Coal's future so bleak even energy execs starting to admit it

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About 40 percent of the nation's electrical grid depends on coal for fuel. But facing increasing state and federal regulations that are shutting down many coal plants, a battery of pesky scientists moaning about climate change, increasing competition from ever-cheaper natural gas and renewables, and other threats, even power industry power-lunchers aren't as enthralled with coal as they used to be.

The souring romance can be detected in the otherwise staid details of a just-released report, "2012 Strategic Directions in the U.S. Electric Utility Industry," prepared by the consulting firm Black &Veatch, which surveys industry leaders to figure out what's trending in the power biz. Among other tidbits in the results, the percentage of respondents who believe coal will play a significant future role in the energy mix declined from 81 to 60 percent over the last year.

As this analysis over at grist.org suggests, such pessimism on the part of folks who have historically been big hawkers of coal indicates a growing acceptance of greener alternative sources -- as well as a recognition that the days of burning cheap fossil fuels, with no penalty for the ensuing environmental degradation and public health risks, are drawing to a close even if the drop-dead deadline is still decades away.

That recognition, though, is far from universal. A majority of the execs still see coal playing some role -- and in some places, it's downright inescapable. One of the more counterintuitive moves by a utility in recent years was in southeast Colorado, where Lamar Light and Power and the Arkansas River Power Authority decided to convert an "expensive" natural gas plant in Lamar to coal. This bold experiment, the subject of our 2010 cover story "Black Out," has generated more controversy than kilowatts -- and has been plagued with technical difficulties, consumer complaints, political infighting and lawsuits.

Meanwhile, Xcel Energy forges ahead with plans to convert several of its aging coal plants around the state to natural gas.

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