Abstract Modeling NO x emissions from coal fired utility boiler is critical to develop a predictive emissions monitoring system (PEMS) and to implement combustion optimization software package for low NO x combustion. This paper presents an efficient NO x emissions model based on support vector regression (SVR), and compares its performance with traditional modeling techniques, i.e., back propagation (BPNN) and generalized regression (GRNN) neural networks. A large number of NO x emissions data from an actual power plant, was employed to train and validate the SVR model as well as two neural networks models. Moreover, an ant colony optimization (ACO) based technique was proposed to select the generalization parameter C and Gaussian kernel parameter γ. The focus is on the predictive accuracy and time response characteristics of the SVR model. Results show that ACO optimization algorithm can automatically obtain the optimal parameters, C and γ, of the SVR model with very high predictive accuracy. The predicted NO x emissions from the SVR model, by comparing with the BPNN model, were in good agreement with those measured, and were comparable to those estimated from the GRNN model. Time response of establishing the optimum SVR model was in scale of minutes, which is suitable for on-line and real-time modeling NO x emissions from coal-fired utility boilers.