The Relative Comment

soothing waves of relativity

4 graphs to demonstrate the problems of coal, and vent some frustration

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Today I’ve been thinking a lot about coal as an electricity generation resource. I got worked up in a discussion which originated around the Solyndra issue, and ended up engaging in the following tete-a-tete. It was a rant, and contained over-generalizations, but I stand by it.

ME: I.e. if there is not an outside influence on energy generation- government-there will never be anything to compete with coal, because nothing in a free market that allows for such massive externalities to go unfettered can compete with coal. But there are reasons not to burn coal beyond just market values, I.e. hundreds of thousands of deaths every year that come from coal burning. If the market won’t reflect those reasons, then policy will have to do it. Not that loan guarantees are the best policy- that would be a co2 tax- but they are an attempt
other person:   So you are arguing for loan guarantees from a political standpoint? that sort of makes sense, but I do think there are much better ways to spend our money. 
Quibble point, as much as coal kills, it also is really really beneficial. I’ll take coal and it’s externalities over no electricity.
me:  It’s not a quibble point. It’s the argument that will always be the reason we “have” to burn coal. and it’s a cop-out.
Coal is reliable as an energy source and no one disagrees. but we should at least begrudge the bad things about coal, like it kills a lot of people because it releases ungodly amounts of pollutants into the world (If you don’t want to argue CC, fine, coal is the largest source of mercury pollution, not to mention SOX NOX PM and many others that contribute to asthma and respiratory illness and death). It seems like the political arguments around renewable energy are forgetting what the point of clean energy is: healthy people and environment. 100 percent of the country should agree that if we don’t have to burn coal then we should not, but we don’t and that is maddening.
I’m not arguing to decommission all coal plants in the country; we’ll be burning coal for a long long time. but we should be aware and upset about what its negative effects are, and work for something better in politics and the markets, right. otherwise, who gives a shit? 
the vertically integrated utilities who monopolize almost all the energy markets in the US do not need us to make the coal is reliable argument. They are going to use that argument forever and ever and ever. And it’s infuriating, because even the ineffective policies that we have like loan guarantees to help out renewables go haywire with poor oversight and lack of vetting and are mismanaged and leave people like me arguing against the reliability of coal, which is not the point, and is a decoy argument against evolving energy into a new century. AAAHHH!

I have been frustrated today, and have been feeling like we are at square one in this country about energy, carbon, and climate change. Sometimes it seems we are still at the starting point, arguing for the most basic points. I hope this is not true, because the challenge is huge. But in case it is, here are some images that show what we know, and how big the problem is. Yes, Climate Change is happening; Yes, we are causing it; Yes, solving it will be expensive.


As Carbon in the atmosphere increases, so does global temperature. A drastic increase in both has been occurring snice the industrial revolution.

Our carbon and greenhouse gas emissions come in large part from the energy sources we all rely on. For our energy and electricity needs, we rely heavily on fossil fuels: coal and natural gas make up about 65 percent of our energy generation.


The sources we rely most on, coal and natural gas, also produce by far the most greenhouse gas emissions.

Planning for new resources to meet energy demands until 2035 continues to rely on those fossil fuels that produce the most greenhouse gases.

Thus, without major changes in policy and planning, we will continue to rely on energy sources that are responsible for heavy output of greenhouse gases, which are responsible for an increase in global temperature, which will be responsible for all kinds of trouble.

This is what we know, and what the challenge is: if the first graph is correct, the others have to change.

*Images from DOE, EIA, and IPCC.

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Written by Christopher ZF

October 4, 2011 at 16:25

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