26 Dec 2010

‘The only real salvation must involve coal’ – James Fallows. Oh really?

Written by Jim Pierobon


If anything, the “Dirty Coal, Clean Future” piece in the December issue of The Atlantic by James Fallows is a must read because it does one of the better jobs of illuminating the daunting challenges the world faces trying to curb harmful carbon emissions. And one of those is the presumption that coal has to be a centerpiece of any fix.

Image courtesy of The Atlantic

While that may be true, it gives lip service to the upside of making it profitable to generate a lot of cleaner energy at a quickening pace. And that means communicating the benefits along with the costs of energy efficiency and shifting the energy appetites of industrialized economies off of fossil fuels. The private sector is the engine that will have to lead economies out their addiction to fossil fuels. Enable companies to make a profit and watch clean energy overtake dirty energy a lot faster than many analysts think.

The reality check:

  • As the top emitters, China and the U.S. must work out their differences and lead the way.
  • There probably is no fixed threshold for ‘irreversible’ climate change.
  • “Emotionally, we would all like to think that wind, solar, and conservation will solve the problem for us,” says Duke Energy’s Chief Technology Officer . “Nothing will change, our comfort and convenience will be the same, and we can avoid that nasty coal. Unfortunately, the math doesn’t work that way.”
  • As [U.S. Energy Secretary] Steven Chu has said, we have to face the nightmare of coal for a while.”

Coal will be with us because:

  • It is abundant: any projected “peak coal” stage would come many decades after the world reaches “peak oil.”
  • Of where it’s located: the top four coal-reserve countries are the United States, Russia, China, and India, which together have about 40 percent of the world’s population and more than 60 percent of its coal.
  • Its direct costs are in most circumstances far lower than those of the alternatives—that’s why so much is used. (Prices vary widely from place to place and company to company, but one utility executive said that the lowest-price coal plant might generate electricity for 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, while the same amount of power from a new wind farm in the same area might cost 20 cents.)
  • Its indirect costs, in miner deaths, environmental destruction, and carbon burden on the atmosphere are unregulated and “externalized.”
  • Power companies that answer to shareholders or ratepayers have a hard time justifying a more expensive choice. “Coal is so cheap because its dirtiness still doesn’t count against it,” an air-pollution expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council told The Wall Street Journal 10 years ago.
  • In the absence of U.S. emission caps and / or international agreements to reduce emissions, the dirtiness of coal still doesn’t count.
  • Changing a power infrastructure—like building a new transportation system or extending cable or fiber-optic connections through an entire country—is the very opposite of a “virtual” process, and takes many years to complete.
  • Of this constraint: after a century in which medical diagnosis and treatment, computer and communications systems, aerospace and nanotech industries, and nearly every other form of technology have routinely achieved the magical, energy production is essentially what it was in the time of James Watt. With the main exception of nuclear-power plants and the hoped-for future exception of practical nuclear-fusion systems, we mostly create electricity by burning something that was once underground—coal, oil, natural gas

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