I read an interesting article that gives me some hope.
Basically, recent research has suggested that we have to leave up to 75% of the currently known fossil fuel reserves in the ground, just to keep global warming to a 2°C increase. That will be difficult with some 1200 new coal-fire power plants on the drawing boards… most in China and India.
There’s enough coal in the ground that we could burn it at our current rate (which is 80 times that of the industrial revolution) for over a century. Those are proven reserves. These reserves are mostly in the US and China.
India is trying to catch up. Since 2003, their Gross Domestic Product has double… and their energy use has increase by nearly 66%. Much of it in coal plants.
The reason, according to coal proponents is that coal is cheap. It’s the cheapest form of energy available. Unfortunately for them, that’s just not true anymore. I’ll talk more about that in a minute.
The reason that this article gives me some hope is that there is a lot of resistance to the booming coal economy. In some Chinese cities, there are days when it’s literally not safe to breathe unfiltered air. Almost 80% of China’s electricity comes from coal, but almost all the remainder comes from renewable sources.
One of the sites where China announced a coal “megaproject” appears to not have enough water. Preparing coal for use in a power-plant requires water. Actually using coal in a power-plant requires a lot of water.
In India, there a great big coal reserve… right underneath the largest population of Bengal tigers and a lot of indigenous tribes. Resistance to mining that coal is growing.
Even in the US, coal suppliers are trying to shift to an export market. Almost 200 new coal-fired plants have been canceled and another 150 coal-fired plants will be retiring within the decade. Canada has large reserves of coal, but the most populous area, Ontario, is about to eliminate all coal-produced electrical generation.
But exporting coal (and tar sands and all that other stuff) is becoming even more problematic. We live in a global community, on a tiny little planet. What happens in one place is felt everywhere. Yes, coal can be shipped to China. But the affects of burning that coal, the pollution, the CO2, will be felt all over the Earth.
People are beginning to be aware. One of the quotes in the article by a coal company CEO was very telling to me.
“It is like analyzing the public health system only through an environmental lens,” he said. “Under such an approach you would only see a system that produces toxic and radioactive wastes; you would ignore the social and economic benefits that such a system brings… Leaving a resource as important as coal in the ground will increase energy costs and exacerbate global poverty.”
He’s comparing coal to a public health system. There is so much wrong here describing it all would take a book.
Yes, the goal is cheap power. It isn’t fair for the first world countries to get all ours and then, as other countries start to reach our level of GDP, affluence, etc, we say “Sorry, you’re destroying the environment, you can’t use cheap energy.”
It’s not right. They deserve the advantages that the US and Europe had for the lat 150 years. But, we can do it without the problems from fossil fuels.
One of those issues is cost. That CEO thinks that not using coal will make energy more costly… and in a massively broad sense, he’s right. But coal isn’t the answer. About once a year, I refer to the US Energy Information Administration for their levelized costs sheet.
|U.S. Average Levelized Costs (2010 $/megawatthour) for Plants Entering Service in 2017|
|Plant Type||Capacity Factor (%)||Levelized Capital Cost||Fixed O&M||Variable O&M (including fuel)||Transmission Investment||Total System Levelized Cost|
|Advanced Coal with CCS||85||91.8||9.3||36.4||1.2||138.8|
|Conventional Combined Cycle||87||17.2||1.9||45.8||1.2||66.1|
|Advanced Combined Cycle||87||17.5||1.9||42.4||1.2||63.1|
|Advanced CC with CCS||87||34.3||4.0||50.6||1.2||90.1|
|Conventional Combustion Turbine||30||45.3||2.7||76.4||3.6||127.9|
|Advanced Combustion Turbine||30||31.0||2.6||64.7||3.6||101.8|
|1Costs are expressed in terms of net AC power available to the grid for the installed capacity.
2As modeled, hydro is assumed to have seasonal storage so that it can be dispatched within a season, but overall operation is limited by resources available by site and season.
Note: These results do not include targeted tax credits such as the production or investment tax credit available for some technologies, which could significantly affect the levelized cost estimate. For example,new solar thermal and PV plants are eligible to receive a 30-percent investment tax credit on capital expenditures if placed in service before the end of 2016, and 10 percent thereafter. New wind, geothermal, biomass, hydroelectric, and landfill gas plants are eligible to receive either: (1) a $22 per MWh ($11 per MWh for technologies other than wind, geothermal and closed-loop biomass) inflation-adjusted production tax credit over the plant’s first ten years of service or (2) a 30-percent investment tax credit, if placed in service before the end of 2013 (or 2012, for wind only).
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2012, June 2012, DOE/EIA-0383(2012).
This is a neat document. Basically it shows the total life-time cost of various energy generation systems. This table is a future prediction, not the current costs.
In less than 5 years, even conventional coal, with no advanced technology, will be more expensive than natural gas with carbon capture systems and wind and geothermal and hydro. If you want advanced coal with carbon capture (which is what coal companies keep saying that they can do), the only thing that is more expensive, per megawatt hour, is solar.
That capacity factor column is really important. If you aren’t up on this, the capacity factor is just what percentage of time the power-plant is producing at full power. However, since this table is per megawatt hour, the capacity factor is taken into account. You need just under three 1 megawatt wind turbines to generate the same power (over time) as one 1-megawat coal plant. And those three turbines are still cheaper than the coal plant.
Yes, renewable power isn’t “on demand” like nuclear power and (some) fossil fuel plants are. But coal is the least attractive option for on-demand power, both economically and environmentally.
Coal is on its way out. The sooner, the better, for everyone.