Coal power reevaluated

By Kaley Fowler

With environmental awareness becoming more widespread, demands for cleaner power are gaining momentum as lawmakers, scientists and activists push to alter Illinois’ coal power facilities.

In recent years, the growing focus on better air quality has prompted several Chicago environmental groups to demand that the city shut down its coal power facilities, chiefly the Fisk Generating Station, 1111 W. Cermak Road, and the Crawford Station, 3501 S. Pulaski Road. Their demands were met Feb. 29 when Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced in a written statement that the two Midwest-Generation owned plants are slated to close by 2012 and 2014, respectively.

“Throughout Chicago we’re all breathing the coal from these two plants,” said Dorian Breuer, spokesman for the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, a major player in the effort to close the plants. “Every aspect of coal pollutes the environment and hurts the people it touches.”

The two Chicago plants contribute to 720 asthma attacks, 66 heart attacks and 42 premature deaths annually, according to Brian Urbaszewski, director of Environmental Health Policy for the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, a research organization focused on respiratory issues such as asthma, lung cancer and air quality.

Breuer added that coal pollution throughout the region contributes to approximately 900 deaths yearly, which is why there has been a push to close the plants for more than 10 years. While the closings offer hope for many, some coal proponents believe the current technology can be further developed and transformed into an environmentally safe power source. The FutureGen Project, a plan for creating a near-zero emissions coal-fueled power plant in Meredosia, Ill., demonstrates this belief.

“[This] is an important technology for us to explore and build in order to continue to use our vast coal resources to generate electricity,” said Lawrence Pacheco, spokesman for FutureGen Alliance.

Pacheco explained that the alternative uses newly-developed oxy-combustion technology to capture carbon dioxide pollutants in an underground chamber, preventing 90 percent of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere.

“The project is a good opportunity for the state of Illinois to advance some of the ‘clean’ coal policy goals that are on the books and do so cost effectively,” said Ken Humphreys, CEO of FutureGen, during a March 6 presentation before the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.

Humphreys said the project, which is under review by the ICC, would cost an estimated $1.3 billion. While the Chamber must decide whether to implement the plan, Humphreys said he hopes the project will be under construction by 2014.

Although Breuer agrees that exploring new technologies is at the forefront of creating a cleaner atmosphere, he does not believe clean coal power is the right solution.

“We’re very concerned about purifying carbon and then trying to store it somewhere,” he said. “What hasn’t been addressed is what happens if there is a leak. Pure carbon dioxide is absolutely a deadly gas.”

Breuer said he believes that embracing other power alternatives like wind or geothermal methods would be a better way to allocate the funding that would otherwise go toward implementing FutureGen and similar coal power technologies.

“Coal as a technology is a very old [process] that shouldn’t be around as a means of generating electricity,” Breuer said. “We think it’s just a terrible waste of money. It would be much more efficient use of taxpayers’ dollars to just invest straight in the clean alternatives.”