 24 states, plus the District of Columbia, that have passed laws requiring utilities doing business with them to come up with a more diversified energy mix. Ohio has called for 20 percent of a utility's energy to come from wind, solar, and other forms of renewable energy by 2020.

The de-emphasis on coal has opened new doors for renewable energy producers, which collectively produced less than 1 percent of the nation's share of energy.

Wind, though, is now the nation's fastest-growing form of energy. Its advocates believe that wind can command 6 percent of the market share within two decades.

Governors in several manufacturing states, including Ohio, are eyeing the job-growth potential that program carries.

Several Midwestern states are eyeing the potential of wind-generated electricity to help reduce their dependence on coal. These wind turbines are in Bowling Green. Several Midwestern states are eyeing the potential of wind-generated electricity to help reduce their dependence on coal. These wind turbines are in Bowling Green.
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"Energy can be a catalyst for new jobs, bringing forth a new day, a new economy, a new Ohio," Gov. Ted Strickland said when announcing his Energy, Jobs, and Progress plan last year.

He cited a report that said "an expanded use of renewable energy would provide Ohio more than 20,000 new manufacturing jobs building the products necessary to harvest the energy of the wind, sun, water and other renewable resources."

Coal is expected to remain a staple of America's energy portfolio for decades, because - like nuclear, hydro, and natural gas plants - it provides what's known as "baseload" energy. That's electricity that can be relied upon 24 hours a day.

That dilemma has been played out in Bowling Green, a city that has touted itself as Ohio's leader for renewable energy. In addition to having the state's first four industrial-scale wind turbines at the Wood County landfill, six miles west of the city, Bowling Green State University has one of the few hockey arenas with ice made partially from the sun. The arena's roof is covered by solar panels.

Clinging to coal

As much as Bowling Green has embraced clean, renewable energy, it can't wean itself off coal.

A year ago, when the Bowling Green City Council wanted to lock the city into a long-term contract for electricity, it joined nearly 75 other Ohio cities and villages in financing the construction of the state's first new coal-fired power plant in years.

The AMP-Ohio project is in southeast Ohio, along the Ohio River in Meigs County's Letart Township. The target date for completion is 2013.

The United States had long been the world's biggest consumer of coal, but has been surpassed by China.

China is building coal-fired power plants so quickly in its quest to become modernized that key officials, such as U.S. Sen. George Voinovich (R., Ohio), have expressed misgivings about imposing climate regulations on the United States that aren't matched by it.

Some officials in developing countries, though, feel it's disingenuous of the United States to become a superpower with the help of coal and now try to discourage other countries from using it. U.S. officials, though, would like to see developing countries embrace technological advances that didn't exist years ago.

For Ohio and Michigan, there will be changes. But given their manufacturing legacy, the energy needs of those two states can't be denied.

"We are blessed to be among the nation's leading manufacturing states and to be home to one of America's largest concentrations of Fortune 500 companies," Mr. Strickland said when announcing his energy plan last year.

"But the consequence of all that is done here and all that is made here is the vast quantity of energy that is consumed here."

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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