BOWLING GREEN - Even with Al Gore sharing this year's Nobel Peace Prize with the world's most prestigious group of climate scientists, Americans may have a hard time weaning themselves off coal-fired power plants that spew carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas.
To understand why, look no farther than this Wood County city of 30,000 people.
Bowling Green is more than just another Midwestern college town. Hardly any discussion about Ohio's energy outlook occurs without it receiving kudos.
Bowling Green's former utilities director, Daryl Stockberger, has been lauded by numerous groups and public officials for getting Ohio's first four commercial-sized wind turbines built just west of the city.
The city became so enamored with those turbines that one speaker at a 2004 event suggested it be renamed "Blowing Green."
Bowling Green State University has solar panels generating electricity on the roof of its hockey rink. One of BGSU's philosophy professors, Don Scherer - the president of Green Energy Ohio who also has a residential-scale wind turbine at his home - has quipped about how that arena is one of the few places where ice is made from the sun.
So what happened Oct. 1 when push came to shove - when Bowling Green City Council felt the city needed to lock itself into a long-term contract for its largest source of power - rather than wait until Dec. 31, 2008, when a 20-year agreement Bowling Green and 13 other communities have with FirstEnergy Corp is set to expire?
It aligned itself with coal.
Bowling Green is one of 75 Ohio cities and villages considering major investments in a coal-fired power plant that has been proposed in southeast Ohio, along the Ohio River in Meigs County's Letart Township. The plant would be finished in 2013 if the project stays on schedule.
All have been asked to show their support by signing purchase agreements by Nov. 1 with American Municipal Power-Ohio, a nonprofit wholesale power supplier founded in 1971 to negotiate electric rates for its member communities. It has about 120 of them, including 81 in Ohio, 27 in Pennsylvania, 7 in Michigan, 4 in Virginia, and 2 in West Virginia.
AMP-Ohio has become more than a bulk-rate negotiator. It owns the Richard H. Gorsuch coal-fired power plant in Marietta, Ohio. That provides power to 48 of its member communities. It also owns the Belleville hydroelectric plant along the Ohio River, which provides power to 42 cities and towns.
Its proposal is to build a $2.5 billion coal-fired power plant along the West Virginia border. Doing so would require AMP-Ohio to sell $2.9 billion in bonds.
With a capacity of 1,000 megawatts, that plant could produce more electricity than FirstEnergy's Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Ottawa County and nearly five times the power of the Marietta station.
But it could end up releasing tons of carbon dioxide annually, even with modern pollution controls installed. Coal-fired power plants are the No. 1 emitters of that gas. Ohio ranks near the top in those releases.
One of the nation's largest environmental groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council, was rankled by Bowling Green council's Oct. 1 decision and wants it to reconsider. The city has until March 1 to do so.
Based in New York, the Natural Resources Defense Council specializes in environmental litigation. Its lawyers have won several important lawsuits that have compelled the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others to do a better job of enforcing their own laws.
"Bowling Green has a history of doing a lot of green projects. This is a very important opportunity for Bowling Green to continue to show its leadership," said Shannon Fisk, an attorney for the environmental group.
Bowling Green is not alone.
Of the 81 member communities that AMP-Ohio has in the Buckeye State, 75 have proceeded this far. Six declined to participate.
About 25 are in northwest Ohio. They include Napoleon, Bryan, Clyde, Deshler, Edgerton, Elmore, Genoa, Montpelier, Oak Harbor, Haskins, Holiday City, Pemberville, Pioneer, Sycamore, and Woodville.
All are in various stages of consideration.
Kent Carson, AMP-Ohio spokesman, said his corporation knows the value of renewable energy. In addition to three hydroelectric projects under development, it worked with Green Mountain Energy to install the Bowling Green wind turbines.
"We also know we can't do it on renewables alone," he said.
AMP-Ohio is pursuing a new coal-fired power plant because it is legally obligated to provide a reliable stream of what's known as "baseload" electricity, Mr. Carson said.
That's power that can be pulled off the grid 24 hours a day. Wind and solar power are supplemental sources because their production is limited to weather conditions, seasonal fluctuations, and available light.
"The tough part we've struggled with here in Bowling Green is, how do we find noncoal sources?" Kevin Maynard, who succeeded Mr. Stockberger as Bowling Green's utilities director, said. "We have 24-hour-a-day needs. If there were other options available, we'd be glad to consider those as well."
Coal is plentiful. The United States has enough of it for hundreds of years - more than any nation except Russia, according to U.S. government estimates.
Mr. Carson said AMP-Ohio's plant would have the latest in pollution technology.
AMP-Ohio has become affiliated with the multistate Midwest Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership, in which the Battelle Memorial Institute of Columbus is leading $18.1 million of studies into ways that carbon emissions might be captured and sequestered underground.
