Skip to comments.Coal Comfort - The EPA hates the carbon-heavy fuel, but itís here to stay.
Posted on 08/06/2012 2:35:13 PM PDT by neverdem
About one train per hour. Thats the target loading rate for the massive silos, conveyors, and hoppers at the North Antelope Rochelle Mine in Wyoming, the most productive coal mine in the world. And on a cool, nearly windless day in late March, Scott Durgin, a regional vice president for Peabody Energy, was happy. Standing in the mines dispatch office, Durgin pointed to a flat-panel display showing a list of trains that had recently passed through. It was exactly 12 noon, according to the clock on the wall, and since midnight, the mine had loaded 11 trains, each carrying about 16,000 tons of coal. I asked Durgin how long Peabody could continue mining in the region. Easily for another five decades, he replied: Theres no end to the coal here.
The scale and productivity of the mine are difficult to imagine. It produces about three tons of coal per second. But despite its staggering output, the North Antelope Rochelle Mine—along with the other 1,300 coal mines operating in the U.S.—is being threatened by the Obama administration. On March 27, just two days before my visit to the mine, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposal that would, if enacted, outlaw the construction of new coal-fired power plants in the United States. The EPAs motives are clear: it believes that these plants, by emitting carbon dioxide in profusion, contribute to global warming.
Theres no denying that coal has earned its reputation as a relatively dirty fuel. But those concerned about CO2 emissions and climate change should realize that the administrations attack on coal is little more than a token gesture. The rest of the world will continue to burn coal, and lots of it. Reducing the domestic use of coal may force Americans to pay higher prices for electricity, but it will have nearly no effect on global emissions.
Coal has been an essential fuel for electricity production ever since 1882, when Thomas Edison used it in the first central power plant, at 25557 Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. Edisons technological breakthroughs at Pearl Street—the list includes the incandescent bulb, the safety fuse, the light socket, the generator, and insulated wiring—led to a tsunami of electrification that continues to this day. By 1890, just eight years after Edison began the revolution, there were 1,000 central power stations in the United States, and new ones were being added at a frenzied pace. All of them burned coal.
Of course, Edison wasnt the first to exploit coal. The first instance of coal use probably occurred in China some 3,000 years ago. But coal became far more controversial during the Industrial Revolution, when its use in factories made some cities nearly uninhabitable. On one particularly nasty day in London in 1812, a combination of coal smoke and fog became so dense that, according to one report, for the greater part of the day it was impossible to read or write at a window without artificial light. Persons in the streets could scarcely be seen in the forenoon at two yards distance. Today, the same problem is plaguing China. The New York Times reports that in Datong, known as the City of Coal, the air pollution on some winter days is so bad that even during the daytime, people drive with their lights on.
Air pollution is only part of the coal industrys environmental and human toll. The industry damages the surface of the earth through strip mines, mountaintop removal, and ash ponds at power plants. In addition, thousands of workers die each year in the worlds coal mines—about 2,000 last year in China alone.
But the media and policymakers are more focused on the amount of carbon dioxide that coal-fired power plants emit. In a 2009 opinion piece for the Guardian, climate scientist James Hansen declared coal the single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet, adding, for good measure, that the trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired power plants are factories of death. Powerful environmental groups like the Sierra Club—which, by the way, is getting $50 million from New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to help fund its beyond coal campaign—are pushing for a total ban on coal-fired electricity generation in the United States.
The EPAs proposed rule banning new coal-fired electricity generation results directly from the fear of climate change. Pointing out that greenhouse gases endanger both the public health and the public welfare of current and future generations, the rule would cap the amount of CO2 that new fossil-fueled electricity generation units can emit, at 1,000 pounds per megawatt-hour. That would rule out coal-fired units, which emit about 1,800 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour. (Natural gasfired units emit about 800 pounds per megawatt-hour.) The EPA claims that it has the authority to regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act and therefore doesnt need congressional approval to impose the ban. The rule will probably be enacted during the next few months, after the agency collects comments from the public, though subsequent litigation and political fights are certain.
