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If no coal, then what?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Even as the US market for coal appears to be declining (first due to market pressure from cheaper natural gas and now EPA GHG rules), US exports of its coal abroad has been a sore spot. Tina Casey has an interesting post over at The Energy Collective where she argues that if support for Keystone XL evaporates and Secretary of State John Kerry is able to lock us in to a global climate pact in 2015, then US coal is on numbered days:

This is where Kerry comes in. According to the Times, Kerry is looking ahead to the negotiation of a major climate pact in 2015, which means that coal-hungry China will be front and center.

Now let’s connect the dots. If the 2015 pact does happen, and if it sets some meaningful milestones for transitioning out of coal fired power production, the global market for US coal will start to dry up.

I think it’s important to discuss what the alternatives would be if there are global limits on coal consumption. If coal is off the table, then you need something that provides generally the same benefits of coal: easily dispatchable, high energy density, compatible with existing infrastructure etc. But it needs to avoid the GHG emissions of coal. Renewables and energy storage are on the table, but I think natural gas would be an appealing alternative to coal in global markets – at least in the short to medium term.

And perhaps as part of a climate pact, the US opens up more of its natural gas resources for export, which could then serve countries like China and Germany. The US would need to expedite the LNG export permitting process and there would need to be some concession from the chemical industry (who uses natural gas as a feedstock for many processes, like making fertilizer) who are worried about rising prices.

In short: yes, it’s an interesting idea, but perhaps more interesting will be the alternatives that are acceptable under a “no coal” scenario.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Uncle.Al 6:38 pm 01/10/2014

    1) Burn corn, wheat, oats, rice, barley, millet, rye, teff, triticale, amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa, chickpeas, lentils, sorghum, sugar beets, potatoes, turnips, onions, soya, canola, peanuts, beans, raisins, alfalfa, cheese, butterfat, fish, fruit, nuts, wine, and whiskey for energy. Eat something else, you eco-terrorists.
    2) The Affordable Fuel Act. Every American will be liposuctioned three times/year for conversion to SoylentFuel, or pay a $5000 fine, er, tax each instance. Federal employees and illegal aliens are exempt, as are LGBT and privileged minorities.
    3) Invade Canada for maple syrup – the fuel of tomorrow!
    4) End unemployment,

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  2. 2. sethdayal 2:04 am 01/11/2014

    Wogan writes that we need

    “easily dispatchable, high energy density, compatible with existing infrastructure”

    But oddly doesn’t mention nuclear which meets his criteria far better than do coal or gas.

    “But it needs to avoid the GHG emissions of coal. Renewables and energy storage are on the table, but I think natural gas would be an appealing alternative”

    Here Wogan makes his usual egregious error that he repeats no matter how many times he corrected. One can only assume he has some sort of association with Big Oil.

    Real science peer reviewed and published in reputable journal has gas as a worse GHG producer than coal when the copious methane leaks from production to delivery are added in. An inconvenient truth for Big Oil, Obama it seems has forbidden the EPA from including methane in its GHG statistics.

    From Harvard Google “study-methane-emissions-natural-gas-production”

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  3. 3. sault 1:12 pm 01/11/2014

    “The US opens up more of its natural gas resources for export.”

    Expect Russia to torpedo this plan at every opportunity. They enjoy extorting Europe through natural gas sales and the price of Russian gas is one of the main reasons that Germany is burning more coal recently.

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  4. 4. sault 1:13 pm 01/11/2014


    How come those without any facts or logic to make their points like you have to make silly strawman arguments in order to compensate?

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  5. 5. Uncle.Al 2:39 pm 01/11/2014

    US annual energy consumption is 97.3×10^15 BTU, or 1.03×10^20 joules, or 1.14 tonnes of matter annihilated into energy. That must be sourced. A kiloton nuclear yield is 0.05 g of matter annihilated.

    Where is your “silly strawman”? A single one gigawatt coal-fired power plant burns 538 tonnes/hr of high grade coal 24/7, 28.5 million pounds of coal/day. Terminate all street lighting to Save the Earth? PV = energy, 101.325 J/liter-atm. Calculate the energy contained within all pneumatic tires – and the annual energy consumption to keep them inflated. Are ya gonna generate that energy consumption by burning algae?

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  6. 6. Mercurius 7:01 pm 01/11/2014

    Some new solar plants are selling energy for less per kilowatt hour than coal plants. We don’t need coal, what we need is utility scale storage for the day that solar peak production exceeds peak demand.

