Eliminating coal from the electricity equation …

This diary will be a relative short and sweet one.

For once, no links.

Apologies, no photographs.

Just a very simply outline of how the United States could, without Heruclean efforts, eliminate coal-fired electricity from the electrical system by 2030.

And, do so while improving the economy.

Very simply, 50% of US electricity comes from coal at this time.  This is a serious portion of the overall US carbon load. It is also a major source of mercury and other pollutants worsening our lives. Now, the United States is referred to as the “Saudi Arabia of Coal”.  

So, how can we eliminate the US dependency on coal-fired electricity while improving the economy and not increasing dependency on foreign energy sources?

Here is a

Energy Efficiency

The United States’ greatest reserve of energy potential is not our coal, but our wasteful energy use patterns. Inadequate building standards (inadequate insulation, leakage, windows), inefficient appliances/electronics burning up vampire power, McSUVs and McMansions, etc …

The United States can achieve, without any leaps in technology required, a 20+% reduction in current electricity use via energy efficiency even accounting for projected economic growth over this time period.  (If the United States becomes quite serious, with a “culture of conservation” joining aggressive efficiency, this is likly a serious understatement of what could be achievable.)

A shift in transport

A large-scale penetration of Plug-in-Electric Vehicles (PHEVs), Electric Vehicles (EVs), and electrification of rail helping to “end our oil addiction”.  This would increase electricity use, perhaps in the range of 5%.  

A where are we moment.  This 5% increase would mean a net 15% reduction from today’s electricity or 30% reduction in coal-fired electricity.

Combined-Heat-Power (CHP)

One of the interesting challenges before us/US are all of the regulatory and such barriers that need to be changed so that “making the right choice is the easy and preferred choice” when it comes to energy issues.  One of those obstacles are the obstacles that ‘small’/’medium’ producers can face in selling to the grid. Many industries require significant amounts of heat. The energy burned for heat could be making electricity as well as that heat.  But, other than it ‘not being how business has always been done’, selling excess electricity (and moving it around) isn’t necessarily easy.  If we could change this non-technological barrier, these “heat” requirements could be combined with electricity generation (not just in industry, but in many large institutions related to, for example, their hot water heating).

With sensible regulatory change, CHP could provide 5% of today’s electricity (low-end of potential). That 5% puts US to a 40% reduction of today’s coal power.

Renewable Power

Okay, it is time to take renewable power seriously. Very seriously.  Wind Power is growing at 25+% per year.  Solar is 40% and, from the contracts going out, actually looks to be accelerating.  Ocean systems are emerging. And, there are some bright prospects for Geothermal.

Wind power penetration: 15+% penetration, now at a minimum of 70% elimination of today’s coal-fired electricity

Biomass/waste electricity: 10+% of today’s electricity, now at 90% elimination of coal.

Solar (PV, CSP, hot water (displacing electric water heaters)); Ocean (tidal, current, wave power); Geothermal; other …: 10+% of today’s electrical demand, now at 110% of today’s coal-fired electricity.

Nuclear Power:  In the range of 50% increase, over 20 years, of today’s nuclear power generation. This would equate to 10% of today’s electricity.

30% to spare

Total this out and it provides roughly 130% of today’s coal-fired electricity.

Do I want to argue over any specific one of these numbers?  No. In fact, every one of these is rather conservative in the face of advocates of any particular technology or approach to our challenges.

The real point:  If we choose to take the challenge seriously…  If we recognize that there is not a Silver Bullet solution…  If we seriously pursue a portfolio management approach, with deployment of existing capacities and development of new ones across the portfolios… If … We have the capacity to remove coal from the US (and Global) energy equation and to make a quite serious dent in US and Global Green House Gas (GHG) emissions.

This requires being serious about energy efficiency as a society (serious, perhaps not maniacal), renewable energy options, and reasonable in terms of potential nuclear power expansion.

And the economy?

How can we do this and not destroy the economy, some might ask.

First, we must begin to calculate “cost” and “benefit” as not somehow limited to those who sign the pieces of paper, but the full implications for society. Thus, mercury emissions from coal-fired electricity are “external” costs to electricity prices but are real in terms of health impacts and real in terms of warnings to pregnant women to avoid eating tuna.

Second, we must recognize that “cost” is “cost to own” rather than “cost to buy”.  A compact fluorescent (CFL) bulb might cost more than an incandescent bulb to buy, but the electricity savings pay that difference back in months — and continue to pay back. Same is true for better built homes, cars, appliances, etc …

Third, we need to recognize system-of-system impacts.  Building wind turbines, domestically, will require more upfront money than to build a coal-fired plant but wind costs less than coal once the system is built and the construction, operation, and maintenance of the wind turbines creates far more jobs than the coal-fired plant’s life-cycle does.  Renewables and energy efficiency will shift some energy costs into creating economic activity, into jobs in communities, that will strengthen the societal fabric and improve the national, regional, and local economies as well.

