James Fallows at the Atlantic has a piece up this week about the impossibility of weaning ourselves off of coal:
To environmentalists, “clean coal” is an insulting oxymoron. But for now, the only way to meet the world’s energy needs, and to arrest climate change before it produces irreversible cataclysm, is to use coal—dirty, sooty, toxic coal—in more-sustainable ways. The good news is that new technologies are making this possible. China is now the leader in this area, the Google and Intel of the energy world. If we are serious about global warming, America needs to work with China to build a greener future on a foundation of coal. Otherwise, the clean-energy revolution will leave us behind, with grave costs for the world’s climate and our economy.
Fallows’ argument is based primarily on two points: (1) coal is cheap and (2) coal is abundant. From those two points, he concludes that continued reliance on coal for large percentages of our power supply are “inevitable.” He talks about the fact that while the amount of electricity that the US gets from renewable sources (wind, solar, etc.) is growing rapidly in percentage terms, the amount of electricity from coal is increasing faster in absolute terms:
The journalist Robert Bryce has drawn on U.S. government figures to show that between 1995 and 2008, ‘the absolute increase in total electricity produced by coal was about 5.8 times as great as the increase from wind and 823 times as great as the increase from solar.’ – and this during the dawn of the green-energy era in America.
That’s a pretty troubling indictment. Despite all of our efforts to deploy renewables, we still can’t match the rate at which coal is growing? But wait . . . it’s 2010 now. What has happened since 2008?
Coal generation has gone down. Significantly.
According to the Energy Information Administration (part of the U.S. Department of Energy which provides “official energy statistics from the US government“), coal generation not only fell 1.5% between 2007 and 2008 (a fact which Bryce and Fallows conveniently leave out), it also fell over 11% from 2008 to 2009 (XLS file with energy statistics from 1949 – 2009 is here, the period from 1996 to July 2010 can be found on this site). Include 2009 and Bryce’s quote would tell a much different story. Coal generation increased 55,060 GWh (3.2%) from 1995 to 2009, while wind increased 67,597 GWh (2136%) and solar increased 311 GWh (63%). So rather than the absolute increase in coal being 5.8 times that of wind, the increase in wind is 1.2 times that of coal. Coal generation through July 2010 is on pace for an even lower annual total than in 2009.
Despite this, however, Julio Friedmann of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is right when Fallows quotes him on the limits to wind and solar:
Solar and wind power are going to be important, but it is really hard to get them beyond 10 percent of total power supply.
I may not agree with Friedmann’s 10% number (the DoE released a study in 2008 detailing how the US could get to 20% by 2030), but he has a point. Solar and wind are non-dispatchable resources, which means that we can’t control when they’ll be generating power. This limits the share of the total electricity market that they can serve because you need to be able to increase or decrease the output from dispatchable resources to account for sudden increases or decreases in output in solar and wind generation. These problems can be limited by geographic diversity (spreading turbines over a large area decreases the chance that they will all shut down at the same time), and wind and solar are not the only renewable resources available to us (there is also biomass, biogas, geothermal, etc.). But if you talk to a system operator at pretty much any utility, they’re unlikely to be excited about the operational challenges posed by high wind and solar penetration on their system.
But while Fallows takes this difficulty to drastically expand the amount of energy we get from intermittent wind and solar sources to mean that coal must be the answer, I would argue it’s not that simple. Fallows alludes to the elephant in the room, though he doesn’t spend much time on it:
Coal will be with us because it is abundant: any projected “peak coal” stage would come many decades after the world reaches “peak oil.” It will be with us because of where it’s located: the top four coal-reserve countries are the United States, Russia, China, and India, which together have about 40 percent of the world’s population and more than 60 percent of its coal. It will be with us because its direct costs are in most circumstances far lower than those of the alternatives – that’s why so much is used. . . It will be with us because its indirect costs, in miner deaths, environmental destruction, and carbon burden on the atmosphere are unregulated and “externalized.” Power companies that answer to shareholders or ratepayers have a hard time justifying a more expensive choice. (emphasis added)
Coal’s direct costs are much lower than alternatives, and its indirect costs do not affect the bottom line of the power companies that choose the resource mix in the US. But what if they did? Would coal be nearly so “inevitable” if there was a carbon tax in the US?