    Any set of alternatives that doesn’t include solar is simply a false choice.

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  7. 7. oldfarmermac 7:54 pm 01/11/2014

    Mr Wogan and Miss Casey manage to do an astounding job of ignoring a number of facts that effectively blow their arguments out of the water.
    Canada is a soverign nation and it is clear to anybody who has spent a few hours reading the news about Canadian intentions that if the Keystone isn’t finished (some of it has already been built) Canada will build a pipeline to the west coast and perhaps one to the east too.This will take some time of course since many of the people in the path of the proposed westward pipeline have vowed to stop it but this is a federal question and there’s many,many billions of dollars at stake; the locals will be bought off or steamrollered.

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  8. 8. oldfarmermac 8:32 pm 01/11/2014

    The tar sands oil is getting to market now by train and the rail traffic involved is growing by the day;there is some justified talk about tightening up the revenant railroad regulations but none about shutting down the trains so far as I know.

    The Chinese are playing a long game and they might or might not cut deal to cut back on the use of coal if there’s enough in it for them but they aren’t about to allow themselves to be locked out access to Canadian oil. They are the big dogs now when it comes to building huge overseas infrastructure.Methinks both these authors are either ill-informed or else deliberately ignoring some well known basic facts to further an agenda of their own.

    I’m personally convinced that we’re already toast in terms of global warming but of course we should still do all we can to slow down the burning of coal in particular and oil as well;for now burning more gas in lieu of less coal is a good compromise.

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  9. 9. oldfarmermac 8:59 pm 01/11/2014

    Heres a link to an article written by an actual oil man , a petroleum geologist with a lifetime of experience finding , drilling for, and trading oil. He’s not a professional writer- but he knows what he’s talking about.

    It’s well worth reading if interested in the international oil trade and the role China is playing in it now and expects to play in the future.

    THis publication-Scierntific American- ran a lead article back in 98 about “the end of cheap oil”. It has proven to be pretty much on the money; anybody who has access to it should read it, and contemplate that since then, we’ve burned very roughly another eighty plus million barrels of a finite resource every single day.(Some of the stuff we call oil these days isn’t, not really.)

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  10. 10. oldfarmermac 9:15 am 01/12/2014

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  11. 11. tygseflrpd 10:36 am 01/12/2014

    If this agenda-driven president eliminates coal, the US is in deep trouble. Our economy is stretched to its limits, The only viable energy source that has an infrastructure in place is nuclear. Renewable sources are a progressive’s wet dream. They simply do not have the energy content and would require an energy storage facility of huge proportions. Natural gas cannot meet our industrial energy needs. If you want manufacturing to stop totally, that’s a good way to destroy it.

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  12. 12. sethdiyal 1:22 pm 01/12/2014

    Mercurius “Some new solar plants are selling energy for less per kilowatt hour than coal plants. ”

    Yup but the cost of solar is 45 cents a kwh + 30 cents a kwh for the additional grid system costs you allude to. The taxpayer makes up the difference.

    Note the operating cost of coal production is 6 cents a kwh. With solar cost doomed to rise rapidly when Chinese dumping ends, its going to take a heck of a carbon tax to put solar on an equal footing.

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  13. 13. oldfarmermac 6:06 pm 01/12/2014

    The comment above by sethdiyal grossly exaggerates the costs of renewable electricity.

    Nobody who is both honest and reasonably well informed, even the most vocal fan of renewables, expects renewable power in the form of solar and wind to replace more than a minor fraction of coal and natural gas fueled generation within the next couple of decades.

    If we’re very very lucky we might get to 20 percent renewable electricity by 2034.In there meantime people who go around spouting nonsense about the costs of renewable energy they get from various sources owned and operated by people such as the koch brothers never stop to consider that the prices of coal and natural gas only move in one direction over any extended period of time- up.

    The operating cost of a wind farm or pv farm is a small fraction of a cent , rather than six cents which is the figure quoted by sethdiyal.

    Every hole in the ground eventually runs dry.

    I’m very interested to hear how much he thinks coal and natural gas will sell for in twenty years, as a percentage of what they cost today.

    I live near many worked out mines in West Virginia- mines in which some of my relatives were once employed.

    The papers in the area run occasional article about the difficulties the local economy is facing in the near future as more mines close.

