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No More Dirty Coal

Jul 25, 2007

Try picking up a wooden board you are standing on; or emptying a bathtub while the water's on full blast; or pouring used fry oil into the soap compartment of your dishwasher. If you think those are exercises in futility, consider the folly of trying to clear the air of carbon dioxide while continuing to build coal-fired power plants. As the old saying goes, if you're in a hole, stop digging.

Coal is global warming, not just in India and China, but also in the USA. Right now, there are plans for constructing more than 120 new coal-fired power plants in America , none of them "clean." It's hard to comprehend the enormity of the pollution that emerges from even just one of those plants, unless you consider what goes into the firebox.

The new $1.1 billion MidAmerican facility will be one of the nation's biggest, with 790 megawatts of capacity. Its boilers and pulverizers will devour 400 tons of coal every hour, 3.5 million tons a year. Combined with an existing plant next door, it will require a fresh train of coal every 16 to 17 hours; each train will be nearly 1.5 miles long and lug 135 cars about 650 miles from Wyoming's Powder River Basin.

That's what goes into a coal plant. Now consider what comes out. Here's how the brings it home:

California passed legislation to cut CO2 emissions in new cars by 25% and in SUVs by 18%, starting in 2009. If every car and SUV sold in California in 2009 met this standard, the CO2 emissions from only one medium-sized coal-fired power plant would negate this entire effort in just eight months of operation each year.


If every household in the US changed a 60-watt incandescent light bulb to a compact fluorescent, the CO2 emissions from just two medium-sized coal-fired power plants each year would negate this entire effort.

Hold that in your head -- what goes in, what comes out -- and multiply it by 120 (the number of proposed new plants), and then add it to all the other coal plants we already have. It will explain to you why -- if we had to choose just one thing to do about global warming -- many people in the know would vote for no more dirty coal. Period.

Trouble is, How are we ever going to keep our hands off it? Same way we wouldn't do those dumb things with the wooden board, the bathtub and the dishwasher. And by investing instead in smart alternatives.

The Alternatives to Coal

When a company called TXU announced in 2006 that it was planning on building 11 coal-fired power plants in Texas, it argued that the plants were needed to meet growing demand for power. It didn't take long for a report entitled to demonstrate that none of those coal plants were needed at all.

This study finds that a comprehensive effort to promote efficiency and other cost-saving demand reduction measures can meet Texas’ electricity needs more reliably, at a lower cost and at a tremendous net economic benefit compared to building a new fleet of expensive and heavily polluting power plants.

This approach also offers substantial economic and environmental benefits for Texas. The efficiency potential described in this report would provide $49 billion in economic benefits over the next 15 years, resulting in lower electricity bills for customers and reduced spending on
electricity generation and transmission capacity by utilities.

The approach of business as usual is to keep doing what we've been doing. Just a bit of head-scratching, and you find out there's a better way to do things moving forward -- a basket of different energy efficiency measures that add up to what 11 coal plants can do, and more. By the way, if you haven't heard, TXU cut a deal and abandoned plans for eight of the eleven coal plants it wanted to build in Texas. Didn't really need 'em after all, and the other three are still being contested.

The best way to meet our expanding need for electricity? It's something America successfully did during the energy crisis that began with the Arab oil embargo of 1973.

Over an 11-year period (1973–1983), the United States built approx. 30 billion square feet of new buildings, added approx. 35 million new vehicles and increased real GDP by over one trillion dollars (in year 2000 dollars) while decreasing its energy consumption and CO2 emissions.

The Myth of Clean Coal

The phrase "clean coal" defies common sense, but hear it often enough, and it starts to sound real. It isn't. When you hear "clean coal" think of a unicorn, and you'll be closest to the truth.

Clean coal, at the moment, is merely wishful thinking. We wish we could make coal clean, because we have more of it than Saudi Arabia has oil! It sure looks like the broad and easy boulevard to energy independence. No more Middle Eastern oil, just home dug coal. But. There's that inconvenient truth: global warming. Oh. No problem, then, we'll make coal clean. This is America, we can do anything. And there you have the birth of the clean coal myth.

