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The future of coal

The “Green New Deal” proposed by New York congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts calls for, by 2030, “100% clean energy” for the U.S., which will consist of only wind, solar and hydroelectricity. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s more modest “Green New Deal” sets a 75% all-renewable goal for New York state by 2030. His “vision” will include nuclear, and since the state already produces over 30% of its electricity from nuclear power plants and over 20% from hydro, it is the more realistic proposition, but still depends on what are described as “aspirational deployment goals.”

The U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration’s most recent estimate of what electrical energy generation will be like even beyond, to 2050, presents a significantly different picture. Coal’s contribution, which as recently as 1997 was 52.8% and fell to 27.4% in 2018, will continue its downward slide to 17%. In contrast, natural gas’s share will increase from its current 34% to 39%, with renewables — which include wind, solar and hydro — at 31% and nuclear down to 12% from its current 19%.

For both national and more local Green New Deals, like that of New York state, the main target to “turn the tide on the planetary threat posed by climate change” is “dirty coal.” It has become the arch-villain most responsible for contributing to this apocalyptic nightmare, “the greatest threat to humanity in our history.” It has replaced nuclear power in this demonized role, which in the 1970s and ’80s was also seen by many as threatening planetary catastrophe and was “not the answer.”

Currently 10 U.S. states generate more than 60% of their electrical energy from coal-fired power plants. It is hard to see how a massive buildup of wind, solar and the concomitant construction of hydro dams, also highly unpopular to environmentalists, can take place in little more than a decade to wean them off their reliance on “dirty coal.”

Germany’s Energiewende (energy transition) offers a cautionary tale for those who feel we must keep all fossil fuels in the ground, and like the Green New Deals, it is very much a top-down government initiative. When the German legislature initiated this program in 2010, the goal was to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 80 to 95% by 2050 and have a renewable energy target of 60%. Nuclear was definitely not to be the answer. After the Fukushima disaster of 2011, Germany shut down eight of its 17 nuclear reactors, and the rest are destined for closure by 2022. Instead there has been a massive expansion of wind and solar, encouraged by very generous subsides. They have contributed to making electric rates among the highest in Europe and almost three times what residential users pay in the U.S. More troubling, Germany’s GHG emissions from electricity generation have increased slightly and will not reach the 2020 goals.

Paradoxically, by having so much intermittent energy in the grid, Germany has been forced to rely on coal-generated electricity as a backup. Recently they have even been building new lignite-fired plants that are the worst emitters of GHGs. In another top-down initiative in 2018, the government shut down all underground hard coal mining. Instead, Germany now imports such coal from Russia, the U.S., Australia and Columbia. One wonders how green this can be. By 2038 Germany intends to shut down all coal-burning plants “without much pain.” Heiner Flassbeck, a former state secretary in the German Federal Ministry of Finance, has scathingly described these top-down initiatives as “symbolic politics.” According to the International Energy Agency, coal use in energy generation worldwide will decline slightly by 2040, but not in the developing world. It is hard to see Germany’s Energiewende model having much appeal in these countries where people already balk at paying cost-recovery rates for the electricity that they consume.

In contrast, in the U.S. the real game changer in the developing world of what is now known as distributed generation has been the shale gas revolution, very much the result of private initiative. The gas combustion turbines that this natural gas powers emit about half of the GHGs of conventional coal-burning plants in the U.S. In addition, they can ramp up and down far more quickly than a coal-fired plant and function in a load-following mode, which is essential when there is lots of intermittent energy in the grid. Not surprisingly, a number of utilities have converted their coal-burning plants to using gas combustion turbines. The result has been that U.S. GHG emissions from power plants, since the advent of the shale gas revolution in 2005, have gone down by over 20%.

China, with a far more serious air pollution problem than either Germany or the U.S. (but with little natural gas), has taken a more all-of-the-above approach for dealing with this challenge. Since the turn of the century the country has been on a extensive hydroelectric-dam-building program. The massive Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River is merely the best known. Since 2000 China has increased its number of operating nuclear reactors by more than ten-fold. Most of these are Generation III designs with more passive safety features than their earlier Generation II counterparts in the U.S. China has also been on the cutting edge of advanced coal technologies by turning to ultrasupercritical combustion and the use of circulating fluidized bed combustion. This means more power from a given amount of coal and consequently less emissions. There is only one such plant in the U.S., where coal is burnt at significantly higher temperatures and pressures than is the case for the subcritical and supercritical plants that dominate the U.S. scene. Getting this built was no mean feat given the unrelenting opposition of the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society to the “oxymoron clean coal.”

Coal has come a long way from its truly dirty days in the 1950s, when a yellow coal smog in London killed an estimated 4,000 people in 1952. Con Edison’s nine coal-burning plants in New York City made the air in that city the fifth most polluted in the U.S. and contributed to a similar smog inversion in 1954 that killed between 170 and 260 people. In the 1970s acid rain — formed from the sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides in the emissions from coal plants in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois — resulted in killing off the fish populations in over half the lakes above 2,000 feet in the Adirondacks. If the EIA’s forecast is correct for 2050, coal-burning power plants will still be the second most important single source of electrical energy in the U.S., and cleaning up “King Coal” will have to continue.

There is no silver-bullet, “Star Trek” technology that will deliver totally clean green renewable energy. Technological change comes incrementally. Demonizing some sources of energy and sanctifying others obscures this reality, and all have their opponents.

Roger Gocking lives in Saranac Lake.

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