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Don Paul: Trump's speech aside, coal won't make a big comeback here

Don Paul

Coal is still the big, big cheese in heavy industry and power generation in much of the world.

Despite that, President Trump’s Tuesday speech concerning his environmental regulation rollback and a big jobs comeback for our embattled coal miners is not likely to meet his expectations, as much due to market forces as it is to environmental regulations.

In the United States, natural gas has become cheaper for utilities to burn to generate electricity than coal when building new plants, and virtually no utility has plans to build additional coal-fired power plants at this time.

However, the U.S. Energy Information Administration is predicting a slight increase in coal production here after lengthy precipitous declines due to expected price increases in natural gas. Still, the costs of building coal-fired plants will remain higher than natural gas plants even with reduced environmental requirements. The question is: How much higher? If pit mining in the west is increased with reduced environmental requirements, the cost of coal will drop further in the U.S. That could alter the equation for U.S. utilities on the economics of coal versus gas. In fact, numerous articles generally concede other alternative technologies, except for nuclear with all of its regulatory and financial barriers, are not ready to fill the gap for remaining heavy industrial needs in the U.S.

Overseas, other trends have been occurring. China had been on an absolute runaway coal-fired plant building tear, but it is now just beginning to make efforts to curb coal’s use. China’s air pollution problems, apart from coal's contributions to carbon dioxide output, are killing people in large numbers in metropolitan areas. A 2010 study in the British medical journal the Lancet estimated that 1.2 million premature deaths in China are due to air pollution, and most of those are tied to the burning of coal.

So, after adding to their own and the world’s air pollution and greenhouse gas woes more than any other nation, China is finally seeing the light through the smog and is leading the way in making solar power more cost-effective for cities’ power needs.

Spending time in a coal mine affects miners – like these ones waiting for an elevator to the surface at at mine in Makeevka, Ukraine – during and after their working years. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images file photo)

Despite that, China is expected to add the equivalent of one 600,000-megawatt plant every 10 DAYS for the next 10 years. These plants are cleaner than older plants, though that is not to be confused with “clean.”

In the meantime, India and developing African nations are still on a coal-fired plant building spree. It remains the cheapest method to generate power for industrial expansion for developing nations.

And it’s not just developing nations. Germany, of all places, doesn’t just burn coal – they burn the dirtiest coal of all, brown lignite. Coal-fired electricity in Germany costs just half that of natural gas-fired plants, and consumers aren’t really bearing the financial costs of the mining processes.

As for greenest-of-green Japan, the horror of the Fukushima nuclear disaster has also led to plans for new coal-fired plants. Forty-three such plants are in the planning or building phase. In an industrial nation such as Japan, you can’t (currently) make steel and cars from solar or wind power. Big power plants remain a must at this time, and they will be a must for decades to come.

Even here in the United States, the Energy Information Institute estimates that we’ll still be using coal to make 32 percent of our electricity in 2040, and that estimate did not factor in whatever happens as a result of the Trump administration's attempts at environmental rollbacks.

The Energy Information Institute also projects a 15 percent increase in global coal use by 2040. An increase in natural gas use will counterbalance this trend to an uncertain extent, along with growing inroads from alternative technologies to power residential and urban centers.

Coal’s economic appeal is one of the reasons I wrote in my last article that I was personally pessimistic as to how much we are going to be able to slow the warming caused by human activity.

Don Paul: Exploring warming climate's impact on our health

There is no getting away from the unpleasant aspects of coal. In the east, coal miners' lives are dangerous on the job and unhealthy during and after. Coal mining is a hazardous and difficult way to earn a paycheck. For the miners, exclusive of accidents, there is black lung, industrial bronchitis, congestive heart failure from breathing of particulates, and the dangers from being exposed to heavy metals.

For those living close to coal-fired plants, more radioactive particles are released from these plants’ use of coal than from nuclear plants, though it is not a “high” exposure. Asthma attacks also are worsened by particulates and the release of sulfur dioxide from combustion, as well as the increased levels of ozone at the surface during stable atmospheric/temperature inversion conditions. Large amounts of nitrogen oxide are released, as well.

Of course, this isn’t even close to all-inclusive list of hazards and problems, but the health and economic effects of unemployment for these miners and their families cannot be ignored.

Finally, there is the role of coal combustion in mean global warming. The largest source of human-produced greenhouse gases is the generation of electricity at power plants.

In this country, the replacement of coal by natural gas caused a previously unexpected reduction in the United States' carbon dioxide releases, starting in the 1990s. Natural gas combustion produces about 50 percent less carbon dioxide than coal. Gas became cheaper here, so utilities found it cost-effective to make the conversion. But as I’ve already outlined, coal remains cheaper than natural gas over much of the globe, so globally, it remains the biggest contributor to carbon dioxide increases from power generation.

Natural gas is no panacea, though it has helped here in the United States. Natural gas production results in more release of potent greenhouse gas methane. Methane doesn’t last in the atmosphere nearly as long as carbon dioxide, but it is much more powerful as a greenhouse gas, and the warming its presence produces does last just as long as the warming from dominant carbon dioxide.

Whatever measures President Trump tries to impose, most economists project only small increases in coal production and mining in the United States. Those increases will be in the pit mines in our western states. The worst declines have been in our mines in the east, and that’s not where any real expansion will occur. It’s just not cost-effective for domestic utilities to go back to relying more on coal in any great measure in this country.

Cleaner coal technology may begin to make inroads elsewhere around the globe, but the costs remain prohibitive to use the technologies found in the prototype Mississippi plant on a broad scale. The gradual expansion in alternative power technologies, especially in most populous China and in the United States, may eventually bear some greenhouse fruit. For now, though, carbon dioxide is confirmed to be at its highest level in at least 650,000 years, and quite a number of paleoclimatologists (who examine ice cores and sediments for carbon dioxide) have evidence the level now is higher than in nearly 1 million years.

For more information some of these topics, I urge interested readers to check out NASA’s superb climate site.

There is little question that a reduction in the rate of carbon dioxide emissions would mitigate the worst effects of additional warming. Yet there remains a great deal of question as to how serious the world is about moving to alternative power generation technologies, and what economic costs other nations are willing to bear to mitigate these effects.

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