Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

04 July 2007

Energy Independence: the Proper Role of Coal

[For a more recent post assessing the role of coal as an interim expedient to power battery-driven cars, click here.]

On this our 232d Independence Day, there is nothing we need more than independence in energy. Our bravest and best are dying daily in Iraq. Gas prices are steadily rising. We are in a deep hole of dependence on foreign oil.

The Senate recently voted to dig us further in. It prolonged massive tax subsidies for oil and gas and refused to transfer them to starting up alternatives like nuclear, ethanol, solar, and wind power. It's about time for all of us to think harder how to dig ourselves out of our hole, rather than further in.

One possible answer is coal. We have lots of it in our own country—reportedly enough to power our nation for up to two centuries. As an energy source it is cheap—if you count only its direct costs.

But coal puts us on the horns of a terrible dilemma. It is the dirtiest fuel known to mankind. It generates massive amounts of the greenhouse gases that are slowly cooking our planet. It also produces horrendous pollution, from the sulfur dioxide that causes acid rain to the mercury pollution that poisons our fish and shellfish, our rivers and lakes and—if we are not careful—our children’s central nervous systems.

Burning coal also produces particulates, tiny particles of soot and other toxic matter that lodge deep in our lungs as we breathe. These particles cause numerous forms of respiratory disease, including asthma, increased respiratory infection, and reduced lung capacity in urban populations.

If you take a realistic account of the damage that burning coal causes—to our planet, our local environment, our cities, and our bodies—coal no longer seems cheap. Economists call these costs “externalities,” i.e., costs that are very real, but that traders don’t include in the standard price of a commodity like coal.

Coal’s “external” costs are enormous. They include the cost of reducing other sources of greenhouse gas to compensate for burning coal. They include “remediating” global warming, for example, by building dikes around much of Southern Florida and our Gulf Coast to protect them from a rising sea. They include the cost of preventive measures and recovery from various forms of inclement weather (hurricanes, tornadoes, tropical storms and floods) as global warming increases their severity. They include the cost of lost work days and health care when people suffer from various pollution-caused respiratory diseases.

Coal’s hidden costs also include the inestimable loss of our natural heritage. Where coal plants foul the air, we lose the beauty and health of our forests to acid rain, the clarity of our lakes and rivers, and the freshness of our air. Coal’s costs include exchanging the fresh smell of spring for the pall of nineteenth-century London or of Shanghai and Beijing today.

It is hard to put a precise value on all these “external” costs. Friends and foes of the coal industry often come up with radically different numbers. They use different assumptions about our uncertain future and different estimates of the “value” of a fine, clear spring day.

But two things are certain. First, the total, real cost of burning coal is unknown and probably unknowable with any precision. Second, coal’s hidden or “external” costs are gigantic. As time goes on and we become aware of the enormity of these hidden costs, they are likely to seem much larger than we suspect now. The future cost of global warming, for example, is still unknown, and it is likely to get much higher before we get serious about fixing it.

As for liquid fuel from coal, producing it more than doubles coal’s adverse environmental and health effects. It takes more energy to produce a unit of liquid fuel from coal than the fuel itself contains. So creating and burning a gallon-equivalent of gasoline from liquid coal produces more than twice the amount of pollution that burning oil-derived gasoline alone would produce.

As a result, coal’s “cheapness” is an illusion, conjured up by ignoring very real externalities. In reality, coal has only one clear advantage as an energy source: we have lots of it, and we control our sources. Coal therefore deserves serious attention from only one perspective: energy independence.

This analysis leads to two important conclusions. First, coal must not be an important part of our energy industry in the long term. In the long run we must phase coal out, precisely because it presents such extreme danger to our planet’s warming, our environment, and our personal health. In the long run we have to replace coal with less costly and dangerous alternatives, such as nuclear, biomass (including ethanol), wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal power.