Have the cake and eat it too …

Truly, we can eliminate coal and its pollution from the equation.  It is a choice before US.  There are many spending tens of millions of dollars to distort this, to try to argue that dealing with global warming will hurt the economy. $10s of millions to argue for Less Dirty Coal (falsely called “Clean Coal”).  $10s of millions to argue that we don’t have real options.  

We can strengthen the economy while fighting Global Warming.  

We don’t need less-deadly coal since we don’t require the coal.  

We do have options.

We just have to find the will to make the choice to pursue them.

YOU can help
make America
Energy Smart.

Ask yourself:  

Are you doing
your part to


NOTES:  This diary results from yet another occasion responding to someone arguing that coal use is inevitable, that we don’t have meaningful options for eliminating it.  I can provide links (after links) for every assertion and every option presented in this diary.  Now is not the time … it is time for a simple conversation.


8 responses to “Eliminating coal from the electricity equation …

  1. Solar water heater would be a good idea to save cost and energy rather than depending on coal

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  4. Cumberland Sibyl

    Thanks for this. you’re so right.

  5. Hi, I would like to say that I have been successfully heating my home now for over 5 years with wood. It truly is an awesome way to save money on heating costs. I would advise anyone considering a wood furnace or some type of wood heating device to have a good free source of your own wood though, preferably your own wood lot.

  6. Coal is such an incredible material yet it is often misused. Let’s expand on this a little:

    Coal is a fossil fuel formed in ecosystems where plant remains were preserved by water and mud from oxidization and biodegradation, thus sequestering atmospheric carbon. Coal is a readily combustible black or brownish-black rock. It is a sedimentary rock, but the harder forms, such as anthracite coal, can be regarded as metamorphic rocks because of later exposure to elevated temperature and pressure. It is composed primarily of carbon along with assorted other elements, including sulfur. It is the largest single source of fuel for the generation of electricity world-wide, as well as the largest world-wide source of carbon dioxide emissions, which, according to the IPCC are responsible for causing climate change and global warming. In terms of carbon dioxide emissions, coal is slightly ahead of petroleum and about double that of natural gas.[1] Coal is extracted from the ground by coal mining, either underground mining or open pit mining (surface mining).

    Coal is primarily used as a solid fuel to produce electricity and heat through combustion. World coal consumption is about 6.2 billion tons annually, of which about 75% is used for the production of electricity.[citation needed]China produced 2.38 billion tonnes in 2006 and India produced about 447.3 million tonnes in 2006. 83.2% of China’s electricity comes from coal. The USA consumes about 1.053 billion tonnes of coal each year, using 90% of it for generation of electricity. The world in total produced 6.19 billion tonnes of coal in 2006.

    When coal is used for electricity generation, it is usually pulverized and then burned in a furnace with a boiler. The furnace heat converts boiler water to steam, which is then used to spin turbines which turn generators and create electricity. The thermodynamic efficiency of this process has been improved over time. “Standard” steam turbines have topped out with some of the most advanced reaching about 35% thermodynamic efficiency for the entire process, which means 65% of the coal energy is waste heat released into the surrounding environment. Old coal power plants, especially “grandfathered” plants, are significantly less efficient and produce higher levels of waste heat.

    The emergence of the supercritical turbine concept envisions running a boiler at extremely high temperatures and pressures with projected efficiencies of 46%, with further theorized increases in temperature and pressure perhaps resulting in even higher efficiencies.[7]

    Other efficient ways to use coal are combined cycle power plants, combined heat and power cogeneration, and an MHD topping cycle.

    Approximately 40% of the world electricity production uses coal. The total known deposits recoverable by current technologies, including highly polluting, low energy content types of coal (i.e., lignite, bituminous), might be sufficient for 300 years’ use at current consumption levels, although maximal production could be reached within decades (see World Coal Reserves, below).

    A more energy-efficient way of using coal for electricity production would be via solid-oxide fuel cells or molten-carbonate fuel cells (or any oxygen ion transport based fuel cells that do not discriminate between fuels, as long as they consume oxygen), which would be able to get 60%–85% combined efficiency (direct electricity + waste heat steam turbine).[citation needed] Currently these fuel cell technologies can only process gaseous fuels, and they are also sensitive to sulfur poisoning, issues which would first have to be worked out before large scale commercial success is possible with coal. As far as gaseous fuels go, one idea is pulverized coal in a gas carrier, such as nitrogen. Another option is coal gasification with water, which may lower fuel cell voltage by introducing oxygen to the fuel side of the electrolyte, but may also greatly simplify carbon sequestration.

  7. Dave … Interesting and informative comment.

    If the target is 80+% reduction in CO2 emissions, globally, over 40 years, if we could get coal efficiency up from 35% to 70+%, we’re in the range of a 50% cut already. And, if we have some form of carbon capture out of the smoke stack …

    We can eliminate coal … we can (near) eliminate emissions … we can pursue both paths and get some success through both in our efforts to foster a prosperous and sustainable future.

  8. I think its time to give coal the shuv. Its a dirty old polution problem and not a modern energy.

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