Sunday, March 25, 2007

King Coal is Dead! Long Live the King!

Old King Cole

Since the middle of the last century clean coal has been the Holy Grail of the power industry: highly desired but unachievable. That is not stopping greedy business and politicians from looking for money to proceed with the Great Coal Rush.

36 states are racing to build at least 94 (possibly 150) new coal-fired electric power plants with the capacity to power at least 62 million American homes. This race dubbed America's new coal rush, has utilities hell-bent on get their plants built before inevitable new federal and state regulations are passed that restrict greenhouse gas emissions. Some 62 gigawatts of new production potential are being proposed. Illinois is neck and neck with Texas for having the most proposals. Illinois might build 8 or more gigawatts of new capacity with 10+ coal plants. Add to that list one more plant that SIU President Glen Poshard now says he wants built - a new $200 million coal-fired SIU power plant to replace its existing fluidized bed boiler system on the SIU campus.

You can’t be a politician from southern Illinois without exclaiming the virtues of coal as a cure for the unemployment, better schools and roads, tourism, and a litany of other civic goals. Every downstate politician loves to promote clean coal even though it is an impossible dream. (Call me a cynic, but the best use for coal is as a transitional feedstock for creating liquid fuels before be finally switch-over to a renewables-based transportation system.)

Yes, we’ve all been told repeatedly that the total known world reserves of coal might be sufficient for 200-300 years' of humanity’s needs at current consumption levels – never mind the environmental consequences. As evident in this map, the United States is the ‘Saudi Arabia of coal.’ Despite that analogy, I say King Coal’s future is limited!

How dare I speak such heresy? I say what I say about coal because:

» The burning of coal already produces more airborne mercury and greenhouse gases than any other single source. The Illinois Department of Health has already issued fish consumption advisories for every waterway in the state due to dangerous levels of mercury. Don’t eat the fish! Texas already ranks first in the U.S. in carbon emissions.
» The soot from coal plants is a leading cause of asthma attacks, lung cancer, heart attacks, and even premature death in the region. Asthma is the leading cause of school absenteeism due to chronic illness (about 10 million lost school days each year). In St. Louis, estimates are that approximately 15% of children under age 18 suffer from asthma. This is more than double the national average of 6.3%.
» Coal mines will continue to kill miners. Illinois has lost 21 miners since 1996. The nation lost 819 in that same period. Think that is bad? Eighty percent of all mining deaths now occur in China even though it has only 35% of the world’s coal. While their death rate is starting to decline, in 2006 China lost 4,746 coal miners! In 1942, China lost 1,549 miners in one day due to a coal-dust explosion.
» Midwest wind energy alone could meet 25% of America’s electricity needs and create thousands of additional jobs in manufacturing, installation and maintenance of clean energy systems.
» Solar power in all its many forms has too much potential to be ignored any longer.

The amount of solar energy intercepted by the Earth every minute is greater than the amount of energy the world uses in fossil fuels each year.
Even the conservative Business Week Magazine hints that the era of coal may be ending. It will surely be a slow death for coal as we transition through technologies being touted again such as coal gasification, methanation and liquification for creating liquid motor fuels.

The extensive research into clean coal technology has resulted in the general conclusion that these conversions will create vast amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – “far more than is released in the extraction and refinement of liquid fuel production from petroleum.” That isn’t exactly a popular conclusion for a region like southern Illinois that is suffering from perpetually high unemployment.

Eventually the research (Follow the money!) led to proposals to artificially sequester the vast amounts of carbon dioxide into artificial trees, the deep ocean or into underground geologic repositories. (Out of sight – Out of mind). The federal government has plans to aggressively research sequestration options. Those plans bring us to Illinois’ quest to be the lottery prize recipient of FutureGen – a $1 billion, 275 MW coal power plant that would sequester carbon dioxide emissions at a rate of about one million metric tons per year. After initial proposal rejections from several states, the two Illinois cities of Mattoon and Tuscola are in very intense competition with Odessa and Jewett, TX for the FutureGen prize.

FutureGen for Illinois touts the alleged benefits to the state:

» FutureGen will create an estimated 1,300 direct jobs during construction.
» FutureGen will create an estimated 3,250 indirect jobs during construction.
» FutureGen will create 150 permanent jobs.
» FutureGen will create 375 spin-off jobs in related investments.

So, why pick Illinois? As seen in the map above, Mattoon and Tuscola both sit above vast coal reserves. Those reserves contain more energy than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined.

A long list of Illinois notables supports the project. Curiously, the group’s website makes zero mention of any negative consequences. Therefore, there must be no risk right?

“When something is too good to be true, then it isn't”
Green Party gubernatorial candidate Rich Whitney described the FutureGen situation another way:

“If Johnny jumped off a cliff, does that mean you should jump off a cliff?” If Texas is foolish enough to offer a taxpayer bailout for an unknown quantum of liability arising from a potential disaster of unknown proportions, does that mean Illinois should follow suit? I don’t think so. I’m not going to stick Illinois taxpayers with a commitment of unknown proportions.”
What risk is that? He’s was talking about the monumental FutureGen risks that private insurance companies won’t insure. He’s talking about the financial risk that must be so eliminated that both Illinois and Texas are falling all over themselves to legislate away any financial risk to the plant operators if their construction plans go awry and emission sequestration doesn’t work. You know simple risks like:

» An earthquake releasing to the local atmosphere the estimated fifty million metric tons of carbon dioxide that would be stored underground compressed at over a thousand pounds/inch of pressure.
» The risk of rupturing the Carbon Dioxide (CO2) pipeline that Governor Blagojevich wants to construct stretching from the coal gasification plants planned to Illinois Basin oil fields in southeastern Illinois.
» The risk that that all hydrocarbon reservoirs are likely to leak over (geologic) time?
» The risk that carbon dioxide might start filling the basements of nearby homes.
» The risk that displacement of brine (salt water) into drinking water well aquifers.
» The risk of induced earthquakes or surface land deformation. (source)

Isn’t it time to just stop the madness?

Isn’t it time to end our addiction to coal?

The pursuit of clean coal distracts us from proven solutions for energy security. We should be telling all levels of government to stop coal subsidies and support programs for efficiency and clean energy. The sooner we abandon clean coal as the Holy Grail, the faster our nation can develop a sane energy policy that makes for a sustainable environment.

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