Power Plays

This story is a sidebar to this week's feature, "Bring It On"

Aside from nuclear, plenty of other technologies promise low-cost, pollution-free electricity. But can they deliver?

Wind power in Texas is cheap, abundant enough to power most of the United States, and already under development: A company called Galveston Offshore Wind plans to build the nation's first coastal wind derricks near the island by 2012.

"We can take advantage of the enormous renewable resources that we have in Texas," said Texas Public Citizen director Tom "Smitty" Smith. "We are the Saudi Arabia of renewables."

But don't expect alternative energy to fund any River Oaks palaces anytime soon. Nature lovers worry coastal windmills will Cuisinart migratory birds. And wind is fickle; it gusts as easily as it dies. Few people believe other renewables such as solar, tidal or geothermal power are now sufficiently low-cost or available to fill the gaps. In short, the hype surrounding alternative energy in Texas is still mostly hot air.

Even Smith is hedging his bets. He also supports clean, high-tech, new "internal gasified coal combustion" plants that convert coal into a synthetic gas and in the process extract the harmful carbon dioxide. Many environmentalists see these plants as the great green hope for the future.

Yet clean coal plants are impractical for the same reason Smith opposed nuclear a generation ago: They're three times more expensive than their dirty coal cousins. For now, a small gasified coal plant in Tampa, Florida, is the only one in America. The nation's largest coal-burning utility, American Electric Power, is building two more by 2013 in a move that other utilities view as a test case for the technology. "Don't be deceived by it," says Dale Heydlauff, AEP Vice President of New Generation. "The first few plants will cost a premium." But he adds, "Over time, they will be cost-competitive with any other coal-fired generation."

The larger problem with clean coal is what to do with all of the extracted carbon dioxide. The plant in Florida simply spews it into the air. Squirreling it away from the atmosphere isn't impossible; BP plans to inject carbon dioxide captured from a natural gas plant in Scotland into an oil well under the North Sea in order to squeeze out the well's last drops of crude. BP's C02 Program Manager, Houston-based Charles Christopher, sees great potential in pumping C02 into some of the 1.5 million mostly spent oil wells in Texas. "The industry is confident they know how to do this," he says. But he can't guarantee the C02 won't escape, rendering the whole operation useless to the climate and possibly asphyxiating people. "If C02 leaked out under Houston," Christopher proffers, "somebody would care."

Smith believes the kinks in carbon sequestration will resolve themselves within a decade. Industry insiders aren't so sure. Questioned at an energy conference last month in Houston, none would hazard a guess on a timeline. Even coal boosters such as Heydlauff of AEP think "a lot of science needs to be done" before carbon storage will become an option.

For the moment, nuclear is looking good.

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