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New Lansing power plant follows national trend toward natural gas

A coal-fired power plant
Holland BPW
James De Young coal plant near Lake Macatawa in Holland.

Michigan has a new commercial scale power plant; the first new power plant in Michigan in 25 years.

Coal is still the dominant fuel source in the state, but this plant's existence means there will be a little less coal being imported into Michigan.

At the ceremony today celebrating its opening, the Lansing Board of Water & Light sang the new "REO Town" plant's praises:

This state-of-the-art cogeneration plant scores a major victory for the environment in mid-Michigan. It is a cleaner, greener and energy-efficient facility, allowing the BWL to: Slash greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent compared to the coal-fired steam and electric units that the new plant will replace. Eliminate the need to burn 351,000 tons of coal compared to the steam and electric units that the new plant will replace. Lower mercury and SO2 (sulfur dioxide) emissions by over 99 percent, and NOx (oxides of nitrogen) by over 85 percent compared to the coal-fired boilers that are now retired.

For electric power generation across the country, coal-fired power plants still rule the day. But natural gas-fired power plants are making significant inroads.

Here's a graph from the U.S. Energy Information Administration showing the trend:

The blue bars represent electricity production by coal - the yellow by natural gas.
Credit EIA
The blue bars represent electricity production by coal - the yellow by natural gas.

So why the trend?

For starters, new gas-fired power plant aren't subject to as much political opposition as coal-fired plants, so their path from planning to operation is much smoother.

In 2007, there were 151 new coal-fired power plants on the drawing board. Most of those were never built.

Environmental groups claim victory for stopping them, but forecasters reading tea leaves saw more regulation coming as well.

The EPA is required by law to issue standards for carbon dioxide pollution. The agency's commitment to following through on CO2 power plant regulations has been questioned. But in his recently announced climate plan, President Obama said he will push the EPA to finish CO2 regulations for new and existing power plants.

Part of the trend is also economic (natural gas prices have been coming down as more reserves are found).

But coal is not going away in the U.S. anytime soon. Most of our electricity in Michigan is still generated by coal, but that changes slightly with Lansing's new power plant. The city of Holland is next.

For those producing coal in the U.S., the trend is forcing them to look overseas.

For more on how your power is generated, check out this interactive graphic put together by NPR. And if anyone knows of a good resource for discovering where your electricity comes from, I'd love to see it below. I searched around for such a tool, but they either didn't work, or weren't specific enough.

Mark Brush was Michigan Radio’s Digital Media Director. He succumbed to a year-long battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in March 2018. He was 49 years old.
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