Green community splits over coal use

It’s increasingly interesting to see the divisions forming in the green community over the issue of using coal. While many environmental activists try to ignore the fact that we need the affordable, abundant/secure, and increasingly clean energy provided by coal, other memebers of the green fraternity are willing to admit that we need the always on, baseload energy that can only be supplied by a few energy options — coal being the most obvious of those choices.

An April 8th Wall Street Journal article details some of the splits that are now fracturing the green community on this issue.

The modern environmental movement is having an identity crisis.
Staring down its biggest enemy yet, it’s fiercely divided over how to
beat it.

The global challenge of climate change is tougher than the localized
problems the green movement has spent decades fighting. To some
environmentalists, it requires chucking old orthodoxies and getting
practical. To others, it demands an old-style moral crusade.

On one side are the purists. For them, electricity costs, electrical system reliability, social and economic stability are clearly not as important as an ideological and political campaign to stop coal.

While electricity users sees their electric bill “skyrocket,” the poor see more than 25% of their disposable income eaten up in ballooning energy bills, communities are shut down because of closing mines, the purists continue to fight against coal.

“Damn the torpedos … FULL SPEED AHEAD!”

On the other side of the debate are the more pragmatic and reasonable members of the green movement. As the Wall Street Journal article describes, David Hawkins, director of the Natural Resource Defense Council’s (NRDC) Climate Center in Washington, DC admitted that,

… the technology to generate electricity from coal
and capture the carbon-dioxide emissions “is both needed and feasible”

The article went on to describe how the NRDC had recently held
workshops in which they openly advocated for further research into CCS
technologies and the rapid deployment of those technologies.

Hawkins reiterated those sentiments in his April 23rd testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. In his testimony, Hawkins first recognized the pivotal role that electricity plays in our society, calling it “miraculous” and pointing out that it has,

made an enormous improvement in the quality of life of every human being lucky enough to have access to it.

He then went on — while pushing strongly for the development of renewable energy options — to admit that a “world-wide halt to (using) coal is not plausible” and that “CCD (carbon capture and disposal) should be rapidly deployed to minimize CO2 emissions from the coal we do use.” Later in his testimony, he specifically called for the construction of 5 GW of CCD-equipped commercial power plants by 2015.

It’s clear that the pragmatic portion of the green movement recognizes the importance of ensuring a stable, affordable supply of clean electricity. They must also recognize that,

  • Coal currently provides 50% of our electricity supply in the U.S. and 41% of world electricity
  • Coal use is seeing the fastest growth of any energy resource in the world
  • Coal is the only fuel that can currently and affordably meet the enormous scale of demand that our society is placing on utility generators. Unfortunately, other options are simply not up to the task.
  • Coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the low-cost, low-carbon choice if we are actually serious about reducing CO2 emissions at the same time as we recognize our responsibility to provide affordable, abundant energy. Coal with CCS is 15% – 50% less expensive than nuclear, wind, or natural gas with CCS.
  • CCS technologies are ready for widespread deployment.
  • Over the past 35 years, coal use in the U.S. has increased by almost 200%. At the same time, the coal industry has become “77 percent cleaner on the basis of regulated emissions per unit of energy produced.”
  • Other energy suppliers are now openly admitting that coal’s environmental record is rapidly improving. For example, the British Wind Energy Agency was recently forced by the UKs Advertising Standards Authority to drastically scale back their claims on the amount of carbon that could be reduced by replacing coal with new wind installations. It appears that they were basing their calculations on coal plant emission rates that had been out of date since the early 1990’s. They are now claiming that new wind installations could reduce emissions by 430 g/kWh, instead of 860 g/kWh – HALF as much.

Information like the bullets above and that found in the Wall Street Journal article is essential to balancing the debate on coal and coal-based energy. Over the past several months, the public has been treated to a never ending stream of myth and misperception that attempted to portray coal as a nightmare or last ditch option.

Those myths and misperceptions have unfortunately pushed our electricity system to a dangerous place. Where we refuse to use our most abundant and affordable energy option, we will see the stability of our energy system endangered and we will see energy prices skyrocket.

The admission that the use of coal is necessary, and that coal can be used cleanly is an important first step for the environmental movement. We’re ready to send them kudos for that public admission. And we’re happy to do what we can to help the rest of the country and world to recognize the importance of using coal as well.

28. April 2009 by Jason Hayes
Categories: General | Tags: , , , | 3 comments