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America Can Break Its Coal Addiction! (Or: no, coal isn’t necessary)

August 1st, 2010 · 3 Comments

Too many people think that coal is an inevitable part of our energy future … indefinitely.

This is not just reckless in global warming terms, the statements of inevitability are false — we have a choice and can eliminate coal from our electricity equation if we wish to …

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

And, do so while improving the economy.

Very simply, about 45 percent 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. And, just remember, clean coal is like dry water — it simply doesn’t exist other than in advertising slogans.

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

A short note: this is an outline, some thoughts to consider. Consider an outline, with text, that can be filled in with details, notes, and action items. The general outline is, however, roughly reasonable and actionable. Thus, the question to be answered:

How to ‘eliminate coal’?

Here is a short outline of key elements of a path to eliminate coal from the electrical power equation by 2030 or sooner, and ‘make a profit’ while doing so.

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, inefficient motors, transmission line losses, failure to exploit combined-heat power (CHP) opportunities, 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 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, before the 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).

Where are we? That 5% puts US at a 20% reduction from today’s energy use, 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. Biomass options from burning agricultural (both crop and animal) waste to fuel from garbage. Solar is 50% 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: moving to 15+% of today’s electrical generation capacity. This places US at 35% of today’s electricity production or, where are we, now at a minimum of 70% elimination of today’s coal-fired electricity.

Biomass/waste electricity can easily hit 10+% of today’s electricity and, where are we, now at 90% elimination of coal.

Solar (photovoltaiic (PV), concentrated solar power (CSP), hot water (displacing electric water heaters)); Ocean (tidal, current, wave power); Geothermal; other can easily reach 10+% of today’s electrical demand and, where are we, now this represents 110% of today’s coal-fired electricity.

Nuclear Power: Simply taking John McCain’s 45 new nuclear power plants would represent about a 75 percent increase over today’s nuclear power generation or about 15 percent of today’s electricity generation. Where are we now? At 140% of the required ‘carbon friendly’ energy options to be able to eliminate coal from the electricity equation.

40% to spare

Total this out and it provides roughly 140% of today’s coal-fired electricity.

Do I want to argue over any specific one of these numbers?


In fact, every one of these is rather (even extremely) conservative in the face of knowledgeable advocates of any particular technology or approach to our challenges.

Really look at energy efficiency and that 20 percent figure can double. Nuclear power advocates see the potential (with large plants and micro-nuke plants) for adding 100s of gigawatts of capacity over the coming decades. Wind industry people have laid out paths for nearly 50% of US electricity by 2030. And, well, there have been plenty of solar plans showing how this could dominate US electricity. Oh, yeah, there is geothermal, hydropower, ocean power, biomass, …

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

And the economy?

Some might ask? How can we do this and not destroy the economy?

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 (the US). There are many spending tens, hundreds of millions (even billions) of dollars to distort this, to try to argue that dealing with global warming will hurt the economy. Billions to argue for Less Dirty Coal (falsely called “Clean Coal“). Billions to argue that we don’t have real options, to convince us (the US) to accept as inevitable the unacceptable.

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.

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1. 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 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.

2. There are many plans that have come out in the interim that create the space to eliminate coal from the electricity equation. These include Gore’s concept for 100% clean electricity within a decade and Google’s Energy 2030.

3. Photo courtesy of Brent Danley (coal smokestack)

4.  While imitation is the highest form of flattery, paraphrasing is still a form of plagiarism … no. And, well, paraphrasing while getting some points wrong and not allowing comments correcting those mistaken impressions is highly frustrating.  A real problem, of course, on the web is how material is seized upon and used by others. The movement of ideas is important but there is the value of appropriate credit.

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