Coal cancellations in the US

2009-05-20

in Economics, Law, Politics, Science, The environment

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The Economist has been bold enough to suggest that ‘the writing is on the wall’ for coal-fired power plants in the United States, unless they can be converted to run on biomass or incorporated into other ‘green’ compromises. While there have apparently been 97 coal plants cancelled since 2001 (and nine so far this year), those that are operating now are long lived; their contribution to US emissions will barely fall between now and 2030. Unusually, the article makes no mention of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which many supporters of fossil-fuel based power hope will soon emerge as a cheap, safe, and effective mechanism for preventing greenhouse gas emissions. The omission is actually a welcome one, given how tempted industry groups, governments, and commenters in general have been to see CCS as a simple silver-bullet mechanism for maintaining the status quo.

Worldwide, there must be an ever-increasing determination to prevent the construction of new coal capacity, except where it incorporates safe and effective CCS technology (if that proves possible). Meeting climate change mitigation targets (including avoiding a temperature increase of more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels) probably also means a fair bit of existing coal capacity will need to be converted to biomass or brought offline before the end of its economical lifetime. That will provoke the fierce opposition of those who have invested in such projects, though that may be a necessary signal to the market at large that coal-fired power is no longer acceptable – the carbon in the world’s coal beds needs to remain there, rather than being added to an atmospheric stock that is already dangerously high.

States like Canada and the US should be working to rebuild the basis of their energy system on the basis of non-emitting and renewable options. In so doing, they will establish the prerequisites for their own prosperity in the future, as well as help develop the technologies and approaches that will make the same transition possible in rapidly growing developing states.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Davi Ottenheimer May 21, 2009 at 1:41 pm

This seems so obvious to me, an outsider, but when I spoke recently to a coal executives he rattled on endlessly about the amazing clean quality of coal. What gives? I wonder how anyone in the energy industry could believe investment in coal would make sense compared to solving the problems with harnessing waves or wind.

Milan May 21, 2009 at 2:37 pm

A few reasons:

1) They are financially and personally invested in the status quo. That makes change threatening

2) They lack the vision to foresee that the energy system can (and must) be shifted towards zero-carbon, truly renewable sources of energy

3) They have an ‘as long as it is in the ground, we should take it out and burn it’ mindset, when it comes to fossil fuels. Of course, if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, most of the carbon in the fossil fuels still underground is going to need to stay there.

4) They have varying definitions of ‘clean.’ Much of the time you see coal being described as such, they mean it is going through scrubbers to remove conventional air pollutants. These scrubbers do nothing for greenhouse gasses, and actually increase the amount of coal you need to burn per unit of electricity produced.

. November 8, 2009 at 10:05 pm

Another coal plant bites the dust

We’re celebrating great news out of Minnesota and South Dakota this week:

“After almost five years of planning and permitting efforts, the participating utilities in the proposed Big Stone II Project announced … Monday that they will end their quest to build the project’s large coal-fired power plant and associated transmission facilities.”

We echo our own Cesia Kearns, a Sierra Club staffer from Minnesota, in what the halting of Big Stone II means for the region.

“The failure of this enormous proposed coal plant expansion unravels the myth that the Midwest is starving for more electricity, and that coal is the only way to adequately meet that perceived need. This victory demonstrates that even when we may lose the battles—consistent pressure, engaged citizens, and strong partnerships can win the war. It’s a strong example of how even though the regulators may be on the side of a developer, the public is not.”

We salute our tough band of local residents in South Dakota and Minnesota (the plant was proposed for northeastern South Dakota, near the border with Minnesota), who spent the last five years fighting this dirty coal plant. The Sierra Club also partnered with grassroots, state, and regional organizations during this long and difficult campaign. They knew how bad the air pollution and global warming contributions this plant would spew forth would be, they wanted clean energy for their region, and even when the going got tough, they never gave up.

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