It's Not Just Peak Oil: It's Peak Coal, Too (April 25, 2008)
Way back on October 30, 2007 I received this startling email from well-informed reader D.L.F.:
We always hear about "peak oil," but I ran across this article and chart for "peak coal:" Appalachian Coal: the faucet is almost dry.
I was finally nudged into doing further research by frequent contributor Riley T., who sent in this link to energyshortage.org which tracks energy shortages worldwide.
Various pundits and cheerleaders in the media and the coal industry ceaselessly tout the "fact" that the U.S. supposedly has 400 years of coal supply, and hence (or so we are to assume) we don't need no stinkin' oil, we'll just burn coal. We can gasify it, using the same technology the Nazis deployed in World War II. (Why does that factoid leave us less than reassured?)
But a funny thing happened on the way to energy independence on the strong back of limitless coal: the Department of Energy reckons Appalachia has about 10-15 years of coal left. Oops. First, Peak Oil, then Peak Natural Gas, and now Peak Coal. Dang.
I hope you're not too surprised when I tell you Peak Coal isn't even the worst of it. Not even close. Details, details; don't you hate it when facts disrupt your rosy scenario? Facts like the railroads can't haul any more coal, and the price of coal is rising rapidly, with no end in sight. Talk about inconvenient realities.
Building more coal-fired power plants:big mistake; Environmental expert explains why investors and power companies getting fired up for coal growth will get burned financially:
The rising costs of plant construction and coal transportation are also a major factor: New cost estimates are far higher than the old cost estimates. Coal-fired power plants were expected to cost approximately $1 billion apiece to build, but the big ones are costing closer to $3 billion apiece. Early cost estimates looked at what would happen if each plant was built by itself, but if we build dozens at a time, the competition for engineers and steel and concrete becomes very acute. So there’s major international competition going on.Have you ever passed by a large coal-fired electrical generation plant? The first thing you notice is the long, seemingly endless line of rail cars lined up outside. That's because a typical large plant burns 4 million tons of coal a year. At $56/ton, that's $224,000,000 a year for the fuel. If that were to double--which industry experts are predicting--then the bill for one large coal-fired plant would top $500 million. Each. How "cheap" is that electricity now?
BHP Billiton is close to a deal with South Korean steel giant Posco for a price of $US300 ($325) a tonne for coking coal in 2008-09, up from $US97 in 2007-08.Despite the near-certainty of doubling/tripling prices, Peak Coal, emissions of sulfur dioxide (cause of acid rain), the world is so desperate to maintain the status quo that more plants are being built, even in Europe:
Europe Turns Back to Coal, Raising Climate Fears (NYT, April 23 2008)
Meanwhile, China is famously building a new coal-fired plant a week: Pollution From Chinese Coal Casts a Global Shadow.
In the event you are skeptical about coal price increases, please check the statistics gathered by the Energy Information Administration. The first column is for Central Appalachian coal (12,500 Btu), the second Northern Appalachian (13,000 Btu), the third, Illinois Basin (11,800 Btu) and the fourth Uinta Basin (11,700 Btu).
(The first two are metals grade, the second two thermal grade.)
Those are increases of 10% - 20% in three out of the four regions within the space of six weeks. If that isn't "spiraling out of control," then what is it? "Modest adjustment for inflation"? What happens to all those rosy predictions of "cheap electricity" if coal doubles in price and then doubles again?
And recall that prices are set internationally for commodities. If a U.S. producer can sell wheat for $13/bushel, do you reckon he or she will sell it in the U.S. for $6? The same pricing mechanism is in play for coal. If U.S. producers can sell coal overseas for $100/ton, that will be the price here, too.
That's capitalism, baby. There are no discounts just because you expected the price to stay "cheap" for decades to come.
So is that the worst? Not by a long shot. It seems that burning 700 million tons of coal every year to generate about 50% of the electricity in the U.S. is releasing 1,000 tons of radioactive uranium and thorium every year.
The irony is a wee bit thick, isn't it? Here we all are, convinced by ceaseless decades of propaganda (or shall we say "one-sided presentations"?) about dangerous, horrible nuclear plants, while all the while burning entire mountains of coal that's releasing 1,000 tons of radioactive material into our environment every year--1,000 tons more than the radioactive materials released by all the nuclear plants put together and twice as much as all the uranium fuel burned to make 15% of the electricity in the U.S.
(Let me note right here I know the problem with nuclear waste disposal/storage, and I am not suggesting nuclear power is a panacea; I am simply pointing out that 1,000 tons of radioactive material, on top of CO2 and sulfur dioxide does not make coal "clean" or "healthy" for the people living around the plants, or "cheap".)
Let's turn now to a fascinating report issued by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Since
it's a nuclear facility, we can expect some kind words for nuclear power; nonetheless,
the facts are the facts, and here are the facts. Burning coal produces stunning
quantities of radioactive materials.
First, coal combustion produces carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are suspected to cause climatic warming, and it is a source of sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides, which are harmful to human health and may be largely responsible for acid rain. Second, although not as well known, releases from coal combustion contain naturally occurring radioactive materials--mainly, uranium and thorium.So let's see: Peak Coal, prices skyrocketing with no end in sight, limited rail capacity to ship more coal, rising cost of transporting coal, intractable pollution/health problems, including a thousand tons of radioactive material released into the environment every year--what's not to like? Everything. Coal as savior? Not if you consider the financial and health-related issues.
Yes, it may be technologically feasible to scrub
all the sulfur dioxide and all the radioactive particulates out of the millions of tons
of coal ash and other combustion products released by the burning of 700 million tons of
coal: but at what cost? If coal is no longer "cheap" even if you don't add in
the health and environmental costs, then to call it cost-effective is delusional.
copyright © 2008 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.
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