But even if the EPA and the Obama administration succeed in prohibiting new coal-fired electricity generation in the United States, they will leave global coal demand and CO2 emissions almost unchanged. Over the past decade or so, American coal consumption fell by 5 percent, but global coal consumption soared, growing by about the same amount as the growth in oil, natural gas, and nuclear combined. Coal now fuels about 40 percent of global electricity production. Coals dominance helps explain why global CO2 emissions rose by 28.5 percent between 2001 and 2010, even as American CO2 emissions fell by 1.7 percent. Over the past decade, even if American emissions had dropped to zero, global emissions would still have increased.
And coal consumption will keep rising as electricity consumption rises. Between 1990 and 2010, global electricity production increased by about 450 terawatt-hours—roughly the amount of electricity that Brazil consumes—per year. The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects electricity use to keep growing by about one Brazil per year through 2035. Given this surging electricity demand, its no surprise that between 2001 and 2010, global coal consumption rose by 47 percent, or the equivalent of about 23 million barrels of oil per day. During the same period, daily consumption of petroleum grew by 10 million barrels, while natural-gas consumption grew by the equivalent of 12.9 million barrels of oil per day and nuclear-energy consumption grew by the equivalent of 510,000 barrels per day.
Coal is helping meet the worlds electrical demands for a simple reason: its cheap, thanks to the fact that deposits are abundant, widely dispersed, easily mined, and not controlled by any OPEC-like cartels. The Energy Information Administration (EIA), part of the U.S. Department of Energy, reports that from 1999 through 2010, coal was consistently the cheapest source of fossil fuel for electricity generators—usually costing about half as much per Btu as the next-cheapest fuel, natural gas.
And coal will continue to be a low-cost option. In its latest energy forecast, ExxonMobil predicts that in 2030, the cheapest form of electricity production will remain coal-fired generation units, with a total cost of about $0.06 per kilowatt-hour. At that price, electricity produced by coal would be cheaper than electricity produced by natural gas, nuclear, wind, or solar photovoltaic panels.
Many entrepreneurs have tried and failed to beat coal on price. For instance, back in 2007, Google trumpeted plans to develop renewable-energy sources that would be even cheaper than coal. We are optimistic this can be done in years, not decades, said Larry Page, the Internet search giants cofounder. The companys effort lasted less than four years. In November 2011, Google quietly abandoned its quest, saying merely that other institutions are better positioned than Google to take this research to the next level.
The best example of the worlds growing hunger for electricity is Vietnam, where electricity use increased by 227 percent between 2001 and 2010—faster than in any other country. This insatiable demand for electricity is why, during the same period, Vietnams demand for coal increased by 175 percent—again, faster than in any other country. Such heavy reliance on coal gave Vietnam an additional distinction: the worlds fastest-growing carbon-dioxide emissions between 2001 and 2010. What can the Obama administration say to Vietnam about curbing this apparent threat to the climate? Very little. The average annual income of Vietnams 90 million residents is $1,200.
Or consider China, which has about 650,000 megawatts of coal-fired electricity generation capacity, more than twice as much as Americas 317,000 megawatts. China is also planning to build another 273,000 megawatts of coal-fired capacity. The growth in Chinas CO2 emissions between 2001 and 2010 was 123 percent, a rate only slightly lower than first-place Vietnams. Again, theres little that the United States can do about that.
We neednt look only at developing countries like Vietnam and China to see the essentiality of coal. In the wake of last years accident at the Fukushima nuclear facility, Japan recently shut down all its reactors, and Germany—which has the biggest economy in Europe—is rushing to follow suit. Though renewable-energy projects are the darling of European politicians, German utilities are placing their bets on coal. According to a report issued this past April by Germanys National Association of Energy and Water, nearly 14,000 of the 36,000 megawatts of new electricity generation capacity being planned for Germany will probably be provided by coal-fired facilities.
All the major forecasting entities—the EIA, the IEA, and the energy company BP—agree that global demand for coal will keep rising. By 2035, the EIA predicts, coal consumption will rise by about 38 percent, to some 98.5 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, a number roughly in line with the IEAs and BPs projections. All three, moreover, predict that for decades to come, coal will maintain a major share of the worlds energy consumption: 28 percent of the global energy market by 2030, according to BP; 30 percent by 2035, according to the IEA. Those are remarkable projections when you consider that coals share of global energy consumption was 30 percent way back in 1970.
