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Eliminating coal from the electricity equation …

February 28th, 2008 · 7 Comments

This diary will be a relative short and sweet one.

For once, no links.

Apologies, no photographs.

Just a very simply outline of how the United States could, without Heruclean efforts, eliminate coal-fired electricity from the electrical system by 2030.

And, do so while improving the economy.

Very simply, 50% of US electricity comes from coal at this time.  This is a serious portion of the overall US carbon load. It is also a major source of mercury and other pollutants worsening our lives. Now, the United States is referred to as the “Saudi Arabia of Coal”.  

So, how can we eliminate the US dependency on coal-fired electricity while improving the economy and not increasing dependency on foreign energy sources?

Here is a

Energy Efficiency

The United States’ greatest reserve of energy potential is not our coal, but our wasteful energy use patterns. Inadequate building standards (inadequate insulation, leakage, windows), inefficient appliances/electronics burning up vampire power, McSUVs and McMansions, etc …

The United States can achieve, without any leaps in technology required, a 20+% reduction in current electricity use via energy efficiency even accounting for projected economic growth over this time period.  (If the United States becomes quite serious, with a “culture of conservation” joining aggressive efficiency, this is likly a serious understatement of what could be achievable.)

A shift in transport

A large-scale penetration of Plug-in-Electric Vehicles (PHEVs), Electric Vehicles (EVs), and electrification of rail helping to “end our oil addiction”.  This would increase electricity use, perhaps in the range of 5%.  

A where are we moment.  This 5% increase would mean a net 15% reduction from today’s electricity or 30% reduction in coal-fired electricity.

Combined-Heat-Power (CHP)

One of the interesting challenges before us/US are all of the regulatory and such barriers that need to be changed so that “making the right choice is the easy and preferred choice” when it comes to energy issues.  One of those obstacles are the obstacles that ‘small’/’medium’ producers can face in selling to the grid. Many industries require significant amounts of heat. The energy burned for heat could be making electricity as well as that heat.  But, other than it ‘not being how business has always been done’, selling excess electricity (and moving it around) isn’t necessarily easy.  If we could change this non-technological barrier, these “heat” requirements could be combined with electricity generation (not just in industry, but in many large institutions related to, for example, their hot water heating).

With sensible regulatory change, CHP could provide 5% of today’s electricity (low-end of potential). That 5% puts US to a 40% reduction of today’s coal power.

Renewable Power

Okay, it is time to take renewable power seriously. Very seriously.  Wind Power is growing at 25+% per year.  Solar is 40% and, from the contracts going out, actually looks to be accelerating.  Ocean systems are emerging. And, there are some bright prospects for Geothermal.

Wind power penetration: 15+% penetration, now at a minimum of 70% elimination of today’s coal-fired electricity

Biomass/waste electricity: 10+% of today’s electricity, now at 90% elimination of coal.

Solar (PV, CSP, hot water (displacing electric water heaters)); Ocean (tidal, current, wave power); Geothermal; other …: 10+% of today’s electrical demand, now at 110% of today’s coal-fired electricity.

Nuclear Power:  In the range of 50% increase, over 20 years, of today’s nuclear power generation. This would equate to 10% of today’s electricity.

30% to spare

Total this out and it provides roughly 130% of today’s coal-fired electricity.

Do I want to argue over any specific one of these numbers?  No. In fact, every one of these is rather conservative in the face of advocates of any particular technology or approach to our challenges.

The real point:  If we choose to take the challenge seriously…  If we recognize that there is not a Silver Bullet solution…  If we seriously pursue a portfolio management approach, with deployment of existing capacities and development of new ones across the portfolios… If … We have the capacity to remove coal from the US (and Global) energy equation and to make a quite serious dent in US and Global Green House Gas (GHG) emissions.

This requires being serious about energy efficiency as a society (serious, perhaps not maniacal), renewable energy options, and reasonable in terms of potential nuclear power expansion.

And the economy?

How can we do this and not destroy the economy, some might ask.

First, we must begin to calculate “cost” and “benefit” as not somehow limited to those who sign the pieces of paper, but the full implications for society. Thus, mercury emissions from coal-fired electricity are “external” costs to electricity prices but are real in terms of health impacts and real in terms of warnings to pregnant women to avoid eating tuna.

Second, we must recognize that “cost” is “cost to own” rather than “cost to buy”.  A compact fluorescent (CFL) bulb might cost more than an incandescent bulb to buy, but the electricity savings pay that difference back in months — and continue to pay back. Same is true for better built homes, cars, appliances, etc …

Third, we need to recognize system-of-system impacts.  Building wind turbines, domestically, will require more upfront money than to build a coal-fired plant but wind costs less than coal once the system is built and the construction, operation, and maintenance of the wind turbines creates far more jobs than the coal-fired plant’s life-cycle does.  Renewables and energy efficiency will shift some energy costs into creating economic activity, into jobs in communities, that will strengthen the societal fabric and improve the national, regional, and local economies as well.

Have the cake and eat it too …

Truly, we can eliminate coal and its pollution from the equation.  It is a choice before US.  There are many spending tens of millions of dollars to distort this, to try to argue that dealing with global warming will hurt the economy. $10s of millions to argue for Less Dirty Coal (falsely called “Clean Coal”).  $10s of millions to argue that we don’t have real options.  

We can strengthen the economy while fighting Global Warming.  

We don’t need less-deadly coal since we don’t require the coal.  

We do have options.

We just have to find the will to make the choice to pursue them.

YOU can help
make America
Energy Smart.

Ask yourself:  

Are you doing
your part to


NOTES:  This diary results from yet another occasion responding to someone arguing that coal use is inevitable, that we don’t have meaningful options for eliminating it.  I can provide links (after links) for every assertion and every option presented in this diary.  Now is not the time … it is time for a simple conversation.

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Tags: coal · electricity · Energy · environmental · Global Warming

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Hot Water Heaters // Feb 28, 2008 at 11:22 am

    Solar water heater would be a good idea to save cost and energy rather than depending on coal

  • 2 Dominion CEO Disconnected from Reality « Energy Smart // Apr 9, 2008 at 9:33 pm

    […] conservation/efficiency. Pursuing these paths, “aggressive and smarter” pursuit, would enable retiring coal from the US electricity grid in a few decades rather than fostering introduction of new coal […]

  • 3 Coal Industry “Principles”? « Energy Smart // Apr 22, 2008 at 3:55 am

    […] in “1″ worked well enough so that the entire question of CO2 capture became irrelevant. What if renewable energy and energy efficiency made coal-fired electricity obsolete? Would that be an acceptable outcome for ACCCE?  For some reason, that seems doubtful.  Perhaps […]

  • 4 Cumberland Sibyl // Apr 26, 2008 at 7:24 am

    Thanks for this. you’re so right.

  • 5 Henry Switzer // May 22, 2008 at 10:10 pm

    Hi, I would like to say that I have been successfully heating my home now for over 5 years with wood. It truly is an awesome way to save money on heating costs. I would advise anyone considering a wood furnace or some type of wood heating device to have a good free source of your own wood though, preferably your own wood lot.

  • 6 How America Can Break Its Coal Addiction (Or: no, coal isn’t necessary) // Oct 22, 2008 at 8:44 pm

    […] This is a slightly updated version of something written awhile ago responding to someone arguing that coal use is inevitable, that we don’t have meaningful […]

  • 7 America Can Break Its Coal Addiction! (Or: no, coal isn’t necessary) // Aug 1, 2010 at 5:32 am

    […] This is a slightly updated version of something written awhile ago responding to someone arguing that coal use is inevitable, that we don’t have meaningful […]