Considering coal

With the energy bill temporarily stalled, there is time to consider the implications of what is being proposed. Since the fossil fuel industry will be a big winner of taxpayers’ money, it is appropriate to start with them.

In a recent press release, Randy Broiles, global planning manager for Exxon Mobil, declared that by 2020 energy demand will rise by 40 percent, CO2 emissions by 50 percent, and most of the world’s energy will come from fossil fuels.

The energy bill is set to make those predictions come true by granting at least four times as much of our money to fossil fuels and nuclear power as to efficiency and renewables.

Since coal is a big winner in the energy bill, it deserves closer consideration. Roughly 90 percent of coal is used to generate electricity. It produces half of our nation’s electricity and most of the releases of CO2, mercury, nitrous oxides and sulfur dioxide.

According to UtiliPoint statistics, more than 80 coal plants with a total capacity of 40 gigawatts are now under construction. With 200 years of reserves and coal prices about one third that of natural gas, it will continue to be an important source of energy.

Part of the cost advantage of coal comes from its advocates’ undermining efforts to force them to internalize the costs of coal production now borne by taxpayers, the environment and future generations.

The most prominent costs avoided include the agreement to not cap CO2 emissions, withdrawal from the Kyoto treaty, funding a long term study of global warming, undoing pollution reduction targets through the “Clear Skies Initiative,” and the potential $2 billion, 10 year research fund for clean coal technologies.

Eventually CO2 emissions will be regulated. A study by Innovest Strategic Value Investors indicates that utilities would be more profitable using more efficient coal generators now and combining them with renewable energy and energy efficiency programs to reduce CO2 emissions.

The key question is how to get utilities to invest in existing technologies to clean up coal. Current coal plants which are about 34 percent efficient should be replaced with newer designs which achieve efficiencies of 55 percent.

The Zero Emission Coal Alliance has designed a coal power plant that extracts hydrogen from coal and water and uses the hydrogen to power a fuel cell. They report an efficiency of 70 percent. If carbon is sequestered, efficiency drops.

In Wisconsin, two new conventionally designed plants are approved for construction. A third cleaner burning plant was rejected on the grounds that the technologies are costly and unproven. If cleaner coal technologies are more costly, government funds could be used to offset the cost disadvantage to get cleaner coal today.

While coal resources are plentiful, increasing amounts of energy are used to bring it to market. In 1954 each unit of energy used to mine coal yielded 177 units of energy. By 1977 the yield dropped to 98 units.

If all the energy used in producing electricity from coal is included, only 20 units are available. According to Richard Heimberg, if the sharp rate of decline in useable energy from coal continues, by 2040 two units of energy will be used for every unit of useable energy produced. Under such conditions, why consider coal as the energy source of the future?

Since energy will be required for the transition to an economic system based on renewable energy and efficiency, we need to use what is left of our energy resources now to accelerate the transition, not expand our commitment to a fossil fuel.

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