Saturday, December 12, 2009

More on Coal

I've been reading more about coal since my post on pollution and the illusions of clean coal. Because 50% of our electricity is generated by coal, it's simply not going to disappear overnight. But the U.S. government needs to get real, not ten or twenty years from now, but in the coming months.

Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute has a few observations that need to be taken into consideration as the United States and the world plan an energy future:
America's coal resources are indeed vast—none of the studies claims otherwise. However, during the past century, coal reserves (the portion of total coal resources that can be mined profitably with existing technologies) shrank much faster than could be accounted for by the depletion of those resources through mining. That is because geologists are doing a better job now of taking into account "restrictions" that make most coal impractical to mine—factors having to do with location, depth, seam thickness, and coal quality. In recent years, some nations have reduced their booked coal reserves by 90 percent or more on the basis of new, more realistic surveys.


We also know how to store carbon: the petroleum services industry routinely injects CO2 into old oil wells to make it easier to extract the remaining crude. But the quantities of carbon dioxide sequestered this way are trivial when compared with the amounts spewed from coal-burning power plants annually. Gathering and storing two or three billion tons of carbon each year from hundreds of geographically scattered coal power plants will require the construction of an enormous system of pipelines, compressors, and pumps.


According to the most recent estimate (from Harvard University's Belfer Center (5), at least 30 percent of the energy produced by burning coal will be needed to run the system for capturing, compressing, pumping, and burying CO2. Therefore any efficiency benefit from gasifying coal at IGCC power plants would be canceled out.


How high could coal-based electricity prices go? During the period from 2006 to 2008, prices for some grades of US coal doubled. This year the economic crisis has lowered demand for electricity and thus for coal, and so prices have softened. However, recent experience shows that, even in the absence of serious shortages, coal prices are increasingly subject to dramatic swings.

All energy experts, including Heinberg, talk about low hanging fruit as a useful metaphor. Energy that is the cheapest to pick off the tree is the energy that gets used. In the year 2009, the key is not that we have run out of conventional energy but that we are running out of the low hanging inexpensive fruit that we have grown accustomed to picking for over a hundred years. Even without considering global warming or pollution, coal, along with oil, will only get more expensive. Meanwhile, the cost of wind and solar is getting cheaper and the bang per buck is climbing. The sooner we move toward solar and wind, the faster technological advances will be made and the faster we will move to a far more sensible future.

Even more than oil, coal is the critical issue. More than eighty years ago, the industrial world made the transition from the age of coal to the age of oil. There was a reason: oil was cheap, easier to use, easier to transport and had the advantage of polluting less than coal. Look around. We are blundering back into the coal age. A lot of wealthy, well-connected people think that's grand because of the profits they'll make and because they don't have to live near the coal plants.

One of the ironies of windpower and solar power is that anyone can buy a wind turbine (there are models you can mount on a roof) and anyone can buy a solar panel (Lowe's hardware is bringing out a do-it-yourself solar panel kit—okay, you still need to know what you're doing and there may be some paperwork). Why some Republicans, who pride themselves on their self-reliance and individualism, want to support big impersonal power companies is beyond me. I know, I know, we'll still have big power plants for years to come but relying exclusively on big power plants is a paradigm that is becoming less and less tenable. Like millions of Americans, I don't like it when my power goes out because some speculator is playing games with a power company hundreds of miles away. We need a paradigm that's more reliable, redundant and dispersed.

If we are to change, here's a simple fact: we have hundreds of coal powered plants throughout the country. These plants have a lifetime of 20 to 50 years. Taking these facts into mind, every time a coal plant reaches the end of its life cycle, a conventional coal plant should not be built to replace it. For every two coal power plants that go offline, only one at the same rating should be allowed to be replaced and only by a coal gasification plant or similar technology with carbon capture and storage.

During the coming transitional era, a power plant using natural gas should be built whenever it's difficult to get windpower or solar power to replace the second offline coal power plant. But those gas power plants will also need carbon capture and storage. Because the age of electric cars and plug-ins is coming, probably faster than most people realize, we're going to need more power plants. All the new ones that aren't simply replacing old power plants should be based on alternative energy.

Al Gore, who some people love to vilify largely because they don't handle change very well, suggests that it may be time for a carbon tax. I'm all for it. Eleanor Clift in her Newsweek column notes a poll that suggests people favor a carbon tax over cap and trade by a margin of two to one. Why? Remember those speculators I mentioned above? They're pretty much the same Wall Street characters that Clift mentions.

I suspect the smart thing to do, particularly given the current economic climate, is to institute a carbon tax on the low side and slowly work it up over the next ten to twenty years. Everyone building a new power plant is going to see the future cost of carbon and they'll find that economics will favor other power solutions. In the meantime the government is going to have to do a better job of subsidizing wind and solar projects until the technology and infrastructure is up to speed. Sure, that means borrowing but it'll pay for itself just like a smart business investment pays for itself.

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