Why are we making coal the answer?

A well-written and thought provoking article, “Dirty Coal, Clean Future“, was recently published in the Atlantic.  The author of the article, James Fallows, concludes that the massive use of coal to generate electricity worldwide is inevitable, and the U.S. should work with China to refine the technologies to make coal cleaner to use.

The rationale for using coal to generate electricity is simple and straight-forward: coal is already the dominant fuel source for generating electricity, there are vast deposits of coal scattered around the world, coal is easy to extract (notwithstanding the continuing deaths from coal mine explosions and cave ins), it is easy to transport, there are large numbers of coal-fired generating plants in place and new ones can be readily added, and coal burns easily - but inefficiently. 

It’s important to understand that the extraction, transporting and use of coal employs large numbers of people and produces huge amounts of money for the companies involved in the process, which garners a lot of political support for coal.  This is a crucial fact, because it provides unwavering support for coal, and opposition to clean energy, by the government at all levels.

But it should be noted and emphasized that when the term “clean” is used to describe coal, it is a relative term.  Coal is the filthiest fossil fuel – by far.

When coal is burned, it releases a witches’ brew of smoke, soot particles, carbon dioxide, the toxic heavy metals mercury and lead, corrosive oxides of nitrogen and sulphur plus other nasty pollutants.  Wouldn’t it make sense to use as little of it as we possibly could? 

Clean coal, or, I think more appropriately, cleaner coal is a process of trying to capture, pressurize into a liquid form and bury underground as much of that nasty stuff as possible before it gets into the atmosphere, where it sickens and/or kills tens of thousands of people each year and helps broil the planet.

You aren’t likely to find many people opposed to the idea of cleaner coal.

The problem is cleaner coal is great in theory, terrible in reality:

  • When coal is burned, the carbon in coal combines with oxygen in the air.  Because of this combination, approximately 2.5 pounds of carbon dioxide is produced for every pound of coal that is burned.
  • Coal is the largest source of greenhouse gases in the U.S.
  • The process to capture and sequester the carbon dioxide from coal-fired plants requires the plant to burn about 25% more coal.  That means 25% more coal must be mined, transported and burned – with no additional electrical output, which means much higher electricity prices.
  • America’s coal-fired plants collectively generate 1,500,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year.  Capturing that much carbon dioxide would mean filling the equivalent of 30 million barrels of liquid carbon dioxide per day.   That is about 1.5 times greater than the amount of oil consumed per day in the U.S.  How to engineer and finance the construction of the system of pumps, pipelines and wells to handle that volume of liquid waste has not even been seriously considered.  (If America reduced electricity demand by even 20%, which is a readily achievable target, carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired plants could be reduced by 300,000,000 tons per year).
  • We really don’t even know if the carbon dioxide will stay buried under ground.
  • A new Duke University study concluded that liquid carbon dioxide would have such a negative affect on any groundwater or aquifers it came in contact with, that the water would be rendered un-drinkable.  The taxpayers and/or the users of the electricity would get to foot the bill for the resulting massive clean-up.

Since the use of coal, even cleaner coal, is so unquestionably bad, who could possibly be in favor of its continued use?  Who could possibly be opposed to the proven electricity generation by wind and solar?  The depressing answer is most of us.  It’s everyone who uses electricity from a non-renewable source; who makes the decision every time they flip on a light, turn on a washer or dryer, charge a cell phone or use electricity in any other way.

How? As James Fallows accurately pointed out in his article in the Atlantic, coal-burning power plants currently provide 46% of the electricity consumed in the U.S. (the rest: natural gas – 23%, nuclear – 20%, hydroelectric – 7%, wind/solar/biomass – 4 to 5%).

Since coal-burning power plants provide almost half the electricity consumed in the U.S., chances are that at least part of the electricity you use comes from coal – unless all your electricity comes from a renewable source.  The more electricity you use, the more you’re supporting coal.

But since wind and solar collectively provide around 4% of the electrical generation, they would have to increase by a factor of about 10 to displace coal.  (The government talks about doubling the amount of electricity generated from wind and solar by a specific date, as if that is a big accomplishment.  But you could double the output from those sources, and double it again, and double it again – and you still wouldn’t displace coal).

Which gets us back to point of the article by Mr. Fallows.  Cleaner coal is a awful mess, but it’s better than using coal normally.  It’s simply the lesser of two monstrous evils.

As Mr. Fallows demoralizingly pointed out in his article: between 1995 and 2008, the amount of electricity generated by from solar in the U.S. went up by two-thirds and electricity generated from wind increased more than 15 times.  But over that same period, the increase in electricity generated from coal was about 5.8 times as great as the increase from wind and 823 times as great as the increase from solar.

In other words, we are going hard in the wrong direction.

We are passively and indifferently headed toward a catastrophe.  Coal is only the answer if we let it be the answer. We can either sit idly by and watch it happen, or we can resolve to take action and do whatever we can to avoid it. 

The choice is still ours, but probably not for very much longer.

About the Author

Mark H. Witte is a strong proponent for energy efficiency and renewable energy, and believes individuals should have more control over how the energy for their homes is produced.