Decoupling from “King” Coal

July 15, 2011 at 7:23 pm Leave a comment

When we think about the production of energy, our minds tend to focus (drill in?) on gasoline, that is, oil. Almost everyone has some awareness of at least one part of the Gasoline/Oil Problem: how much it costs, the foreign countries that have large amounts of oil, the oil spills, the dwindling supply, the greenhouse gases released by gasoline engines, and so on. Our last president said that our nation was “addicted to oil” and the phrase was powerful because “oil” registers in our conscious thought.

So what about coal? Did you know that when it comes to generating electricity, coal (not oil) is king? Since 1995, coal-burning power plants have provided roughly 50% of the energy needed to drive electrons through the nation’s power grid. Turn on your computer, click the remote on your TV, text a friend, flick on the lights – 50% of the power (on average) comes from the burning of coal. And did you know about the greenhouse gases produced by coal? 41% of worldwide CO2 emissions in 2005 were attributed to coal burning.*

But CO2 is only part of the Coal Problem. A new article from the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1219, 73-98, reports on the “Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal”. There is pollution, waste, and hazard at every stage, and the coal industry doesn’t have to pay for most of it. You and I do. As the authors put it, “Each stage in the life cycle of coal—extraction, transport, processing, and combustion—generates a waste stream and carries multiple hazards for health and the environment. These costs are external to the coal industry and are thus often considered “externalities.”We estimate that the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually.Many of these so-called externalities are, moreover, cumulative. Accounting for the damages conservatively doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh generated, making wind, solar, and other forms of nonfossil fuel power generation, along with investments in efficiency and electricity conservation methods, economically competitive. We focus on Appalachia, though coal is mined in other regions of the United States and is burned throughout the world.”

*If one factors in the CO2 released by mining, processing, and transporting coal, the amount of CO2 released per unit coal burned is even higher.

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Entry filed under: In the News.

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