Coal is an abundant domestic source of energy. The U.S. is said to have as much coal as Saudi Arabia has oil. Coal is relatively inexpensive, in large part because the U.S. has so much of it. And, because it is a domestic fuel, we don’t worry about supply interruptions caused by political events.
About 65% of Nebraska’s electricity was produced from coal in 2010. Coal-fired power plants are built to run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Typically, coal-fired power plants are very large facilities because valuable economies of scale can be captured from larger plants.
To those who build and operate them, coal-fired power plants are marvels of modern engineering, chemistry and logistics. Stacks extend hundreds of feet into the air. The plant’s “footprint” covers hundreds of acres. The largest pieces of equipment weigh hundreds of tons. The amount of coal burned is measured in hundreds of tons per hour. Often, small lakes are created to hold water used to cool the equipment.
Most Nebraska coal-fired power plants use coal from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming. Trains transport the coal to generators across the state. Powder River Basin coal costs less than coal from other parts of the U.S. It also burns cleaner than other coals, creating less pollution and residue.
Nebraska’s coal-fired power plants are very efficient. They also comply with all applicable local, state, and federal environmental laws. Meeting these requirements is expensive: emissions control equipment accounts for about 25% of the cost of building a new coal-fired power plant.
Coal-fired power plants are an important source of jobs for thousands of Nebraskans. Those facilities also provide local governments with an important source of tax and fee revenue, helping pay for parks, schools, and municipal services.
Nebraska’s newest coal-fired power plant is Unit 2 of the Whelan Energy Center (WEC) located about two miles east of Hastings, Nebraska. Unit 2, which cost $620 million to build, began generating electricity in May 2011.
Environmental equipment accounts for about $120 million of the cost of WEC Unit 2. The environmental equipment installed at WEC Unit 2 includes a flue gas desulfurization (FGD) unit, or scrubber, a baghouse, and an electrostatic precipitator. This equipment will capture nearly all of the sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx) mercury, and particulate emissions from WEC Unit 2.
Some of Nebraska’s largest coal-fired power plants, and their generating capacity in megawatts (MW), are:
- Gerald Gentleman Station (1,365 MW)
- Nebraska City Station Unit 2 (1,330 MW)
- North Omaha Station (646 MW)
- Whelan Energy Center (297 MW)
- Sheldon Station (225 MW)
- Lon D. Wright Power Plant (130 MW)
- Platte Generating Station (100 MW)
NPA members also own portions of out-of-state coal-fired power plants, including:
- Walter Scott, Jr. Energy Center Unit 4 (Council Bluffs, Iowa)
- Laramie River Station (Wheatland, Wyoming)