Coal: A Filthy, But Necessary Energy



The beautiful photograph above is from the Associated Press. Geese are soaring through smog emitted from a smokestack at the Jeffery Energy centre coal power plant in Emitt, Kansas. The photo is from Saturday, January 10, 2009.

As pretty as the smoke looks in the picture, it is pure filth that is the “single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet,” according to a James Hansen editorial in the Guardian. Hansen has rung the bell on climate change for a long time now, he’s like the Nouriel Roubini of climate change, to put in terms that might help financial news readers. In his piece, the long time critic of coal writes that increased carbon emissions will melt the ice caps and destroy hundreds of species. He singles out coal saying it, “is polluting the world’s oceans and streams with mercury, arsenic and other dangerous chemicals.” He adds, there is no such thing as clean coal.

Meanwhile, the New York Times, also examines the coal industry asking, “Is America Ready To Quit Coal?” The Times story points out that “83 plants in the United States have either been voluntarily withdrawn or denied permits by state regulators. The roughly 600 coal-fired power plants in the United States are responsible for almost one-third of the country’s total carbon emissions…” and there is a growing chorus of people disgusted with the pollution from coal.

As polluting as coal is right now, neither the Times, nor the Guardian makes a convincing case for an alternative solution. The Guardian piece barely tries to outline a solution. It covers the problems, but admits there isn’t enough outrage amongst the public to force politicians to change business practices. Based on reading Hansen’s previous writings, he wants a moratorium on building coal plants. Also, improvements in building efficiency would help to keep energy demand flat over the next few years. In that time there could be further research into renewable energies. At the same time he’d like to update the electric grid, work nuclear power, and develop real carbon capture and sequestration.

The New York Times story points out that for all the frustration about the damage caused by coal, alternative energy sources are not ready to provide workable solutions to the worlds energy needs today. Wind and solar aren’t reliable providers of energy. The technology to caputure their excess energy on sunny and windy days for cloudy still days isn’t ready for primetime. And the current electrical grid isn’t able to transmit electricity from these sources to homes with ease.

There are a number of schemes being hatched to avoid pollutant energy like coal. Unfortunately, they all rely on technology that is still far from development. Department of Energy chief, Steven Chu, recently said solar energy needs to be five times more efficient than it currently is. And he’s famous for calling coal a “nightmare.” 

While coal might be a nightmare, it looks like it’s going to be a nightmare we live with for the next few years.