Low cost isnt the only reason for coals dominance. Another is power density, the amount of energy flow that can be harnessed from a given area of land (see Get Dense, Winter 2012). Lets return to the North Antelope Rochelle Mine, which produces about 109 million tons of low-sulfur coal per year. Once you account for the energy lost during the conversion of coal to electricity, the mine yields the energy equivalent of about 300,000 barrels of oil per day. Solar and wind energy production, meanwhile, provided the United States with 333,000 megawatt-hours of electricity per day in 2011—the equivalent of 203,000 barrels of oil. The point isnt merely that a single mine produces about 50 percent more energy on an average day than all the countrys solar panels and wind turbines combined. Its that the mine covers just 80 square miles, while domestic wind projects now cover about 9,400 square miles—an area approximately the size of Maryland. The low power density of renewable-energy projects in general, and of solar and wind in particular, will prevent them from taking a large share of the electricity market away from coal.
Likelier competitors are natural gas and nuclear, which have a number of advantages over coal. Both are able to produce large quantities of reliable electricity, and both have lower CO2 emissions than coal does. Natural-gas use here and abroad will undoubtedly rise in the decades ahead; supplies of the cleanest of the hydrocarbons are growing rapidly around the world, thanks to the shale revolution and continuing exploration successes in places like Africa, the Mediterranean, and Asia. Nuclear energy is also likely to see significant growth.
But even if natural gas and nuclear are able to ramp up dramatically, it will be hard for them to match the amount of energy now being derived from coal. This year, global coal consumption will total about 71 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. Global natural-gas consumption, meanwhile, is about 58 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. For natural gas to replace coal completely, gas production would have to more than double. Making that happen would require decades of sustained and expensive exploration and production. As for nuclear energy, it is hampered by huge start-up costs, and many countries simply dont have the infrastructure or human capital needed to support the nuclear industry.
Since the days of Edison, the United States has relied on abundant supplies of coal to sustain its economy and to produce the electrons that are the currency of modernity. Theres no natural reason for that dependence to end: Americas coal deposits contain 900 billion barrels of oil equivalent, nearly as much as the 1 trillion barrels of proved oil reserves held by OPEC. At current rates of production, domestic coal reserves will last for another 200 years. The only obstacle is the EPA, which wants to shut down coal-fired generation even though doing so will have no discernible effect on climate change or CO2 emissions. In fact, the EPAs rule simply encourages domestic coal producers to ship more of their product to overseas electricity producers, who will happily burn it.
We dont have to adore operations like the North Antelope Rochelle Mine or the generators that burn the fuel it produces. But given the worlds insatiable demand for electricity—and all the wealth- and health-enhancing opportunities that come with cheap, abundant, reliable supplies of electricity—its obvious that coal will be powering the global economy for many decades to come.
They want to ban a energy source because they think it contributes to something that hasn't even been proven to exist..........
“Clean coal”, a vast array of technologies, makes the use of coal almost as effective as natural gas, and for the most part, is far easier to extract, transport and use. Part of this technology would be to use something called “Plasma Arc Reduction”, similar to the technique used for cleaning up wastes and converting the output directly to electrical power.
The concept has been used experimentally in getting rid of municipal waste streams (http://www.popsci.com/scitech/article/2007-03/prophet-garbage) and could be applied to conversion of coal itself in sufficiently large installations. The problems with particulates, various contaminants in the coal, and disposal of the stack contents would be changed from an environmental problem to a source of co-generation and a whole new way to regard electrical plant output.
We have the basis of the technology, and shall be well able to solve the future problems, all except for one little niggling detail - the insistence that carbon dioxide is a pollutant.
The last is a flat LIE. Carbon dioxide is so intimately tied up with our very life processes, it would be impossible to exist on this planet without its presence, and the limits of tolerance for this colorless, odorless and relative inert gas are much broader than the critics would have everybody believe. And it does not contribute significantly in any way to global warming, because as a greenhouse gas, it is of far less importance than water vapor.
We have to give up coal because thousands die in China?
That sounds like my mom's explanation for why I have to eat my asparagus.
And, in terms of geological time, we are at the low end of the scale for atmospheric CO2. If we could triple or quadruple the current levels, we would be far better off from the increase in food production, biomass in general, and the decrease in water requirement for crops. Being anti-CO2 is being anti-Green. Leave it to Obama to harm the environment in the name of the environment.