But the second conclusion is also important: coal might serve as an important source of energy independence in the short term, i.e., during the next twenty years. It could protect our energy security against the shocks and surprises, for example, of terrorism in the oil fields, growing worldwide demand for oil, or revolution and subversion in the Middle East.

As I have argued earlier, a rational mediuum-term energy policy would put primary emphasis on nuclear power. Why? Because nuclear power—virtually alone among realistic, high-yield energy sources now available—has the potential to produce most or all of the power we need.

At the same time, nuclear power creates no greenhouses gases, no air pollution, and none of the widespread and largely irremediable despoliation of the environment and human health that burning coal causes. All nuclear power produces is a small amount of radioactive solid waste. Compared with the gaseous products of burning coal, that waste is less dangerous, less susceptible to widespread dispersion, and far easier to contain and handle. You don’t have to “sequester” gaseous effluent from a nuclear power plant; all you have to do is cart away the radioactive waste when you refuel or decommission the plant.

Although nuclear energy produces only electric power, it is likely to play an increasingly important role in transportation as well. Toyota recently sold its millionth Prius hybrid. Others are working hard on better batteries for “plug-in” models that consumers can recharge overnight from the electric power grid, rather than from their hybrids’ own internal combustion engines. Soon commuters who drive less than twenty or thirty miles to work will be able to commute primarily, if not exclusively, on power taken from their local electric grid. Those who are willing to retrofit their existing Priuses can do so now.

This promise is not science fiction. It is technology on the drawing boards and in the testing laboratories of automobile manufacturers today. I plan to buy a plug-in hybrid as soon as a standard commercial model is available. As more and more consumers accept this commuting solution, it has the potential to replace a significant fraction of our foreign oil consumption with domestically produced electric power.

Electric power also has the potential for providing liquid fuel for long-haul transport. Electricity can hydrolyze water into its constituent elements (hydrogen and oxygen), which can be burned in present-day internal combustion engines with some modification.

The entire process of hydrolysis and combustive recombination produces no greenhouse gases and no dangerous pollution. All it produces is water vapor. Thus using hydrolyzed water as a portable fuel would cause less global warming and create cooler and cleaner cities. Its only disadvantage would be some energy-efficiency loss as compared to direct use of electricity in batteries. If the electricity used to produce hydrogen comes from pollution-free nuclear energy, the cost of hydrogen transport—including externalities like global warming, environmental despoliation and the adverse health effects of burning fossil fuels—would be lower than the total current cost of oil-powered transportation.

The most important point, however, is that using electricity to power short-haul transportation is a technology likely to be introduced in serious volume in the next two or three years. When combined with alternative liquid fuels, such as ethanol and liquefied natural gas, this application of electric power could make a substantial dent in our dependence on foreign oil for transportation.

Yet before this happy scenario can come to pass, we must increase our national output of electricity substantially. And that is where coal comes in.

Today about half of our nation’s total output of electric power comes from burning coal. It takes fifteen years or more to site, approve, design and build a nuclear power plant. While solar cells and wind turbines cost less and take far less time to build, decades may pass before they provide a significant fraction (such as one-quarter) of our national electrical power output. Therefore, in the short term, any substantial increase in electric production—including any increase required to support electrical power for transportation—must come from coal.

So it makes sense to rely on limited use of coal in the short term while we build up our nuclear power industry to the point where cleaner and safer nuclear power can replace coal entirely as an energy source. With proper planning, that should happen in twenty to thirty years.

Several other conclusions derive from this analysis. First, if coal is to be a short-term solution, it must be flexible. There is little sense in building more monumental coal-burning power plants, like the one now at Four Corners, which serves several states and burns more than 38,000 tons of coal a day. It makes much more sense to build smaller, local plants, closer to the cities that they serve.

Making new coal-fired power plants smaller and closer to the cities they serve will disperse their pollution. It will also encourage cities to monitor their pollution more closely and to apply continual pressure to use the best available technology to reduce greenhouse gases and other harmful effluents. In addition, smaller plants can be built quickly, expensed quickly and therefore replaced quickly by nuclear power plants. They can also be used as flexible bases for testing new pollution-control technology.