One such project in the early stages of research is at FirstEnergy's Berger plant in eastern Ohio. It deploys a type of pollution-control technology known as Powerspan, developed by a New Hampshire company to control sulfur dioxide. Some believe it has additional potential as a carbon-capture device.
AMP-Ohio announced in June it will use Powerspan at its proposed Meigs County plant.
One of the waste by-products of Powerspan is ammonia sulfate, which can be crystallized into a fertilizer. AMP-Ohio also announced in June it has a memorandum of understanding with The Andersons of Maumee to crystallize, package, and sell the material.
"That will save what we have to landfill by 50 percent," Mr. Carson said.
But the Natural Resources Defense Council views AMP-Ohio's project as a step backward, the continuation along a path that has resulted in numerous environmental problems.
The environmental group opened its Great Lakes office in Chicago on Jan. 16 with plans to keep a close eye on Ohio's energy scene. The region means a lot to it: Besides its headquarters in New York, the group's only other offices are in Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Beijing.
Henry Henderson, Chicago's former environmental commissioner and the attorney in charge of the environmental group's Great Lakes office, said Ohio is an important battlefront because of the state's reliance on coal and its massive energy consumption. Ohio is one of the nation's biggest energy consumers because of its population and manufacturing.
Mr. Henderson said the AMP-Ohio project may sound good but is part of an industry that has a legacy of pollution and has resisted calls to modernize.
The most recent example was an Oct. 9 announcement by the U.S. EPA that American Electric Power had negotiated an historic $4.6 billion settlement.
The utility agreed to cut 813,000 tons of air pollutants from 16 power plants spread across Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia, plus pay a $15 million fine. Eight states and 13 citizen groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, collaborated with the government in that litigation.
"We think it is unwise to invest in this old technology," Mr. Henderson said, referring to plants that combust pulverized coal. "It is essentially an intensely risky offer they are making under the guise of affordability."
He and Mr. Fisk said they believe AMP-Ohio is low-balling its member communities by failing to account for a possible carbon tax and other pollution controls that Congress is expected to mandate as the debate about climate change intensifies.
That, according to Mr. Fisk, leaves communities that invest in AMP-Ohio's project liable for major costs that will be incurred over the life of the plant, which is expected to be about 50 years.
Plans for at least 17 other coal-fired power plants have been scrapped in the past year because of uncertainty over such economic and environmental issues, Mr. Fisk said.
The two defense council attorneys said communities should get more aggressive about conservation and with developing more renewable power.
"The simple fact is AMP-Ohio is offering the most expensive option," Mr. Fisk said. "I would ask communities like Bowling Green why they are [willing to send] money to a plant far away instead of investing locally in more alternative energy?"
Mr. Carson acknowledged that participating communities will be responsible for future upgrades and other additional costs. But he said AMP-Ohio has done an accurate job of projecting forseeable costs.
He said AMP-Ohio's proposal for Meigs County "can't be compared to existing power plants."
"It will be one of the cleanest facilities of its kind in the country," Mr. Carson said.
Member communities have until March 1 to decide if they want to buy into the project or revise their level of commitment. AMP-Ohio is trying to get commitments by Nov. 1, though, so that it can demonstrate enough interest exists when it puts out requests for proposals from would-be contractors in the coming months, Mr. Carson said.
The Ohio EPA has scheduled a public hearing for Thursday in Meigs County.
Mr. Maynard said Bowling Green is largely motivated by the uncertainty of energy costs on the open market once its 20-year agreement with FirstEnergy expires. "If we don't participate, what are our options?" he asked.
"A big part of the decision-making process here is [that coal is] the primary generating source that AMP-Ohio has," Mr. Maynard said. "We'll have to live or die by this in many ways."
Mr. Maynard said the city saw the AMP-Ohio project as a reliable way of ensuring baseload power and that it remains committed to supplementing that with renewables.
He considers the AMP-Ohio project to be more eco-friendly than buying power on the open market because that could come from out-of-compliance, polluting facilities.
Bob McOmber, a Bowling Green councilman who chairs the city's public utilities committee, said the vote went through the council with no discussion. There was extensive discussion at the committee level, though. It recommended approval, as did the city administration.
"I think we all feel a little vulnerable to the vagaries of the market," said Mr. McOmber, a retired lawyer who now teaches legal studies at BGSU. "It is difficult to just rule out coal as a source because it is readily available."
As much as Mr. Scherer wants the public to embrace renewable energy, even he acknowledges communities will have a hard time weaning themselves off coal because of the need for reliable, baseload power.
"We feel that we're assuring lower prices. It's a new plant, so they will meet higher standards," he said.
Mr. Scherer agreed with the Natural Resources Defense Council that conserving energy and developing renewables are "the two very best things we can do."
But, he added: "At this time together, they are not totally going to answer the financial questions of [suppliers] like AMP-Ohio.
"Until you find renewable fuels you can use to make baseload [electricity], an energy-consumptive society like ours is going to have to do the best it can," Mr. Scherer said.
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