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For all the talk of electricity produced by windmills and solar arrays, the U.S. Department of Energy has seen the future of electric power generation and it’s coal.

More than half of the U.S.’s electricity comes from coal and, says the DOE, will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. That’s because of two reasons: There’s a lot of it and it’s relatively cheap. Nor is the supply prone to interruption like oil, wind and solar.

Despite the government’s best efforts, coal produces 20 times the electricity of renewable fuels other than hydropower. The power industry is betting that will continue to be the case. According to the Associated Press, since 2008 16 coal-fired plants have been completed and 16 more are under construction.

And if, as DOE predicts, the efficiency of coal-fired plants nearly doubles in the next 10 to 15 years those power sources will be even more attractive. Unhappily, the goal of “clean coal” remains elusive. The ability of the industry to remove pollutants like sulfur, nitrogen and mercury and to capture greenhouse gases still lags behind the nation’s demand for power.

The industry seems to doubt that capability will ever catch up. The Obama administration directed $3.4 billion in stimulus money to spur construction of clean-coal plants yet, as the AP points out, “new investments in traditional coal plants total at least 10 times that amount — more than $35 billion.”

The size of that investment represents another calculation as well as legislation to place serious limits on carbon emissions through extensive regulation or by financial penalties like cap and trade or a carbon tax are doomed to fail.

Barring technological breakthroughs or a thoroughly unexpected willingness of the public to pay greatly higher rates for electricity, the nation has little choice to go on generating power by the most convenient means — coal.

The new generation of coal-fired plants will produce electricity equivalent to that needed to power all the homes in California and Arizona. But it comes at a cost. The AP says those plants opening are the environmental equivalent putting 22 million additional cars on the road.

Scripps Howard News Service, 17 August 2010