No silver bullets available here

Written by erin


I heard a luncheon speaker last week who channeled James Hansen as he asserted that mitigating climate change is, more than anything else, about coal. And that actions short of shutting down all the coal plants are something between a palliative and an unwarranted distraction.

This line of thinking couldn’t be more right and more wrong at the same time.

The math is incontrovertible. First, here’s a quick study on the relative quantities of greenhouse gases emitted when fossil fuels are combusted:

Emissions by Fuel.jpeg

Next, here’s the most recent data and projections on fuel use from the US Energy Information Administration:

Fig2 World Energy Use by Type.jpeg

So, yes, coal is exceptionally rich in greenhouse gas emissions, and unless there’s a meaningful intervention we’re going to burn a whole lot of coal.

But what is the best way to bring about that intervention? Does anyone really think we have the political will and the economic stamina to self-impose the short-term but serious and widespread socioeconomic dislocation which would result from swift closure of hundreds of coal-fired power plants in the US, never mind stemming their growth in China and India?

Coal is abundant and available domestically in China, the US, India and Russia, not coincidentally the four largest users of coal. And, though I don’t like my own conclusion, I simply can’t envision a future where nations with abundant domestic energy reserves don’t make use of them.

That’s why I’m increasingly a fan of aiming at better ways to use coal. Carbon capture and sequestration is one approach that’s received much attention(pdf). Another is new-age coal-to-liquid technologies, including some which combine coal with biomass to lower the carbon footprint of the resulting liquid fuel. Interestingly, coal-to-liquids research is the recipient of substantial US military funding, as the military has an important interest in securing domestic liquid fuels and the foresight to push suppliers to low-carbon solutions.

We do need to intervene on a grand scale in the coal combustion cycle. To make that happen, we need to step away from all-or-nothing rhetoric, continue to demonstrate our willingness to change by taking personal actions no matter how individually small, and create not only the incentives (that price on carbon we talk so much about) but the technology path to the low-carbon future.

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  1. Daniel Kirk-Davidoff

    Look, we need to cut emissions dramatically (like 80%) in 40 years. The *only* question we need to think about is, which is going to be cheaper in 40 years: electricity generated by coal with at least 80% of carbon emissions captured, or electricity generated (safely!) by wind, nuclear or solar. If the answer is that we don’t know yet, then we need to spread the subsidy money around. If the answer is that one of those is very likely to be really expensive compared to the others, then we shouldn’t subsidize it! I’m not really seeing a consensus on this yet, so I’m okay with subsidies for R&D on all of them, but I’m eager to be convinced that any one of them is a waste of money!

  2. Jacob S

    Let’s remember the true cost of coal, “clean” or otherwise:
    Firstly, CCS doesn’t exist in the U.S. Of all the 600 some coal fired power plants in the U.S., not one of them is set up to sequester carbon.
    CCS would also cost significantly more than its dirty counterpart. One study estimates that “adding “clean coal” technology would increase the capital cost of a power plant by 50 percent

  3. Chad Freckmann

    I would think the military’s concern is for availability of liquid fuels rather than carbon capture. Hence, the investment in coal to liquids.
    Look at the coal to liquid conversion process and you will soon see that the ERoEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) is very low and most likely produces more CO2 than burning coal directly.

  4. Erin Craig

    Actually, this math is changing which is one of the reasons I’m encouraged. Traditional coal-to-liquid technology such as we described a few years ago is indeed so energy-intensive as to be foolhardy. This isn’t surprising; these technologies were developed by Exxon (among others) so they could produce liquid fuel from coal resources that they happened to own, and had nothing to do with mitigating climate change. Newer technologies such as the one linked to in this post, were developed with the explicit goal of creating a domestic fuel with a low carbon footprint.

  5. Erin Craig

    Combusting coal isn’t clean. Mining for coal is a nasty, dangerous business. Oil and gas exploration, production, and combustion bring a host of problems, as does nuclear power. But that doesn’t mean we can or should turn them all off tomorrow. There are real and important counterbalancing political realities which make domestic fuel sources important and liquid fuel sources necessary for decades to come. So I’m calling attention here to new technologies which could release the energy bound up in coal without combusting and without capturing. That’s a good path to walk down and I’m interested to see how it comes out.

