They don’t offer realistic alternatives

I was glad to see the comments of CONSOL’s Chief Executive, Brett Harvey, reported on Planet Ark’s website today. I was happy to see them because Harvey’s comments essentially mirrored some comments I had made in an initial draft of the Editor/Communication Director’s Message for the soon-to-be-released Fall 2007 edition of American Coal magazine.

While space constraints in the magazine saw the comments removed, Harvey’s comments provided a natural opportunity to resurrect them here in the Energy Blog. In that first draft, I argued that,

Over the past few months we have witnessed an increasingly vocal effort to shut down or phase out our coal-fueled generation capacity. … Unfortunately, many of the efforts to eliminate the use of coal are extending beyond reasonable discussion in that they are missing simple facts and offer no reasonable alternatives to coal.

As the articles in this edition of American Coal indicate, the calls to reduce coal use are fundamentally misguided. The authors in this issue demonstrate that safety is a primary focus for all in the coal industry and that coal is an economic, abundant/secure, and environmentally sound energy resource. Their articles show that through the development and use of advancing technologies, the U.S. has, can, and will continue to address the challenges that are being raised with regard to coal use.

When left unanswered, the ‘reduce coal’ effort succeeds in glossing over facts with frightening headlines and misleading, inaccurate comment. Perhaps the most egregious example of this agitprop occurs when respectable media outlets use their editorial pages to publish inflammatory anti-coal rhetoric.

In the Reuters/Planet Ark article, Harvey argued,

The coal industry has become the “whipping boy” of environmentalists who fail to come up with realistic alternatives for energy, the head of one of America’s biggest coal producers said. …

“If you’re not going to use coal anymore what are you going to use?” he said he asks anti-coal advocates. “Well, they respond to you: new technology, solar and wind.

“My response is: ‘Well, how does that work? and they say: ‘I don’t know but we need to study it,”‘ Harvey said in an interview during this week’s Reuters Environment Summit.

It’s good to see that the industry is now openly defending itself and beginning to demand more of coal’s detractors than the knee-jerk, glib response of “conservation and renewables” whenever someone asks how we will replace coal.

Of course conservation and renewables have their place and, given our increasing demand for energy, renewables will form an important addition to our overall energy mix. However, those who argue that we can simply “get rid of coal” and replace it with conservation and renewables are living in a fantasy world.

EIA - U.S. Electric Power Industry Net Generation, 2005

Alternative energy sources currently make up about 2 percent of our energy mix,. In comparison, coal makes up just under 50 percent. The costs of the new generation capacity that would be needed just to replace the nearly 2 billion kWh of energy generated by coal each year, let alone our near exponential growth in new demand, would break the bank. We just couldn’t afford it.

Abandoning coal is simply not a realistic option as the loss of those many gigawatts of generating power would also mean drastic increases in electricity prices, reduced power availability, brown and blackouts, and a massive decrease in our quality of living. Not surprisingly, the people that would be hardest hit by this diminished standard of living are those
who could least afford the rising prices.

We all understand the desire of to have clean air — Hey! we breathe it too. However, a quick — and accurate — look at our environmental record shows clearly that despite
nearly tripling our coal use since the 1970s, overall levels of targeted criteria air pollutants have decreased by about one third.
U.S. Air quality progress 1970-2002

No one wants dirty air; least of all the people that work in and live near our coal-fueled generating stations. That is why the coal industry has a long history of working with the government, academics, and communities to reduce emissions associated with coal use. We’re working to make coal use more efficient and we’re working to make sure that coal remains our most economic, abundant/secure, AND environmentally sound fuel resource.

So when someone tells you that we should just “get rid of coal,” ask them how they plan to replace it. Ask them what it will cost — who is going to pay, you or them? Ask them where they will put the new generation facilities — I’m betting they won’t allow them in their back yard. Ask them if their plan involves our continued reliance on possibly unfriendly regimes and what happens if those regimes suddenly cut off the supply.

Then tell them that, until they can come up with a realistic, clean, affordable, abundant, and domestic fuel source that can do everything coal does — and for the same or less — you’ll stick with coal. We have now for as long as the country has been here and our environmental record just keeps getting better, costs are still low, and we’re still providing some of the best paying jobs around.

What it all comes down to is, happy thoughts are nice, but in the real world, someone has to pay the bills and someone has to do the heavy lifting. Barring some miracle, no other energy source is going to pay the bills and do the lifting that coal does. Therefore, it makes far more sense to continue using our most abundant and affordable fossil fuel resource in as clean and efficient a manner as is possible. When something better comes along, we’ll be happy to use that, in the mean time, we have work to do.


Jason Hayes is the Communications Director for the American Coal Council

04. October 2007 by Jason Hayes
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