King Coal

July 28, 2009

Written by Robert F. Kennedy Jr

Over the past decade, nearly one hundred coal burning power plants have died in the proposal stage trumped by the legitimate objections of local communities fearful of a dirty deadly fuel that is neither cheap nor clean. Ozone and particulates from coal plants kill tens of thousands of Americans each year and cause widespread illnesses and disease. Acid rain emissions have destroyed the forests over the length of the Appalachian and sterilized one in five Adirondack lakes. Neurotoxic mercury raining from these plants has contaminated fish in every state–including every waterway in nineteen states–and poisons over a million American women and children annually. Coal industry strip mines have already destroyed 500 mountains in Appalachia, buried 2,000 miles of rivers and streams and will soon have flattened an area the size of Delaware. Finally, coal, which supplies 46% of our electric power, is the most important source of America’s greenhouse gases.

Beating our deadly and expensive coal addiction will be lucrative. America’s cornucopia of renewable energy resources and the recent maturation of solar, geothermal and wind technologies will allow us to meet most of our future energy needs with clean, cheap, abundant renewables. Bright Source, a solar thermal provider, has just signed contracts to provide California with 2.6 gigawatts of power annually from desert mirror farms. Construction costs are about the same per gigawatt as a coal plant and half the cost of a nuke plant. Once built, the energy is free forever. In contrast, once you build a coal plant, your biggest costs–fuel extraction and transportation and the harm from emissions–are just the beginning.

In the short term, a revolution in natural gas production over the past two years, has left America awash in natural gas and has made it possible to eliminate most of our dependence on deadly, destructive coal practically overnight–and without the expense of building new power plants.

How? Well it’s pretty easy. Around 900 of America’s coal plants–78% of the total–are small (generating less than half a gigawatt), antiquated, and horrendously inefficient. Their average age is 45 years, with many limping past 75. These ancient plants burn 20% more coal per megawatt hour than modern large coal units and are 60-75% less fuel efficient than high-efficiency gas plants. These small units account for less than 42% of the actual capacity for coal fired power but almost one half the total emission of the entire energy sector! The costs of operation, maintenance, capital improvements and repair costs of these antiquated worm-eaten facilities, if properly assessed, would make them far more expensive to run than natural gas plants. However, energy sector pricing structures make it possible for many plant operators to pass those costs to the public and make choices based on fuel costs, which in the case of coal, appears deceptively cheap because of massive subsidies.

Mothballing or throttling back these plants would mean huge cost savings to the public and eliminate the need for more than 350 million tons of coal, including all 30 million tons harvested through mountain top removal. Their closure would reduce U.S. mercury emissions by 20-25%, dramatically cut deadly particulate matter and the pollutants that cause acid rain, and slash America’s CO2 from power plants by 20%–an amount greater than the entire reduction mandated in the first years of the pending Climate Change Legislation–at a fraction of the cost.

These decrepit generators can be eliminated very quickly–in many instances literally overnight by substituting power from America’s existing and underutilized natural gas generation, which is abundant, cleaner and more affordable and accessible today than dirty coal.

Since 2007, the discovery of vast supplies of deep shale gas in the United States, along with advanced extraction methods, have created stable supply and predictably low prices for most of the next century. Of the 1,000 gigawatts of generating capacity currently required to meet national energy demand, 336 are coal fired, many of which are utilized far more heavily than for cleaner gas generation units. Surprisingly, America actually has more gas generation capacity–450 gigawatts–than coal. But most of the costs for coal-fired units are ignored in deciding when to operate these units. Public regulators traditionally require utilities to dispatch coal first. For that reason, high efficiency gas generators, which can replace a large percentage of U.S. coal, are used only 36% of the time. By simply changing the dispatch rule nationally, we could quickly reduce power generated by existing coal-fired plants and achieve massive emissions reductions. The new rule would change the order in which gas and coal fired plants are utilized by requiring that whenever coal and gas plants are competing head-to-head, the gas generation must be dispatched first.

