Let’s End the War on Coal

Opinion Piece by ICSC's Bryan Leyland and Tom Harris


At last week’s Environmental Protection Agency public hearing in Charleston, West Virginia, on the withdrawal of the ‘Clean Power Plan,’ anti-coal activists were out in force. The meeting was swamped with activists — Climate Justice Alliance, Sierra Club, Citizens Climate Lobby, Natural Resources Defense Council, etc. Several groups also met at the University of Charleston, to discuss, according to the New York Times, the “environmental, health and climate benefits of reducing coal consumption.”
They apparently do not understand that the abundant, low-cost energy provided by coal laid the foundations of the industrial revolution and modern society. Low-cost energy provided continuous power for factories and trains that transported goods and raw materials. In the 20th century coal-fired power stations provided the reliable, inexpensive supply of electricity that is the lifeblood of our economy.
The world still has huge resources of coal (the U.S. has a 381-year reserve at current usage rates) that could be burned in modern clean power stations. Sadly, in the Western world, environmentalists are working to shut down existing coal-fired stations, and prevent new ones from being built. Yet, hundreds of new coal-fired stations are being built in the rest of the world to power expanding economies.
Developing countries must build new coal-fired stations to provide their poverty-stricken populations with reliable low-cost electricity. But environmentalists have convinced international development banks that coal is evil and persuaded the banks to squander vast sums on expensive solar power that keeps the home lights burning for a few hours every evening. What developing countries need for commercial and industrial development is an abundant, continuous, and low-cost supply of electricity. In many cases, coal is, by far, the best option.
So why is coal vilified? It is because of the mistaken belief that man-made carbon dioxide (CO2) is causing dangerous global warming, and coal stations are indeed a major source of CO2 emissions. This belief rests entirely on the output of computer models that are programmed to predict warming if CO2 increases. The models assume what they are supposed to prove!
Speaking at the America First Energy Conference, on November 9 in Houston, Texas, University of Delaware climatology professor Dr. David Legates showed that climate models consistently predict far greater temperature rises than are actually observed. He explained that models are ‘tuned’ to give the results desired for political purposes. “This is not science!” said Legates.
Yet, the benefits of increasing atmospheric CO2, the only gas controlled by the Clean Power Plan, are clear. After all, CO2 is an essential ingredient for plant growth. Dr. Craig Idso of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change told the Houston audience, “the whole of the terrestrial biosphere is reaping incredible benefits from ~40% increase in atmospheric CO2 since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.”
If it were true that man-made CO2 caused dangerous global warming, the best option would be nuclear power that is proven, safe, and environmentally friendly. But environmental extremists claim that nuclear power is too dangerous even though the only recorded deaths from nuclear power generation occurred at the obsolete and poorly-operated Chernobyl station in the Ukraine.
The next best option is fracking for natural gas. This has been spectacularly successful in the U.S. and there is currently an abundant supply of gas from fracking. Yet, despite its excellent safety record, activists violently oppose fracking.
Instead, activists push wind and solar power that only exist because they are heavily subsidized. The huge expansion of wind and solar power has massively increased electricity costs because of subsidies and the high cost of providing backup power when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.
Reliability is also a problem, especially with wind power. For example, extensive blackouts occurred recently in South Australia when their wind power went off line in a gale and so overloaded the backup supply that also tripped off.
Emissions regulations that block the construction of new efficient and clean coal-fired stations result in the need to extend the life of old, more polluting stations. So, the war against coal is also a war against a cleaner environment.
It’s time to end the war on coal.
Follow-up from Bryan Leyland:
I am a power engineer with more than 60 years in the business all over the world.
A modern very efficient, supercritical coal-fired station with stack gas cleanup – the sort of station that is being built almost everywhere but in the USA (and also not in Australia - Ed) – is is clean as it can be. It’s emissions consist of water and carbon dioxide and, of course, nitrogen. The stack gas cleanup removes virtually all of the sulphur dioxide and the nitrous oxide. These are real pollutants.
The only thing it discharges that could be called a pollutant is the ash and this is not difficult to contain if it is done properly.
United States is not building modern supercritical stations because the EPA regulations set the allowable emissions of carbon dioxide per kWh generated below the best that can be achieved using the best technology. It is a figure that can be achieved using combined cycle gas turbines. But if it had been set slightly higher, the US would be leading the world in building modern, clean and efficient coal-fired stations. Which is what Europe, China and India are doing now.
The U.S. did build one such station in 2012 with an efficiency of 42%. Regulation changes since then would not allow it to be built. The most efficient modern station in the world has an efficiency of 46%. The current US fleet efficiency is in the mid 30s.
As I mentioned, the effective ban on modern efficient clean coal fired stations is forcing old and inefficient stations to stay in service even longer and has also generated huge expenditure in trying to clean up up particulate and stack gas emissions from old stations that the United States would be better off without.
Bryan Leyland is an Auckland, New Zealand-based consulting engineer and the founding secretary and energy issues adviser of the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC). Tom Harris is the executive director of ICSC.

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