Recent evidence argues maybe not. Those who have followed energy issues over the last few years (a group that includes me, as that’s how I spend my weekdays) will likely recall the controversy over the Sunflower coal plants in Kansas during 2008, when then-Governor Kathleen Sebelius repeatedly vetoed a bill that would have allowed the expansion of a coal plant in Kansas. Potential coal plant investors were scared away by rising construction costs and the potential for national climate legislation. There was a distinct shift away from coal and towards natural gas for dispatchable generation, given the relatively low emissions rate of natural gas-fired generation. Since 2008, however, coal plant construction has picked up again, coinciding with the declining chances of energy legislation as the Democrats were preoccupied with the economy and health care legislation.
(By the way, natural gas generation increased from 496,058 GWh in 1995 to 882,981 GWh in 2008 [1.4x coal’s increase over that period] and 920,378 GWh in 2009 [7.7x coal’s increase]. Natural gas has grown from 14.8% of the total generation mix in 1995 to 23.3% in 2008, while coal has fallen from 51% to 44.6%. So maybe we should be talking about the “inevitability of natural gas”?)
If coal were no longer the cheapest option due to climate legislation, there’s no reason to think that we wouldn’t see a continuation of the trend of 2008. As Fallows put it himself, “[p]ower companies that answer to shareholders or ratepayers have a hard time justifying a more expensive choice.”
Fallows, however, does not even consider the possibility of climate legislation that would change the relative costs of coal. Instead, he argues that we must focus our efforts on improving coal technology to reduce its environmental impact. “A breakthrough is what it would take to move beyond reliance on coal.” But a breakthrough is also what it would take to continue relying on coal. Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) has a lot of potential, but has yet to be deployed commercially in the electricity sector. The World Coal Institute itself admits that “[t]he integration of CCS into commercial-scale power plants still remains costly at current electricity and carbon prices and these plants have not yet been constructed. A concerted effort is needed to commercialise CCS at large scale [sic] in the power sector”. The World Coal Institute’s “concerted effort” could very well be interpreted to mean “breakthrough.”
Yes, we will need a breakthrough in baseload/dispatchable resources to significantly change the generation mix in the United States, but I fail to see the “inevitability of coal” that Fallows sees. I think that for now, given the regulatory and political climate, cleaner coal is looking like one of the more likely solutions. But at the same time, there are a number of competitors. We could focus on developing a lot of geographically dispersed wind farms, and couple them with natural gas plants (though that runs into problems with transmission). We could hope for breakthroughs in thermal storage capabilities, enabling solar thermal generators to act more like baseload resources. We could solve the problems with nuclear waste disposal and go the way of France, which got 76.4% of its electricity generation from nuclear in 2008. All of these things will require breakthroughs, and I would say its pretty hard to tell right now which breakthrough is the most likely.
This doesn’t mean that we have to stop working with China on clean energy issues. One of the major barriers to renewable development in the US these days is access to transmission. Fallows again, quoting Duke Energy’s Chief Technology Officer David Mohler:
“We learned that China is preparing, by 2025, for 350 million people to live in cities that don’t exist now,” he told me. “They have to build the equivalent of the U.S. electrical system” – that is, almost as much added capacity as the entire U.S. grid – “by 2025. It took us 120 years.”
This is a perfect chance for leapfrogging. We can and should continue to help China develop clean coal technologies. But we should also use some of the lessons that we have learned over our 120 years to plan a smarter grid, one that enables renewable projects rather than hinders them, and can incorporate advanced energy technologies like electric vehicles (which, if deployed on a large enough scale, could eventually prove very valuable for incorporating intermittent resources like solar and wind).
Fallows is right that coal is a major part of our electricity sector these days. Without energy legislation that takes real steps towards internalizing the external costs of coal generation, it will be a major player for a long time to come. But am I willing to give in to the “inevitability” of that? No way.
UPDATE: I’ve posted a short article about the magnitude of the omission and why it bothers me so much. Read it here.
The opinions are mine and mine alone.