Want to Kick Coal to the Curb? Not So Fast
With hydro, solar, wind, and even geothermal energy serving as a broad base of renewable power sources contributing to meet our consumptive habits, it would be nice if we were well on our way to kicking coal. But the reality is that we’re not. In the upcoming Atlantic Monthly’s cover story, journalist James Fallows addresses the limitations of clean energy and the continued need for coal to meet global demand for energy.
As a preeminent geologist told Fallows, “There are many good options, but there are no unlimited options. Each is limited by cost, limited by scale, limited by physics and chemistry, limited by thermodynamics. For example, there’s nothing wrong with switchgrass as a biofuel, but there’s not a lot of energy in it.”
The notion that we can use a little bit of everything going forward—even the dangerous and dirty sources that people love to hate, like oil, coal, and nuclear energy—is one that is well supported by the numbers. As Fallows explains, coal provides almost half of the electricity for the United States, natural gas nearly a quarter, nuclear power 20 percent, hydroelectric 7 percent, and the elusive “everything else” up to 5 percent. It’s into this “everything else” that we can lump solar and wind, and as Fallows says, “even if it doubles or triples, the solutions we often hear the most about won’t come close to meeting total demand.”
And if we look at where industry growth is most concentrated, the picture only grows rosier for coal. Fallows sites writer Robert Bryce, who found that between 1995 and 2008, “the absolute increase in total electricity produced by coal was about 5.8 times as great as the increase from wind and 823 times as great as the increase from solar.” Solar might be booming, but only at one eight-hundredth the rate of dirty ole’ coal.
David Roberts over at Grist considers the Fallows piece as a conciliatory plea to what Roberts calls “a group of hardcore coal critics...Let's call them Dirty F*ckin' Hippies (DFHs).” Roberts agrees with Fallows, in a largely on-target assessment of the piece, but thinks it’s ultimately a misguided attempt to reign in coal-haters. “Why, indeed, does there seem to be an entire cottage industry devoted to preaching Tough Realism About Coal to DFHs? It's tantamount to spending your time lecturing to pacifists that we can't eliminate war. Maybe it's true, but pacifists are a largely marginalized, powerless community, so who cares what they think!”
What Grist misses is that Fallows’s piece is about more than just what sources of energy we will rely on in coming decades, but also where the sources of innovation are and how the energy industry can shift international power (pun intended) dynamics. China-US partnerships are paving the way for possibilities like carbon sequestration, Fallows reports—with pilots happening in China.
Fallows sees not only an inching forward on addressing carbon emissions that is worth getting excited about, but also an international business partnership developing on climate of the sort that the United States has been unwilling to partake in politically. (Let’s not forget the Kyoto Protocol of the ‘90s.)
Without the bureaucratic red tape that slows R&D here in the United States, China is plunging forward on applying new technologies—partly because of their rapidly rising demand, according to Fallows. The conditions make China a sort of living laboratory for coal technologies that here are caught up in controversy and slow permitting and approval processes.
Coal is not going to vanish, and it’s unjust to tell the developing world that they can’t have tools like refrigerators and lights, so we might as well make coal as clean as possible, even though, as Fallows openly remarks, “Mining coal is notoriously dangerous, the remnants of those mines disfigure the Earth, and the by-products of coal’s combustion fill the air not simply with soot, smoke, and carbon dioxide but also with toxic heavy metals like mercury and lead, plus corrosive oxides of nitrogen and sulfur, among other pollutants.”
Not as charming as a wind farm, no. But in the most Machiavellian terms, we need coal and oil for day-to-day life and for progress. Energy technology as a means to provide power to a growing global middle class, curb global warming, and bridge international tensions is a smart thing to do, even if it means bracing for the continued growth of dirty energy, at least for a while.
Sara Rubin is a staff writer at Campus Progress.