February 16, 2009

Killing King Coal
In what may be a watershed, the NYT broached the subject of the death of coal. Who ever thought you'd read this kind of thing in a paper of record any time soon:
The coal industry, which powered the industrial revolution and supplied America with much of its electricity for more than 60 years, is in a fight for its survival.

With concerns over climate change intensifying, electricity generation from coal, once reliably cheap, looks increasingly expensive in the face of the all-but-certain prospect of regulations that would impose significant costs on companies that emit large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
The article goes on to describe the obstacles to implementing so-called "clean coal" - like the idea that rock in many parts of the South is too porous for carbon capture and sequestration technology to work: the carbon gas would just leak out. And the likelihood that coal will stay in our energy mix for a long time - mostly because of the 600 legacy coal-fired power plants still running.

But the article misses a couple of important points. A lot of attention is given to the costs for coal power associated with climate change legislation in terms of a market price for carbon as well as the costs to incorporate carbon capture (which will likely run into the billions per coal plant). But that ignores the fact that, even now, when coal plants are proposed that use the best available anti-pollution technologies for mercury, nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide, they turn out to be more expensive (and take longer to build) than cleaner alternatives. Now that the Obama EPA re-writing mercury emissions regulations, the coal industry will have trouble just complying with those. It's easy to see why states are losing interest in coal-fired power plants having nothing to do with carbon capture.

So the only question that matters, it seems to me, is how you get rid of those 600 legacy plants. And the answer is: energy efficiency. The Rocky Mountain Institute recently published a study on what they called the "efficiency gap." They determined that if all 50 states were as energy efficient as the top ten most efficient states then "more than 60 percent of coal-fired generation could be displaced" - as in shut down. That's 360 coal-fired power plants right there.

It's also crucial to allow what's called "decoupling" so that utilities can adjust rates more freely in order to reward customers for energy efficiency (most utilities currently have the perverse incentive to encourage energy use among their customers since they are only allowed to make money by selling more electricity). California currently practices this (as Joe Romm explains in detail) which is part of the reason why their energy use per capita has remained at 1990 levels. Rep. Henry Waxman attempted (and, I believe, failed) to insert a decoupling provision in the stimulus.

If we focus on those two things, we'll have a lot more luck getting rid of coal than if we throw billions of dollars and years of effort on carbon capture. Which is why I'm much happier when Steven Chu agrees with me, than when he doesn't.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look: the energy industry knows that consumer electricity consumption is on a long-term path to zero. Tom Siebel is currently funding a contest to create a zero-energy home that will cost no more to build than conventional homes with as much as a $5 million prize to the winner. My sister, with her solar panels, is a net contributor to the electrical grid. This is why the electrical generating sector is aggressively pushing the plug-in car: it will use the grid. The question isn't how do we get rid of the legacy coal plants, but rather how do we get cleantech to be prioritized over other energy efficiency gains? Why would we choose to keep sending billions to the Middle East for oil while shutting down coal plants, if that's the choice? We are a long way from transitioning off of both oil and coal.

Blogger tlaskawy said...

Then we're screwed. Unless, of course, you're counting on the magic carbon eating machine...

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