In all fairness, big industry is making sincere efforts to develop technology that would clean up coal. They have made some progress, but not enough for us to be banking on.

The best thing going is a thing called IGCC -- -- which is a power plant that produces less emissions that a traditional plant that burns pulverized coal. It has yet to be proven reliable -- there are only 2 of them in operation in the US as of 2007. They also cost much more to build, so the electricity they would generate would cost 30% more. So there's not much point in building these things because the same investment in energy efficiency measures and renewable energy alternatives would produce the electricity needed at similar cost without a wisp of CO2.

IGCC plants are also touted as "capture ready." Translation: IGCC can capture the CO2 that's still produced in massive quantities. Problem is, we still don't know what to do with captured carbon dioxide. Yes, some oil companies inject it into old wells to squeeze out remaining deposits of crude, but otherwise, piping and storing CO2 produced by hundreds of power plants all across the nation is part of the grand mythology of clean coal. It may be something we could one day figure out how to do. And pay for. But why pursue a path that is expensive, risky (explosions from CO2 escaping from underground) and would take way too long to develop?

The Danger of Coal to Liquid Fuel Technology

There's that is enjoying a sudden revival of interest. It takes coal and turns it into liquid fuel that can be used in cars and airplanes. Nazi Germany derived half the fuel its military needed during World War II from this coal-to-liquid process; South Africa used it to meet its energy needs when isolated for its apartheid policies. It doesn't exactly have a proud history, but that hasn't prevented They've got the Air Force interested.

It's a boondoggle that costs too much and pollutes both the air and water. () A new coal-to-liquid plant would cost $7 to $9 billion -- a traditional oil refinery costs only $2 billion. The coal to liquid alternative also produces twice as much greenhouse gas than fuel from crude oil, and requires 5 to 7 gallons of water to produce a single gallon of fuel, according to the US Department of Energy.

Tar Sands

Tar sands aren't coal deposits, but they still deserve mention here, because they are another fuel alternative -- like coal-to-liquid fuel -- that make things worse. The tar sands are found in Canada under pristine boreal forests and occupy an area the size of Florida. The sticky substance is 85% sand and 10% bitumen, a tar like substance that can be turned into fuel. It was never worth extracting the stuff, but now that the price of oil has shot up, tar sands development is booming. There's supposedly 1.7 trillion barrels of oil locked up in all that sand. For the purely business-minded, it's hard to walk away from all that potential, so similar in size to America's coal reserves.

Same story as coal to liquid. It produces huge amounts of greenhouse gases -- much greater than oil production -- and uses up precious water resources. Canada's tar sands are America's problem.

Where the Action Is

The failure in 2007 of TXU to proceed with its plans to build 11 power plants in Texas was a watershed moment. It was a signal defeat for the coal industry. The banks financing the deal brought environmental groups to the table to cut a buyout deal, which at $45 billion was the biggest in American history. The implications of this outcome are still reverberating through the business community.

Here's one result: the big banks -- like CitiGroup and HSBC -- are downgrading investments in coal-based utilities. Here's how Citigroup put it: "Our sense is that Coal has missed a critical time window, which potentially throws any recovery out-of-phase." Business lingo for "coal is a bad bet."

There's more. , shows eight more coal projects canceled due to concern over global warming and rising construction costs. The list also now describes 76 projects as "uncertain."

That hasn't stopped the Environmental Protection Agency from granting approval to a coal plant under its jurisdiction, despite a Supreme Court Ruling that has made EPA responsible for regulating CO2 as a pollutant. Rep Henry Waxman is investigating whether EPA broke the law it is charged with upholding.

The Rainforest Action Network has started to shift multi-billion dollar investments away from dirty energy and toward clean energy solutions.

The battle over coal plants are also being waged fiercely in the localities where they are going to be built. Groundbreaking example: The Kansas Department of Health and Environment became the first government agency in the US to cite carbon dioxide emissions as the reason for rejecting an air permit for a proposed coal-fired electricity generating plant. and


Senator Harry Reid

Rep Henry Waxman