One might think a technology promising greener electric generation would please most environmentalists.

Duke Energy Corp.’s 630-megawatt coal-gasification plant, scheduled to go online in Edwardsport in 2012, is expected to emit less sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates than the smaller, 1940s-era plant it replaces-while generating 10 times as much electricity.

However, more than a dozen Indiana and national advocacy groups are decrying the $2.3 billion plant being footed mostly by ratepayers, claiming it will raise emissions of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide more than 700 percent. They’re even more dubious of plans to pump the carbon for untold millions of dollars into underground formations-a process known as carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS.

And that’s not even counting their angst reflected in filings with the state utility commission over an additional $365 million Duke said it will need on just the generating plant itself.

They’ve even compared it-in a figurative groin kick to Duke-to Marble Hill, the $7.1 billion nuclear plant Duke’s Indiana predecessor, Public Service of Indiana, abandoned in 1984 near Washington after cost overruns.

“Approving the new cost estimates for the Edwardsport project and not at least putting the project on hold until carbon capture and sequestration is proven, is equal to the approval of the failed Marble Hill plant,” Grant S. Smith, executive director of Citizens Action Coalition, warned the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission in July. CAC embraces renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, and greater electric efficiency efforts.

But not so fast, say other environmental groups who’ve been largely out-shouted in the debate over gasification.

“I think it’s irresponsible, frankly, to oppose the Duke plant,” said John Thompson, director of the Coal Transition Project of the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based not-for-profit focusing on reducing pollution from coal plants. It seeks an 80-percent cut in U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide by 2050.

Thompson walks in step with other environmental advocates urging more deployment of wind power and other renewable power technologies.

“It doesn’t mean we don’t do wind, but it doesn’t mean we don’t hold programs on coal hostage until we proceed with wind,” Thompson said. In the short term, wind power cannot be rolled out fast enough to displace large quantities of coal-generated electricity, he added. Even if Indiana’s electric output of about 95 percent of megawatt hours generated by coal could be slashed to 70 percent, courtesy of renewable power, “that 70 percent is still going to kill us,” Thompson said.

While alternative power is being developed, something must be done to alleviate carbon dioxide emissions, he said. Otherwise, “everything the environmental and conservationist movement has tried to achieve in the last 200 years in this country is threatened to be wiped out by global warming,” Thompson said. “Everything that’s been done since John Muir and John James Audubon is out the window.”

Simply put, “there’s no rapid transition [from coal] in the next 10 to 20 years,” said John Goss, executive director of the Indi- ana Wildlife Federation, a 1,600-member group with 54 local conservation clubs in the state.

His group, like Citizens Action Coalition and others, is also concerned about rising costs for coal gasification and sequestration. But Goss said he still believes gasification, with carbon capture and storage, is the “quantum leap” needed.

“I believe it will be extremely difficult for Indiana to ever build a conventional coal plant again,” he said.

Thompson said carbon dioxide emissions worldwide are on the scale of “gigatons” and “sequestration is one of the only technologies out there right now that can be deployed in that kind of scale.”

Old, new technology

Gasification is relatively old technology used in various industrial processes such as in making fertilizer, while CCS is still evolving.

In a conventional power plant, coal is burned to produce heat that powers steam turbines that turn electric generators. The considerable pollutants from coal are cleaned up in the back end of the process, before heading out smokestacks. Duke, for example, just spent more than $1 billion on scrubbers to remove sulfur.

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