To quickly gain further economic and environmental advantages, the larger, newer coal plants that remain in operation should be required to co-fire with natural gas. Many of these plants are already connected to gas pipelines and can easily be adapted to burn gas as 15 to 20% of their fuel. Experience shows using gas to partially fuel these plants dramatically reduces forced outages and maintenance costs and can be the most cost effective way to reduce CO2 emissions. This change can immediately achieve an additional 10 to 20% reduction in coal use and immediately reduce dangerous coal emissions.

Natural gas comes with its own set of environmental caveats. It is a carbon-based fuel and is extraction from shale, the most significant new source, if not managed carefully, can cause serious water, land use, and wildlife impacts, especially in the hands of irresponsible producers and lax regulators. But those impacts are dwarfed by the disastrous holocaust of coal and can be mitigated by careful regulation.

The giant advantage of a quick conversion from coal to gas is the quickest route for jumpstarting our economy and saving our planet.


H. JOSEF HEBERT | June 19, 2009 05:16 AM EST 


WASHINGTON — Finding an economical way to capture carbon dioxide from existing coal burning power plants is key to getting China to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions as well as for U.S. efforts to combat global warming, says a study being released Friday.

The report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concludes that the United States cannot meet its targets for stabilizing greenhouse gases unless it finds a way to economically capture carbon dioxide emissions coming from existing coal-burning power plants.

coal plants generate about half of the country’s electricity and 80 percent of the nearly 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide released annually into the atmosphere from power production. China also relies heavily on coal for electricity production and in the last five years has been on a rush to build new coal plants _ none of them designed to capture carbon dioxide.

“There is no credible pathway towards stringent greenhouse gas stabilization targets without CO2 emission reductions from existing coal power plants,” says the report. Members of Congress, where a bill to limit U.S. greenhouse gas emissions could come up for a House vote as early as next week, were being briefed on the MIT report.

Carbon dioxide has been captured and put into the ground in relatively small scale projects _ mostly in connection with enhanced oil recovery, for years, but never in the huge volumes that would be needed to capture emissions from a large coal plant.

The MIT report says there are multiple technologies being explored for carbon capture, but the government still has not adequately supported carbon capture research and is moving too slowly to develop large demonstration projects to show that capturing carbon dioxide and injecting it into the ground will work at the scale needed.

The report, a copy of which was provided to The Associated Press in advance of a press conference Friday, says the federal government and industry need to “dramatically expand” its support for carbon capture research and development to the tune of $12 billion to $15 billion over the next decade. 

Such technology, if shown to work in U.S. plants, could get China to reduce greenhouse gases from its rapidly growing network of coal burning power plants, the report says.

“We’ve got to address the carbon emissions from our current fleet (of coal plants) and also have to think how the technology we develop can be applied in China,” Ernest Moniz, director of the MIT Energy Initiative and co-author of the report, said in an interview.

Together, the U.S. and China account for 20 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide from coal burning power plants, said Moniz. If China doesn’t address emissions from its coal plants “we really can’t address the climate issue in a serious way.”

The MIT report summarizes a consensus view of participants in a symposium sponsored by MIT’s Energy Initiative on the feasibility of retrofitting existing coal plants with carbon capture technology. Participants included 54 representatives utilities, academia, government, public interest groups and industry.

The report said about half of the U.S. coal plants _ most of those producing 300 megawatts or more of power _ may be suitable for carbon capture technology. Many of the smaller plants, accounting for about 30 percent of electricity production, can achieve emission reductions through increased efficiency, use of a mix of coal and biomass as fuel and other measures. Other plants, especially the oldest, may have to be replaced, said Moniz.

Wayne Leonard, chief executive of Entergy Corp., who was a co-chairman of the symposium, said the symposium’s conclusions should be viewed “in an international context” especially as carbon capture technology development relates to China.

“In the U.S. coal is the reality. But in China and India it is the future” and they won’t abandon it because of climate change, said Leonard. “But offering them a technological solution, a solution that we are actively developing and deploying ourselves on our own coal plants, would be something that has a far better chance of success in getting them to act.”

While Entergy, the New Orleans-based utility, relies on coal for less than 10 percent of its electricity production, it was a co-sponsor with MIT of the carbon capture symposium on which Friday’s report is based.