Friday, August 17, 2007

Coal fired power generation - etc.

The recent events have underlined one of the unmeasured impacts of coal fired power generation, especially the huge uptick in demand sourced by China firing up a new coal fired power plant every week!!

In 2002, compliance coal, that met certain specifications cost the University of Cincinnati $28 a ton. UC now paying about $90 per ton, after negotiating with a utility to supply coal. (Prior to that it was significantly even more expensive. The utility would only recently start to sell coal to 3rd parties ).

Regrettably it appears that the 6 miners trapped 11 days ago are probably not alive, and now several more are know dead and more injured. Work will progress in some manner to try to find the first 6 but the MSA will work to reduce any more risk to rescuers.

Coal is abundant in the US. It's probably one of the biggest energy assets we have. But to use it we have to mine it either underground, or surface strip mining. We have to ship it constantly on barges in rivers, by rail and by truck as it is consumed on a very large scale. And not only by power plants. Coal is used to make coke (not that kind) and that coke is the pure carbon source for addition to steel to produce carbon steel for industry.

Looking at energy and alternatives, one needs to look at the whole picture. When nuclear power construction was stopped in the US 30 years ago that shackled us to fossil fuels. The industry needed a new source of energy that was cost effective and could be rapidly developed. That lead to the rapid growth of the sale and installation of combustion turbine generators across the country and even to foreign markets. They use natural gas, and lots of it. It was a fairly clean technology, and plants could be built rapidly, and due to the fact that they are relatively small compared to traditional large scale coal plants, they were easy to permit and cheap to build.

Then Enron happened. oops. Now natural gas has tripled in price and the vast majority of combustion turbines are sitting idle waiting for dramatically higher power costs or dramatically lower natural gas prices.

So we are back to coal.

If we were to wave our magic Harry Potter wands and chant "ignitus carborundum" or something like that and be able to replace all coal fired power plants with some new yet to be developed technology, we would still need coal mining to support the steel industry. With diminished demand for coal, prices would drop as mines would close, putting thousands in the industry out of work. When enough mines closed for pricing to recover, the remaining mines would have the steel industry at its knees. If you push on the balloon in one place, it goes out somewhere else.

If you divert fields to corn for ethanol production, and corn prices soar because of a spark in interest in ethanol, then corn feed for cows gets expensive, beef prices go up and cheese prices double. Push on the balloon in one place and it goes out somewhere else.

Closing down nuclear power plant construction 30 years ago pushed on the balloon in a big way and we are still watching it go out.

Don't worry too much about reducing your personal carbon footprint, that will just cause something else to happen unless we develop a holistic approach to energy policy in the US and globally.

I meander around don't I?


Lalita said...

I'm in Indiana, land of corn (you thought Indians, mayhap). People are getting ready for the biodiesel bonanza, but, curiously their focus is on processing virgin corn--not re-use of existing oil.

By using existing oil, they would take care of a waste product that, poured down the sink gums up the works or appears as a condiment on our local dumps.

Not sure about that one, except that the corn lobby had something to do with it.

G A Borden II said...

Saw your post on Coal -
What is it that makes seemingly simple solutions unacceptable while the new and exotic get all the play? Case in point -reprocess the waste oil for biodiesel. Sounds great. What's stopping this process? Saw a bit on Discovery channel other day - They were recycling old railroad ties.... to burn as fuel... Last time folks got inventive, was during the gas crunch of the 70's. Looks like innovation doesn’t really move until we are pushed into a corner, or there's really easy money to make.

Matt said...

You hit it on the head. The cost of doing business is so high and the absolute requirement of immediate large profit margins that prohibit large scale and even mid-scale development. Businesses operate the way we use our cars...some of us anyway...You drive a car that may only get 25mpg using regular unleaded gasoline. We know there are hybrid or diesel vehicles on the market now that get double that value. Buying one would result in a huge energy savings for both the world (if large amounts of the population followed suit) but would also save money from your own wallet in fuel savings. BUT- when you look at the financial impact of how much that new car will cost on a monthly basis vs what you are paying out now on your 25mpg beast then we start to shy away from what is really the best overall choice for the environment.

In a nutshell, it will take a huge movement by the "little people" to make a difference. Shows such as the one you mention on Discovery as well as HGTV's "Living with Ed" are slowly but surely bringing the ideas and products of the "green" world out to the general public.

Great blog Lalita!