A coal plant proposal for Humboldt County included in the U.S. Department of Energy's database may be little more than a phantom and its developer, Fernald Power Corp., unknown to state officials. Yet energy analysts concur that even the idea of such a plant in California illustrates the growing interest among power generators in using coal to meet the increasing need for electricity and as a hedge against high natural gas prices. "California does rely on coal," said Scott Klara, technology manager for the Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory, which put together the database. While many of the proposals DOE includes?such as the one in California?may be nothing more than a passing fancy, Klara said that coal will be a "significant contributor" to the growing demand for electricity. "What's really driving it is the rise in gas prices and increasingly the volatility of gas," said John Nielsen, energy project director for Western Resource Advocates in Boulder, Colorado. He and industry analysts predict that power produced by a number of coal plants now in the permitting stage in the Intermountain West ultimately will be sold to California and the Pacific Northwest. "Liquefied natural gas seems to be kind of a knight in shining armor to some folks," said Janet Gellici, executive director of the American Coal Council. However, she said, it comes from politically unstable nations and is expensive compared to coal, which is abundant in the United Sates with a projected 250-year supply. "If you're looking longer term, you have to factor in coal," she added. "With the price of natural gas beginning to stabilize at a higher level, coal is beginning to be seen as a viable economic competitor," said Robert Beck, executive director of the National Coal Council. Beck, whose council plays a key advisory role to the DOE, is hoping to give coal a boost through efforts to streamline the permit process for coal-fired power plants. The council is planning to issue its recommendations in May. Overall, DOE has cataloged proposals to construct 94 coal-fired power plants in the U.S. at an estimated cost of $72 billion and capable of producing 62 gigawatts of power. Many of the proposed plants are in the West, where coal production has surpassed mining in the East, according to Beck. "A lot of these are speculative possibilities," said Klara. However, he said, the federal Energy Information Administration projects that coal will be used to meet 17 percent of the growth in electricity demand over the next 20 years. Coal plant openings are expected to climb beginning this year and peak in 2007, when some 10,000 MW of new capacity is projected to come on line, and then decline gradually. In addition to projects with estimated on-line dates, an additional 20,000 MW of capacity is being contemplated. Some 12,000 MW of new coal-fired capacity is planned for the Intermountain Western states, with major projects to come on line in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming beginning as early as 2005.