Second, because burning coal will still produce massive amounts of greenhouse gases and harmful pollutants, it makes sense to continue investing in experiments to “sequester” plant effluent by pumping it into the ground. More numerous, smaller plants, scattered around the country, could experiment with different approaches to sequestration and maximize their chances of success. Once a workable technique is found, smaller, regional power plants could adopt it rapidly, at distributed cost, without the need for expensive retrofitting of gigantic plants.

Third, it makes no sense whatsoever to continue experimenting with so-called “liquid coal.” The efficiency of this technology is already no better than the efficiency of using coal-produced electricity to hydrolyze water for hydrogen-oxygen fuel. At the same time, it produces much greater volumes of greenhouse gases, sulfur dioxide and mercury pollution. “Liquid coal” is an obsolete technology whose inherent inefficiency and massive pollution belong in the last century. It should be dropped like the environmental hot potato that it is. Senator Barack Obama recently has come to this conclusion despite enormous pressure from the coal industry in his home state.

Finally, a rational energy policy should recognize that coal is a short-term solution. It should encourage the building of plants with an engineered lifetime of no more than twenty years. It should require new plants to use latest greenhouse-gas sequestration technology and pollution-control technology available at the time they are built. And, unlike the Bush Administration’s current rules, it should require upgrades to best-available technology every time a plant is upgraded, expanded or rebuilt in any respect. If these rules are firm and clear at the outset, industry will adapt; utilities will build smaller plants for flexibility in adopting new technology at low cost.

With these caveats, coal can serve as an important interim, short-term source of energy while we build much cleaner and safer nuclear and renewable alternatives. Lest we doubt the feasibility of this approach, we should recall that France this year will generate 76% of its electric power from nuclear energy.

If we fail to take this approach—if we rely on coal in the medium or long term—we will condemn our children to a much warmer, dirtier and more dangerous planet. We do not have to lose our Eden to secure continued prosperity and energy independence. All we need is rational planning.

Footnote: the Libby Commutation

Some readers of this Blog may be disappointed in the absence of a full post on George W. Bush’s commuting the sentence of convicted perjurer I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

Cries of outrage are inevitable. One of the best is Cynthia Tucker’s piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She even manages a bit of humor at the end—something I can no longer muster when I think of George W. Bush.

To him, the presidency is not an office at the pinnacle of a mature democracy. It is a magic wand. In his mind, it gives him leave and power to impose radical ideas on unwilling millions, to reward his friends, and to punish his enemies. For nearly seven years, this swaggering oaf has been a child playing a game of “king of the heap” with our collective lives. He has transformed the world’s leading democracy into a feudal society in which all that matters is loyalty.

Bush will remain our Dark Cinderella until the Magic Pumpkin arrives in January 2009 to take him to the hellish place in history that he deserves. Until then, all we can do is wait, hope and plan for the day when he is finally gone for good. That sort of advance planning is the point of the preceding essay.

One further point is worth making. Remember Bill Clinton? He was impeached, but not convicted, for lying about a sexual indiscretion. The sanctimonious crusaders who pursued him thought nothing of paralyzing an entire nation for three years just to make a political point.

Today we have a man duly convicted of lying to a grand jury about something that actually matters. The subject of Libby’s perjury was no mere personal indiscretion. It was the “outing” of a secret agent during our “war on terror,” supposedly our generation’s greatest challenge. More than that: the underlying motive was covering up gross error or outright lies used to justify a war that now appears to be our history’s most catastrophic blunder.

Bush’s entire regime relied and built upon the radical zeal of bullies who pursued Clinton so relentlessly for a peccadillo. Yet Bush commutes the sentence of Libby, a proven liar on a vital matter of national security. Bush even commends him for outstanding “public service.” The hypocrisy and lack of perspective are breathtaking.