  6. Dan

    What will a relatively stable climate future look like?
    Consider the following: it might look like 80% lower greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as feasible within say 40 years (if the oceans can become more alkaline, if not than more than 80%). Reducing deforestation will help some but is no silver bullet by any means.
    Greater energy efficiency would go a long way in reducing demand for power. Could the energy future involve save clean renewables (wind, solar, wave power?, heat pumps, celluosic ethanol, and other technologies) without relying on coal and other relative high greenhouse gas producing technologies.
    Could a program be designed to develop the most cost effective ways of producing energy in relation to greenhouse gases produced in order to achieve a relatively stable climate.
    Other thoughts and suggestions are welcome
    (see also http://NewWindsOfChange.com0.

  7. Anonymous

    Not to discredit the anti-coal perspective on Global Warming, but Solar energy and the Earth’s orbit are included to have an advanced mathematics, only their cosmology is not proliferated in to the public interest on the subject of Global Warming, and therefore climate change only recently appears as the subject change to have occurred in nature as a result of man’s intervention with greenhouse gases, when the real probability is that Climate Change occurs in nature as a result of orbital mechanics and greenhouse gases and the “hockeystick” effect are discredited by further investigation on others research on the subject. I am inclined to believe that Global Warming is caused by the Earth’s proximity to the Sun at any one time and all the relative constituencies pertaining to life on Earth including greenhouse gases. Entropy is inevitable. Going to extremes to slow entropy to a crawl would seem to be a reasonable goal even with populations’ demand on energy, commercial extinction of resources will eventually occur if renewable energy sources have not replaced them, and the natural cycling of the Earth’s resources will eventually bring the Earth back in to some kind of equilibrium with what ever is left of her, cataclysms not included.

  8. fyzixman

    What our worthy is referring to, somewhat obliquely is the Milankovitch Cycle which is a very complicated equation that involves the sun’s energy output, which fluctuates, and orbital mechanics of the earth and the rest of the planets in our solar system. However the unknown in the equation is the effect of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Will that amplify the effects we would see normally or not? No one knows at this time but we suspect the answer is yes.

  9. Eric B

    Coal, nuclear, wind, solar, biomass and on and on. None of it addresses the root problem: Consumption (lack of conservation).
    Unfortunately such a solution is not as dazzling as a field of solar panels, forests of windmills, fleets of hybrid cars and isolated bastions “clean” nuclear plants. In fact, it’s painful.
    Everyone does not need a car. Everyone does not need to run lights and climate control 24 hrs a day/365 days a year. Everyone does not need the latest new gadget or giant house. Everyone does not need turf grass. Everyone doesn’t need the cheapest airline ticket.
    If we can reform the culture of consumption, we can simultaneously cut greenhouse gas, pollutants, the ills related to consumption and the oft-debated topic of alternative energy.

  10. Eric B

    I forgot to mention, it would cut the need for war!