We just returned from a drive from Texas to South Dakota and back.
We must have seen at least 20 of these trains, all of them 100 cars long.
They are very regulated as to how much coal can be visible from the top—and it’s not very much.
These trains are very interesting to watch. The are unloaded by opening a door on the bottom, directly into a storage container that is mostly underground.
It's turned into the IAE - Idiots Aggravating Everyone. BTW, that's pronounced "Aiyee" for those of you in Rio Linda.
Been a conductor on many of these trains. If they quit shipping them, I most likely will be out of a job. 100 cars is a small one. Most are 115-135 cars long. Was on one that was almost 20,000 tons when you include the engines, cars, and coal.
Carbon is ESSENTIAL for life. Carbon dioxide is how most plants get that carbon then animals get it from the plants. The truth is the MORE Carbon Dioxide the MORE life on Earth! Locking up carbon in plastics may end up being a problem but once nature figures out how to crack open that niche life will be become VERY interesting!
I live just a few miles from a set of train tracks that go from that mine, to Denver, to Colorado Springs (and then south of course). That double set of tracks has between 20 and 25 of those trains each way, every day. Usually they are about a 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 mile long.
If you look close you can see the rotator coupling on most of the train cars. Big clamps grab the top of the car, holding it tight to the tracks, and they simply roll it and the tracks over and dump the coal out, kind of like dumping a pail out.
EPA wants us burning food.
Use some of the electricity produced to make coal squeezins (also known as the Fischer-Tropsch process) for diesel/gasoline.
Of course, the Greenies would NEVER let you do that - they'd rather have you burning the coal so they can scream about the mercury and thorium going into the atmosphere. Or they'd rather waste natural gas (which should be used for home heating & cooking) on producing electricity to COOL Florida, Arizona & Californiawhackistan.
Buckle yourselves in, kids - electricity prices will double in the next five years (well, except for the politicos and military, who will just extract the extra money it costs from us peasants at gunpoint).
Ask Il Muppet Cioccolato* how much the White House electric bill is, if you want to get one of his patented stuttering fits, and a blank look to accompany it.
*Because, like the Muppets, he loves gays, and he's got somebody's hand up his posterior (George Soros).
Carbon is the fundamental building block of life. Given that fact is it any wonder that liberals hate carbon?
“Been a conductor on many of these trains. If they quit shipping them, I most likely will be out of a job. 100 cars is a small one. Most are 115-135 cars long. Was on one that was almost 20,000 tons when you include the engines, cars, and coal.”
Being the engineman on them is tougher! A steady hand and steady nerves...
I had 140 car, 14,000 ton trains when I was younger, they would keep one on the edge of the seat, especially in bad weather or fog. Glad I don’t have to do that any more — particularly since the Company has all kinds of electronic gadgets to monitor every move an engineman makes these days!
The number one reason the Left wants to get rid of coal and petroleum really has little or nothing to do with environmentalism or global warming, those are just excuses.
I’m sure the people in the EPA and all the other environmental activist groups really believe in AGW and really, truly think and believe they are protecting the environment. They are just dupes and tools, useful idiots to be used then cast aside when no longer needed.
The real reason is the Left wants people to not be able to travel. You would be essentially prisoner in your home towns. Never being able to go more than a few dozen miles from where you are unless you have government permission to use the transportation system. Electric cars have limited range, and will continue to have for the foreseeable future, that’s why they are so highly regarded by the Left. Remember the Soviet Union? You had to have a passport just to travel to another town outside your cage. These modern day equivalents to the Soviets calling themselves environmentalists are just as control oriented as they were, but even more so because they have an amoral self-righteous religious fervor the Soviets never had.
The sciences of today have been overrun with political correctness and Left wing ideology. Computer modeling is called ‘science’ and making data fit the theory is called ‘serious research’. Any data that shows the opposite of the outcome is deleted as apocryphal . Any real scientist who dares contradict the status quo is branded a heretic and a blasphemer and must be harangued and harassed until he recants under extreme pressure to conform. Torquemada would be proud.
A Wyoming coal train:
3 locomotives & 120 cars loaded with coal.
Saw many of them in 2001, when riding on the Pony Express Trail from St. Joseph, Missouri to N Nevada.