Burn Coal to Stop Global Warming?

Burn Coal to Stop Global Warming? October 31, 2017

Going through my archives, I found this article. It was written seven years ago, in 2010. What is amazing…and depressing…about it is that almost nothing has changed in that time. Bush had just pulled us out of the Kyoto Accord, and now Trump has done the same thing with the Paris Accord, and is pushing coal as the answer to American energy independence. Solar panels have gotten a lot cheaper, but if he could do it, he would probably prohibit them. Incentives for electric cars are about to be trashed. Drilling and mining in pristine national parks is the next looming environmental atrocity. We have not progressed in the last seven years. Indeed, our “progress” is in reverse.

Burn coal to stop global warming? That is the conclusion of James Fallows in his article, titled Dirty Coal, Clean Future in the latest issue of Atlantic magazine.

Fallows acknowledges the reality of global warming, and the science of carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere as a primary cause.  But he insists that coal, as the cheapest possible energy source, is inevitably going to be used in great quantities for the foreseeable future, whether environmentalists like it or not.  The answer, he says, is to find better ways to burn coal, limiting the nasty products of combustion…oxides of sulfur, mercury, lead and nitrogen…as well as CO2.

China has overtaken the US as the world’s largest emitter of CO2, primarily from their rapidly growing coal-based electrical generation industry.  But China, Fallows says, is leading the way to improved clean-burn technology.  In fact, he says they are far ahead of the US in this area.  The holy grail of clean-burn technology is “carbon sequestration,” capturing the CO2 from the exhaust stacks of power plants, and storing it underground permanently.  So far, nobody has perfected a system to accomplish this on a large scale, but it is clear that such a system will require a substantial “parasitic load,” the name that energy experts give to the losses, as high as 30% of generated power, to capture, compress, transport and pump the CO2 underground.  What this means is that more coal must be burned to generate a given amount of electricity.  In fact, a 30% parasitic loss would require almost 43% more coal to generate the same amount of electricity. (1.43 x 0.7 = 1.00)

Even without sequestration, coal might not be the cheapest method of generating electricity if all of the “externalized” costs of that generation were included.  Coal is the “dirtiest” source of electrical energy, producing toxic sulfur and mercury emissions, and twice as much CO2 as other fuels.  But getting the nations of the world to acknowledge that fact will be extraordinarily difficult.  How do you put a price on atmospheric pollution or the effects of climate change?  Fallows warns that renewable sources will never be large-scale players because of their high cost, but if the cost of cleaning up coal is high, there will be great resistance to that too.

Fossil fuel production is heavily subsidized by most governments.  Cheap, abundant energy is the engine that drives industrialization and a growing economy.  It is an unseen and unmeasured subsidy for business, and an important factor in global competitiveness.  That’s why carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs are viewed with great suspicion by business interests worldwide.  Raising the cost of energy would be a burden on businesses, and it can only work fairly if it is applied equally to all nations.  Businesses would prefer to keep the status quo, where energy costs are kept artificially low by externalizing all costs except the actual generation costs.

This is yet another example of the Tragedy of the Commons.  Everybody deplores the gigatons of pollutants dumped into the atmosphere, but no nation is willing to sacrifice its economy to solve the problem unless every other nation participates.  The developing nations look at the United States and say, rightly, that we are responsible for the largest share of the accumulated pollution, so we should be the ones to cut back the most.  Of course, there is great political pressure in this country to resist those cutbacks…as evidenced by Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, and the lack of any meaningful action in subsequent international meetings.

Fallows doesn’t say it explicitly, but his article makes a basic assumption that global politics will not allow the real costs of coal-produced electricity to be included in the price people pay for it.  While that may be a realistic assessment of the current situation, it is a capitulation, saying in effect that we are going to continue to destroy the planet, and nothing can be done about it.  Until those costs are included, renewable energy sources are forced to compete on a playing field with a mountainous tilt against them.  It is very unlikely that they will ever be price-competitive with fossil fuels until those costs are included.  Of course, when those nonrenewable reserves of fossil fuels are finally exhausted, we will have no choice…or rather our children or grandchildren won’t.  What will we leave for them?  A planet baking under greenhouse gases, degraded by land and water pollution, and stripped of its resources?  Or a clean, healthy environment, with a stabilized population that is committed to conservation and renewable energy sources?

Fallows never even considers the possibility of meaningful worldwide action to limit the burning of coal and other fossil fuels.  I found that the most depressing part of his article.

What will it take to make us wake up to the approaching dangers?  It may be that some catastrophic event will be necessary to make it clear that what we are doing is an unsustainable recipe for disaster. [Since this was written we have had quite a few “events” attributable to global warming, but the denialists are outshouting the environmentalists.]

I am still hopeful that Fallows is wrong…that the people of the planet will eventually see that we need to find a different path to sustainable, nonpolluting energy production.  Fallows may well share that glimmer of hope with me.  I certainly hope that he does.

[I still have that hope, seven years after this was written, but the glimmer is dimmer.]

Bert Bigelow graduated from the University of Michigan engineering school, and then pursued a career in software design.  He has always enjoyed writing, and since retirement, has produced short essays on many subjects.  His main interests are in the areas of politics and religion, and the intersection of the two.  Many of his writings are posted on his web site, bigelowbert.com.  You can contact him at bigelowbert@aol.com.

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