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Is the End of Coal Already Here?

RP Siegel | Wednesday January 5th, 2011 | 5 Comments

There’s been an implicit assumption that with Peak Oil either already here or arriving soon and our society’s gargantuan (and growing) appetite for energy, and with efficiency and renewables unable to keep pace, that we would be falling back on dirty old coal, sure as a greasy meatball would slip out of a tilted frying pan and into the fire. Especially with the onset of electric cars driving up demand for electrons.

The facts, however, do not seem to bear that out. A Washington Post article notes that, despite the fact that we get nearly half of our electricity from coal, there were no new coal plants started in 2009 or 2010.

What’s going on? Surely it’s not a wave of concern over global warming.

That would be an environmentalist’s dream come true, but it has a lot more to do with the low price of natural gas, shale gas discoveries and litigation by groups like the Sierra Club. Bruce Nilles, the group’s chief coal warrior announced at the end of last year that 100 plants had been defeated or abandoned since the beginning of the coal rush back in the early 2000′s.

There does seem to be a wave forming and it doesn’t matter nearly so much how it started and what’s in it as it does how big it’s gotten and where it’s headed.

According to Kevin Parker, global head of asset management and a member of the executive committee at Deutsche Bank, “Coal is a dead man walking. Banks won’t finance them. Insurance companies won’t insure them. The EPA is coming after them. . . . And the economics to make it clean don’t work.”

The industry began work on 19 plants between 2000 and 2008. They started with plans to start twice that many new ones last year, but dropped them all, plus they announced that they would retire 48 more aging plants. It almost seems like it doesn’t pay to pollute anymore.

Starting this week, the EPA will require plants big enough to emit 75,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year to use the “best available control technology” in order to obtain air permits before they can begin construction. This new tactic is an end-around a climate-deaf congress by the executive branch of the government. Republicans meanwhile are vowing to weaken the EPA’s enforcement ability by cutting their funding.

The National Mining Association’s spokesman, Luke Popovich, said that like Mark Twain, word of coal’s death might be somewhat exaggerated. There are a number of coal plants still under construction and the EIA estimates that the US will need 30 to 40 new plants to meet a projected incremental demand of 21 gigawatts it forecasts by 2035.

But the cooling economy has seen demand growth for electricity falling off, so those projections might be high. The North American Electric Reliability Corp, has revised their forecasts downwards over the past few years. Coal consumption hit near-record levels in 2008 but have fallen since then, rebounding slightly last year.

Meanwhile, even in the midst of  the downturn and in the face of near term uncertainty as to the level of government support it can expect, the US wind industry continues to see gains as 14 states now have  a gigawatt of capacity or more installed. At the same time, renewables accounted for more than half of the newly installed capacity last year.

The rest will come from natural gas, whose prices have fallen considerably in the light of recent discoveries such as Marcellus Shale. This should be great news for environmentalists but their elation is muted due to concerns about the safety of hydraulic fracking, the proposed method for extracting all of this gas. Testing has shown that toxic chemicals used in this process are likely to enter the water table.

So it may be a matter of picking your poison.

But maybe not; surely there are other ways of extracting the gas that are safer, even if they are more expensive.

You would have thought by now that we would have figured out that when we look at the world through such a tiny lens that only considers short-term profit for a few narrow interests, it ends up costing the rest of us a bundle.

Moving from coal to gas is a  big step forward. Let’s not take a big step back by using unsafe methods to get the gas.

RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor TrailsLike airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

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  • John

    We’ve visited a self-enforcing feedback loop on ourselves. The current political process conforms to well understood games theory – competition for limited rewards (political offices) results in Darwinistic outcomes – those elected behave in ways most likely to get them elected. Hopefully our non-elected civil servants will continue to enact sensible legislation that addresses longterm requirements for our country. In the meantime, sadly, the best we can hope is that the election circus keeps the crowd entertained and its own workings jammed.

  • Chuck

    “Testing has shown that toxic chemicals used in this process are likely to enter the water table.”

    Likely to ??

    Got any actual proof of that?

    No, of course not.

  • http://beyondzeroemissions.org matthew@beyondzeroemissions.org

    Actually gas is a diversion not a shortcut. Gas is dirty dangerous and deadly.

    We need to leap frog gas and go Wind, Solar Photvoltaic and for firming power pumped hydro storage and Solar Thermal Power Towers w/Molten Salt Storage. These are all commercially available now technologies and ready to roll.

    Gas is BP Deepwater Horizon, it’s punctured and drained aquifers, it’s fugitive emissions with 70+ times the CO2 forcing of CO2. It is NOX and SOX.

    It’s all the things the Ipod/Iphone Computer savvy health concious generation of 2010 don’t want in an electricity supply or energy supply system.

  • B B Das

    The extensive Thermal Energy (Coal, Oil and Gas) generation is contributing to Global warming and pollution which is known to all.

    The alternatives are

    The solar and wind and Hydro Electric Power. The Solar and wind energy has limited potential besides being having high investment need per MW.

    The best solution is Hydro Electric Power. Many countries have tremendous hydro potential but they are not being tapped. For instance as per UN report, Nepal has potential of 20,000 MW but very little has been used. Developing such hydro power and exporting to countries with high demand will benefit both the countries and reduce the pollution associated with thermal power generation.