With opposition mounting against a utility company's $10 billion proposal to build new coal-fired power plants across Texas, a report released this week questions the need for the heavily polluting facilities in the first place.

Titled "Power to Save: An Alternative Path to Meet Electric Needs in Texas," the study concludes that the state could meet its growing energy needs at a lower cost -- and with much less pollution -- with new efficiency incentives and by requiring utilities to invest in energy savings. Researchers with the Optimal Energy consulting firm prepared the report for the Natural Resources Defense Council and Ceres, a Boston-based coalition promoting environmentally sustainable investment.

The recommended strategies would yield nearly $50 billion in savings and other economic benefits to Texas over the next 15 years with an investment of $11 billion, the report concludes. In all, the efficiency programs could reduce peak energy demand in Texas by more than 18,500 megawatts, which is equivalent to the output of 20 large power plants. The researchers based their findings in part on energy efficiency initiatives already in place in Austin and elsewhere across the country.

TXU Corp. has proposed building 19 new power plants -- including 11 old-fashioned coal-burning facilities -- across the state. The plan has sparked widespread opposition, and not only from the usual environmentalist suspects. Dallas Mayor Laura Miller and Houston Mayor Bill White helped build a coalition of 35 local governments and other groups that are fighting TXU's proposal. As Bloomberg news reported earlier this month:

"TXU is purposely misleading the public in order to build old-technology coal plants the cheapest way possible to get the biggest return on their money," Miller said.

Ceres and the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network have been working to persuade banks and other investors not to finance TXU's proposal over concerns that the facilities would significantly increase greenhouse gas pollution that leads to global warming, the Star-Telegram reports.

The growing opposition to TXU's plans comes as the new Congress is taking steps to cut power plant emissions. This week Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) unveiled legislation that would dramatically reduce power plants' carbon emissions by 2015. The legislation has been endorsed by six major utility companies, including Florida Power & Light and Entergy, which operates plants in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

Last week, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) filed a measure that would slash carbon emissions from power plants and other industries by 2050. Co-sponsors include Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

Texas is not the only state where there's been strong public opposition to utilities' plans for new coal-burning power plants. This week the North Carolina Utilities Commission is holding a public hearing on Duke Energy's intentions to build two coal-fired generators at its Rutherford County facility in the western part of the state. Duke says the facilities will cost more than $3 billion -- 50 percent more than originally estimated.

More than 30 environmental organizations, civic groups and churches have come out against Duke's proposal. At a press briefing held yesterday outside the commission hearing, residents from eastern North Carolina who are still suffering from the aftermath of 1999's devastating Hurricane Floyd urged the commission to reject Duke's plan, drawing a link between coal-burning plants, climate change and increasingly severe storms.

The North Carolina coal-plant opponents also have a report in hand challenging Duke's claims that the new generators are necessary. Commissioned by the N.C. General Assembly and financed by the Utilities Commission, a study conducted by the La Capra Associates consulting firm of Boston found that renewable energy sources could cover 10 percent of the state's electricity needs in the next decade, while efficiency gains could reduce electricity needs by another 14 percent over the same period.

Discussing those findings in an op-ed in today's Raleigh News & Observer, Duke University Economics Professor Emeritus John Blackburn observes:

North Carolina is standing at a clear fork in the road. One path, preferred by most of the public, involves developing our renewable electricity sources and using all of our electricity much more efficiently. This choice also avoids adding still more greenhouse gases, as we see ever more clearly the risks posed by global warming.

The other path, unaccountably favored by the large utilities, leads to huge and risky investments in coal and nuclear power plants. The utilities' shareholders and ratepayers, along with taxpayers, would bear the risks of huge investments in those obsolete and archaic behemoths, while the rest of the nation moves belatedly into a new energy era.