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Published: March 2006

Cheap Coal

Smoke Stacks Indiana

The High Cost of Cheap Coal

Coal is plentiful—and polluting. Can an energy-hungry world afford to wait for this fuel to clean up?

By Tim Appenzeller
National Geographic Senior Editor
Photograph by Lester Lefkowitz, Corbis

On a scorching August day in southwestern Indiana, the giant Gibson generating station is running flat out. Its five 180-foot-high boilers are gulping 25 tons of coal each minute, sending thousand-degree steam blasting through turbines that churn out more than 3,000 mega-watts of electric power, 50 percent more than Hoover Dam. The plant's cooling system is struggling to keep up, and in the control room warnings chirp as the exhaust temperature rises.

But there's no backing off on a day like this, with air conditioners humming across the Midwest and electricity demand close to record levels. Gibson, one of the biggest power plants in the country, is a mainstay of the region's electricity supply, pumping enough power into the grid for three million people. Stepping from the sweltering plant into the air-conditioned offices, Angeline Protogere of Cinergy, the Cincinnati-based utility that owns Gibson, says gratefully, "This is why we're making all that power."

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