Stop burning coal

Brad Templeton, wizard of robocar thinking and strategy, also engages his active mind with challenges like GHG emissions. In this post Brad looks carefully at the logic of reducing coal burning. Most greens are focused on “feel good”, Brad shows how to be effective instead:

So while it is good to look at reducing all energy production that has problems, right now if you want to do something green, it’s a fair, if broad statement to say that the best way to do it is to stop the burning of coal.

What that means for people who don’t run power companies is that reducing electrical demand in a sub-grid that is heavy with coal (such as Chicago or West Virginia) is a fair bit better than doing it in a coal-light sub-grid like California. And doing it in a place like China would be even better.

There is an irony here. Californians tend, on average, to be more eco-conscious than others. This is the birthplace of the Sierra Club after all. And because it is natural for people to focus on where they live, you see lots of effort to conserve energy or use alternative energy in California. But the same efforts would get 65% more bang for the buck if they took place in the midwest or southwest. This calculator claims to report the CO2 cost of electrical production in each zip code. (…)

This conclusion will be disturbing for some. If you’re considering putting a solar panel on your roof in California, you would do 65% better at reducing pollution if you put the panel up on a roof in Arizona. (Actually a little better as Arizona has better sun.) If you are considering putting a solar panel up in Vermont, you would do almost 3 times better to put it in the southwest, since not only is their power twice as dirty, but they get a lot more sun.

What you would not get is the personal satisfaction of seeing panels on your roof and feeling that you personally are green. But there really is no such thing as solar electrons. Electricity is just electricity. There’s a big grid (and not being grid tied is really non-green) and the most you can do is improve how green the grid is. It doesn’t make a difference if you put the solar panels up on your house or a house across town. And it makes a positive difference if you put it up where it will have the best effect. It just doesn’t feel as good.



7 thoughts on “Stop burning coal

  1. It behooves coal miners and companies to do themselves a PR favor from looking an energy leper by supporting nuclear which can be used to liquify coal for refinement into vehicular and aircraft fuels and source materials for construction and fertilizer. At least this way most of them will have jobs after the idealistic greens — who have no regard or thought for coal miners — shut down most every native coal-fired plant here.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

    • James – that looks like sound strategy. Long-term, coal supporting nuclear should lead to a better revenue outcome for coal.

      Short-term, politicians well contine to favor what they think gains reelection (cheap/gas and feel-good). It isn’t clear to me what will change that.

  2. The problem with coal liquefaction is that it’s much cheaper to liquefy natural gas, or just compress it into tanks.  Coal really doesn’t have a niche if nuclear takes over base load generation; you’ve got the 10% or so of US consumption that goes to industry, a tiny bit for other uses, and exports.

    This is a good thing.  The only way to keep the carbon out of the atmosphere is to leave the coal in the ground.

    • Good points. Mu understanding is that the thesis behind coal-to-liquids is that methane is comparatively much more valuable as a chemical feedstock. I have not investigated that, and so long as todays gas supply/demand picture prevails – no policy people will care about preserving methane for feedstock usage in 100 years…

      Do you know offhand about what the cost ratio today is between gas or coal as feedstock for transport fuel? Just order of magnitude.

      >>Coal really doesn’t have a niche if nuclear takes over…The only way to keep the carbon out of the atmosphere is to leave the coal in the ground

      Well said. Assuming low cost nuclear energy and process heat, what is your preferred process to make transport fuels where electrification isn’t practical? E.g., airplanes?

      • My understanding is that Sasol gave up coal-to-liquids for GTL because the cost of cleaning up syngas made from coal was so high; the lower cost of coal wasn’t enough to tip the economics.

        Making gasoline and diesel-range alkanes from methane is also using it for “chemical feedstock”.  My understanding is that the energy efficiency of these processes is under 50% (the carbon efficiency may get as high as 80%, but most of the hydrogen is lost in the conversion from CH4 to (CH2)n) and the capital costs aren’t cheap either.

        The energy overhead to convert pipeline NG to LNG is somewhat over 10%, and the unit size and capital cost is far smaller than GTL.  This translates to a much smaller markup per BTU of product.  If NG is the feedstock, the preferred ways to use it are CNG and LNG unless weight, bulk and long-term storability are key.

        I don’t have recommendations for aviation, but methane does make really good gas-turbine fuel and there has been some research into LNG aircraft.

      • Thanks heaps – that gives me a more quantitative frame of reference for transport fuels. What do you think will be the future of plastics production?

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