Unfortunately we need coal for now

Of all possible sources of energy, the burning of coal is the very worst – worst in terms of human life and health, worst in terms of the natural environment, worst in terms of its contribution to global warming.  Yet we may not be able to get along without it.

The danger and unhealthiness of coal mining has been lessened, here in the United States, by increased surface mining, which makes fatal accidents and respiratory diseases such as black lung less common.  U.S. coal miners nowadays have almost as great a life expectancy as the average U.S. citizen.  Yet surface mining disfigures the land permanently.  This is not just a matter of not looking nice.  Surface mining ruins land for any other purpose.  It increases the danger of flooding, which washes rubble, including sometimes-toxic pollution from mine tailings, onto neighboring  land.

Air pollution, including acid rain, from coal mining has greatly diminished in the United States.  About half the cost of a coal-fired power plant is in air pollution equipment.  But coal generates more greenhouse gasses than any other fossil fuel.

All decision-makers know this.  Yet this does not diminish reliance on coal. In the United States from 1995 to 2008, the increase in the amount of electricity generated from burning coal was 5.8 times as great as from wind and 823 times as great as from solar.  China is a world leader in making solar panels and other green technology equipment, but China gets only 1 percent of its own power from solar.

Renewable, sustainable energy is the kind of energy we want.  Coal and nuclear power are the only kind of energy we’ve got.  It may be decades before the green technologies are available in commercial quantities at affordable prices.  It may be never.  The other technologies – call them brown technologies – are available right now.

The world may have reached its peak in oil production.  In contrast peak coal at present rates of use (the qualifier is important) is centuries away.  Coal is not a source of energy that we have to import, or that foreign countries can embargo.  The United States, together with China, Russia and India, contains the bulk of the world’s coal reserves.  The United States is a coal exporter.

There’s still one big drawback.  Dependence on coal, with present technologies, will burn up the planet.  Coal generates more greenhouse gasses than any other form of fossil fuel.  James Fallows discussed this in an excellent article in the December 2010 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.   Click on Dirty Coal, Clean Future to read Fallows’ Atlantic article.  He describes joint U.S.-Chinese research efforts on technologies for burning coal cleanly, and he says these technologies are our only hope.  American scientific brilliance and the Chinese ability to get things done are an ideal combination, Fallows writes (I can remember when we Americans were noted for our ability to get things done).

David G. Victor and Richard K. Morse, writing in the September-October issue of Boston Review, focus on the difficulties and expense of making this technology commercially viable.  Click on Living With Coal to read their article.  Their best estimate is that there will be at most a dozen commercial-scale clean coal plants in 2020 and “with luck and diligence” clean coal will be 3 to 5 percent of energy from coal by 2030. Even so, they expect clean coal to still be cheaper than renewable energy for electricity generation.

I accept the need for coal in the near future to keep industrial civilization operating, I accept the reality of global climate change due to greenhouse gasses, so the need for affordable clean-burning coal is inescapable.  My concern is whether clean coal research and development is a serious effort, like the U.S. development of the nuclear energy industry, or whether it is something to appease the Greens while coal forges ahead.  The test will be whether the U.S. Congress and other countries’ legislatures enact a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system to force the development of clean coal.

Coal is something we have; clean coal is something we may or may have have someday.  I remember all the promises of how, when surface coal mining first began, the surface would be reseeded and renewed better than before.  As it turned out, this was not seriously intended.  It was just a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.

To be clear, I am in favor of a strong effort to develop renewable and sustainable sources of energy.  I hope Al Gore’s vision of abundant solar and wind energy coordinated by a smart electrical grid comes true, and I think it is possible.  Click on Our Choice to read a summary.  Coal will last longer than oil, but it won’t last forever, and we the human race are going to need an alternative. But in the meantime, I don’t think we can give up coal and nuclear power, and still maintain our industrial civilization and satisfy the desire of people in the developing world for a better life.

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