  11. Randy C-B

    There is an abundant alternative energy that gets very little press – the US geothermal resources.
    The “sweet light” of geothermal steam is located in relatively shallow wells along the Pacific “Ring of Fire” and can directly power turbine generators.
    There is an area nearly 3 times as large, stretching as far as East Texas, of “moderate” resources that can generate electricity at moderate depths. The binary system, requiring a fluid differential as small as 160 degrees, uses the geothermal fluid in a heat exchanger to flash a refrigerant that drives a turbine generator. The geothermal fluid is pumped down a return well and the refrigerant is cooled back to liquid by a radiator or cool-water heat exchanger. The two fluids never mingle.
    Beyond these lie deeper resources known as “hot rock” wells which can be geothermally activated by pumping water down where it turns to steam and returns to drive a turbine generator. Hot rock wells can provide electricity virtually everywhere in the US.
    Compared to coal and nuclear generation, the list of geothermal advantages is long:
    * Baseload energy – 24/7 Easily scaled to anticipate growth and easily modulated to follow fluctuating demand.
    * Comparitively low tech – much simpler, safer, cleaner.
    * Distributed resources dictate a distributed, more robust energy supply.
    * There is no fuel to mine, enrich, refine, purchase, transport, guard or kill for.
    * No waste to dispose of, toxic or otherwise.
    * Much smaller footprint and ecological impact.
    * Per megawatt, geothermal generation costs less to build and run than a traditional coal plant, with an up-time better than either coal or nuclear plants.
    * Terawatts of electricity are available for a about 80,000 years.
    Reference: Southern Methodist University’s Geothermal Department.
    So why, if not money politics, do we keep insisting on the need for coal and nuclear energy sources?
    Popular wisdom deems wind and solar too intermittant and expensive, and thus easily dismissed as impractical. It is advantageous for the coal and nuclear provider’s to thus limit the “sustainable” alternative arguement, because then the public will not know about and demand geothermal development.

  12. Angus

    The premise of the article is continued consumption. Amory Lovens, who served in the Carter White House, made an excellent case, and gave his arguments a memorable name: Soft Energy Paths. What he meant is that pushing demand down, vigorously, and rigorously yields a richer result. Transportation and building both commercial and residential have an enormous amount of low hanging fruit, and the two are over a third of demand, by many measures.
    This surely deserves some consideration.
    If radical measures are called for, radical conservation is surely cheaper in every way,
    Thank you, terrapas, and EricB, for raising a similar argument.

  13. Eric B

    Thanks Angus! I will take your comments as inspiration to continue to show my neighbors and family that a bike, bus and train is for people with class, not crass.

  14. Erica Etelson

    Clean coal through carbon capture? Fahgetaboutit. A recent study published in the Journal of Petroleum Engineering concluded that this technolgoy is “profoundy unfeasible” because of the vast amount of land that would be needed to store the captured carbon underground. See

  15. Daniel Kirk-Davidoff

    And here’s a strongly worded refutation of Ehlig-Economides and Economides:
    The authors, Cooley and Davidson, at PNNL, say Ehlig-Economides and Economides
    “base [their] conclusion on a number of assumptions that the peer reviewed technical literature and decades of carbon dioxide (CO2) injection experience have proven invalid. In particular, the paper is built upon two flawed premises: first, that effective CO2 storage requires the presence of complete structural closure bounded on all sides by impermeable media, and second, that any other storage system is guaranteed to leak. These two assumptions inform every aspect of the authors

  16. Anonymous

    Well spoken Randy. But, you beat around the bush a little. Big energy is, without coming right out and saying it, framing the discussion in terms of winners and losers. If we move away from coal, oil, gas and nuclear then the entrenched big energy companies loose their dominance in our economy and they frame it as scare tactics of job losses and excessive costs for everything else. That is, they loose while someone else wins and they have become used to winning for over 100 years. Needless to say they don’t like the picture that they see.

  17. fyzixman

    A big thank you to Angus and Eric for raising valid points. I too find Dr. Lovins to be an inspiration. I am living in and working on a 100+ year old house and by applying the priciples of Dr. Lovins I have, and will continue making the house more energy efficient. I also like my bike.
    It rubs off, my elderly parents are also making their home much more efficeint – and loving the results.

  18. Jeremy

    The one part of the equation is population surge and aspirations. Currently, we are on a “growth” “development” mentality.
    Unfortunately, economic “growth” means increase resource use in today’s world.
    Jeff Rubin illustrated that efficiency alone doesn’t curtail consumption, we just use more.
    Oh, nature already has a process to sequestrate carbon, it’s called making coal!
    I, myself, am doubtful that we will curtail our use, especially when our infrastructure and capital investments are already made.
    No, folks are not going to freeze in winter to curtail their carbon footprint.
    Nor, will they bike or walk in winter.
    The Alberta tar sands project illustrates the length we are willing to take to keep our oil addiction going.
    Sad, but true.