Coal In Your Stocking
December 21, 2006
Tom Prugh is editor of World Watch magazine, published by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Worldwatch Institute. The January/February issue of World Watch has more on the U.S. rush to coal and China’s coal prospects.
At this moment, U.S. electric utilities are racing to build at least 150 coal-fired power plants, while hundreds more are planned or under construction elsewhere in the world, including as many as 550 in China. Especially in places like China and India, the coal rush is a response to frenzied growth in energy demand, but in the United States it’s also due to the rapidly advancing prospects of statutory limits on carbon emissions. Washington—at least the bits at the Capitol end of Pennsylvania Avenue—may finally have gotten the message about climate change.
But not TXU Energy, American Electric Power, Xcel Energy and the other utilities now hunting up the capital to build these “new” plants. I say “new,” because the pulverized coal technology they intend to use is 80 years old and hardly more advanced than a log fire. Pulverized coal is just what it sounds like: Coal is crushed into a powder and shot into a huge furnace, where it burns to make steam to drive a turbine that turns electric generators. Such plants must now be equipped to reduce many pollutants, but they still emit huge quantities of carbon. The utilities could build advanced "clean coal" plants—called integrated gasification combined cycle, or IGCC—but even these are only a bit more efficient than pulverized coal plants and are substantially more expensive. And while they produce a stream of carbon dioxide gas that could, in theory, be captured and stored underground in old oil fields or other geologic structures, there’s no guarantee it would be, or that it would stay put as long as needed (essentially forever). As for pulverized coal plants, they are almost impossible to refit later for carbon capture and storage.
NASA’s top climate scientist, James Hansen, has said we have perhaps 10 years to get a grip on our carbon emissions or else face a tipping point beyond which climate warming will spiral irreversibly out of control. Building and running these plants will accelerate the arrival of Hansen’s tipping point. His 10 years may be a rough estimate, but time is clearly short.
Which is what makes the coal rush such an outrage.
Many things need to happen worldwide to get a grip on this problem. Not least is a serious successor to the Kyoto protocol, one that puts teeth into climate change agreements and draws in China, India and the other fast-developing nations whose growth pose the second-most significant threat to the climate. (Absent a change in course, China will surpass the United States to become the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases by 2010, according to the International Energy Agency.)
But the chances of achieving such an agreement without the participation and leadership of the most significant threat to the climate—the United States—are slim to none. With the Bush administration missing in action on this issue, the baton has passed to local and state governments in the U.S., and to private firms here and abroad working to restructure their operations and to develop renewable technologies. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently pointed out the astonishing fact that the seventh-richest man in China has made his fortune in solar cells; here at home, wind generating capacity is growing faster than any other kind of generation, thanks to entrepreneurial utilities with an eye wide open to the future.
So what’s wrong with TXU and the rest of the domestic coal rush crowd? Do we need to criminalize this irresponsibility to get their attention? A new type of felony: the carbon crime—“knowingly and willfully acting to sharply increase the atmosphere’s carbon content, without provision for redress, for short term financial benefit, thus inflicting on the entire planet and its billions of inhabitants a dangerously unstable climate.”
Some progressive utility executives—James Rogers of Duke Energy, for instance—are actually calling for carbon limits, but those who are leading their firms down into the coal pit perhaps ought to be sentenced to lengthy prison terms in gloomy unairconditioned cells, let out daily to work as tree planters, sweating under the hot sun to undo some small part of the harm they will cause.
Because committing the United States to a further half-century of heavy coal use is simply unconscionable, and the offending execs really have no cover. They can’t claim ignorance: the science of climate change is unavoidable. They can’t claim it’s harmless, or that the harm is uncertain: the expanding hazards of climate change are already making themselves felt all around the globe. They can’t claim they had no choice: Energy efficiency and renewables have barely begun to be tapped and have enormous potential. And they cannot argue it’s “strictly business.” There is no room on Earth anymore for executives who fail to grasp that business has both the power to shape the world and the responsibility for using it in ways that are not lethal—to itself and everyone else.
A movement to stop the rush to coal is already under way. This ought to be a screeching wakeup call for utility chiefs: Get your noses out of your quarterly statements! Leave the coal in the ground. Feel the wind at your backs and the sun on your faces. That’s your only future, and everyone else’s too.