For seven years, we have suffered government by bully, which cares nothing for public or for world opinion. Bush’s consistent response to legitimate dissent and outrage has been the words of the Borg, “I’m the decider. Resistance is futile.” The only remedy is the impeachment power, which Congress quails to use.

So while we wait for our Magic Pumpkin, perhaps we who still believe in democratic dialogue and civilized government can show our revulsion and resentment toward our self-proclaimed feudal lord. We can turn our backs on him, in silence, whenever he appears in public.

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  • At Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 7:48:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hydrogen is a poor fuel because its molecules are tiny (which makes leaks a major technical problem) and because while it has excellent energy-per-unit-mass (which is why space rockets use it, particularly in upper stages) it has very poor energy-per-unit-volume.

    I think it would be better to stick with hydrocarbons (or perhaps ethanol or methanol). Use the same Fischer-Tropsch reaction as the coal-to-oil proponents want to use, but get the carbon from atmospheric CO2, the hydrogen as you suggest, and the process heat from a nuclear reactor.

    I believe Los Alamos are working on something like this - they plan to get the cooling towers of the nuclear plant to do double duty as CO2 collectors.

  • At Tuesday, June 9, 2009 at 5:11:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear George,

    Thank you for your comment. I thinks it’s my first technical one on energy, so I cherish it.

    The energy-to-volume problem for hydrogen occurs only at atmospheric pressure, at which hydrogen is a diffuse gas. Hydrogen compresses easily, just as air does, so most cars that use hydrogen (there are a number of experimental prototypes) use compression technology much like SCUBA tanks. Compressing hydrogen increases the risk of fires and explosions in accidents, but that risk is manageable with good engineering.

    Other, more exotic technologies could solve the energy-to-volume problem, at least in theory. One is liquefying hydrogen, just as natural gas is liquefied today. The problem is that hydrogen has to drop to 4 degrees Kelvin to liquefy—a temperature attainable only in laboratories today, and with the expenditure of considerable energy for refrigeration. Another exotic but potentially applicable technology is the adsorption of hydrogen on and into rare metals such as platinum. This phenomenon was all the rage a few years ago, when experimenters adsorbed so much gas that their apparatus exploded, and they thought they had achieved “cold fusion.”

    I’m not sure how nuclear-plant cooling towers could be used to collect carbon dioxide. Maybe the idea is to use CO2 scrubbers like the kind that keep astronauts alive in space vehicles. But those scrubbers require lots of energy, both to make their active elements and to run them. I’m not sure you’d come out with any net energy if you used them to collect the CO2, yet more energy to make fuel from it, and then burned the fuel.

    Anyway, all that seems unnecessary. We already have lots of things that capture CO2 from the atmosphere. They’re called trees and plants. That’s why Steven Chu, a Noble Prize winning physicist and our Energy Secretary, is gung ho about biofuels.

    Plants recycle CO2 and get their energy from the sun, so they’re an indirect form of solar energy. In my mind, however, they’re not as good as photovoltaic solar, thermal solar, or wind energy because burning fuels made from plants creates air pollution, including oxides of nitrogen (from the nitrogen in the air). The type of combustion determines the nature of the pollutants, but combustion in a car engine is hot enough to create oxides of nitrogen.


  • At Thursday, June 11, 2009 at 7:40:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…


    Dear George,

    Due to an over-fifty moment, I cited the wrong temperature (4 degrees Kelvin) for liquifying hydrogen above. That’s the temperature of liquid helium.

    Unlike helium, which is Noble gas, hydrogen forms molecules, whose mutual attraction allows it to liquify at a higher temperature, around 21 degrees Kelvin. That temperature is still low for industrial and commercial applications, making use in vehicles largely a theoretical possibility today. In comparison, liquid nitrogen, which is used routinely in laboratories and exotic industrial applications, has a much higher temperature, about 77 degrees Kelvin.

    This post describes two of the chief strategies for storing hydrogen for use in vehicles.



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