    The easy coal is gone in half of America- the other half of it won’t last forever.I’m a believer in nuclear power myself not because it is safe in any ultimate sense of the word, but rather because nuclear is safer than coal by any honest accounting and renewables can’t be scaled up fast enough to avoid a climate disaster.

    I have asked numerous people who pro nuke and anti renewable are what the Price Anderson Act is about and not one out of ten so far has known the answer.

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  14. 14. sethdayal 12:10 am 01/13/2014


    I’d suggest you learn to read before spewing.

    “The operating cost of a wind farm or pv farm is a small fraction of a cent , rather than six cents which is the figure quoted by sethdiyal.”

    The 45 cents I quote for solar power is found here

    Google “transcanada-acquires-additional-ontario-power-plant-from-canadian-solar”

    Actually you will note that I was clearing referring to coal plant where 4 cents of the 6 is fuel cost.

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  15. 15. singing flea 3:41 am 01/13/2014

    When the oil, natural gas and coal become too expensive to exploit any more we can start using all the discarded plastic we created out of it all for fuel. It’s not rocket science.

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  16. 16. oldfarmermac 7:51 pm 01/13/2014

    Scroll down thru this to see what the true current costs of wind and solar power are- the leveled costs of new recent construction, with high and low costs on a regional basis.

    Of course there are old contracts out there written specifically to get the industry off the ground.

    When I was a kid I paid a weeks wages for a “nineteen transistor” radio;
    of course solar costs won’t come down according to Moore’s Law but they appear to be dropping by half every few years now.

    The Germans are now installing new small scale solar for half what it costs in the US because they have streamlined the process and achieved economies of scale not yet possible here in the US.

    The wind and the sun will never cost m anything , but coal and natural gas prices will continue to creep steadily upward over any extended period of time.

    It’s going to take a long time to switch from coal and natural gas and we need to stay on the ball in doing so because the finite supply is shrinking while the population is growing.

    A major economy busting, war starting supply crunch and price spike is inevitable sooner or later.

    Then there is the problem of global warming- but I take it that just about all our anti renewable resident commenters renewables don’t think warming is real.

    There’s the existing well documented cost to the public health and to clean up behind the coal industry to be considered too.

    Wind farms occupy a lot of ground but except for the pads under the towers and the access roads the land is still available for farming or grazing and it’s still good wildlife habitat for the most part.

    Compared to the amount of land utterly ruined or at least transformed into a new man made environment if reclaimed by coal miners, the footprints of wind and solar farms are trivial.

    And insofar as the amount of capacity that will have to be built to back up wind farms- nearly all of it will have to be built anyway for the next decade or two, because the capacity of the grid is going to have to be expanded wind and solar or no.

    The beauty of wind and solar lies in two aspects; one is cleanliness; the other is the avoidance of fuel costs.

    However much we get means that we avoid buying the amount of coal and natural gas that would otherwise be needed to generate the w actual kilowatt hours provided by wind and solar.

    I think we’re getting about four percent of our electricity right now from wind in the United States.
    If I have time, I’ll try to look up how much we spend on coal annually to generate that much electricity.

    It’s going to be a huge amount- and lets not forget that existing wind farms are going to save the same number of tons of coal every year for thirty years or so before they need a major overhaul with new towers and blades and generating units.

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  17. 17. oldfarmermac 8:55 pm 01/13/2014

    According to figures put out by the EIA the average price of coal paid by electrical utilities last year was about 45 bucks a ton, and the utility generating industry burned about 932,000,000 million tons. to table 26

    Another EIA table puts the average prices paid for that coal at 45 bucks per tons.

    Even four percent of the national annual coal electrical bill bill is a hell of a lot of money!

    existing wind farms are going to save us roughly 900,000,000 times 45 times 30 years times four percent in fuel costs- assuming all the fuel saved would be coal- don’t the subsidies collected by the wind industry look sort of like a world class bargain?

    I realize that this is a very rough approximation and leaves out a lot that would change the end figure of the amount save on coal; the actual savings might be considerably less in tons of coal , but on the other hand they will probably be much higher in dollars because coal is sure to go up.

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  18. 18. oldfarmermac 9:37 pm 01/13/2014

    For the 12 months until October 2013, the electricity produced from wind power in the United States amounted to 163.849 terawatt-hours, or 4.06% of all generated electrical energy.[5]
    from wikipedia- the number 5 s reference is federal govt data and easily located by going t to wind and wikipedia- I forgot to copy that link.

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