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An update on Coal’s Decline

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Whatever you want to call the coalition of folks working to get our country off of coal–committed activists, radical environmentalists, or just smart people worried about the future–these folks have been working hard, for years, to end our reliance on coal powered electricity generation.

The country has of course benefited from our coal development. But knowing what we know, the great problem of epistemology, it is irresponsible to continue burning coal: it is toxic to our planet’s air, water, and the health of everything that relies on air and water.

So how are these efforts going? Recently, the retirement of two Chicago coal-fired plants was announced, a major win in a decades long fight. This victory has prompted a bit of self-evaluation in the crusade to get our electricity freed from coal.

Clean Technica has an update on how the movement is coming.

A confluence of factors is making it very difficult for owners of coal plants — particularly old coal plants — to compete. A combination of high domestic coal prices, low natural gas prices, new air quality regulations, coordinated activist pressure, and cost-competitive renewables are making coal an increasingly bad choice for many power plant operators. Along with the 106 announced closures, 166 new plants have been defeated since 2002.

So just how much of an impact have these factors had on coal closures? Bruce Nilles, director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign sent along these numbers:


  • 106 coal plants, 319 units
  • 42,895 MW (13% of fleet)
  • 150 million MWh (8% of fleet)
  • 162 million tons/year of CO2 (9% of fleet)
  • 921,417 tons/year of SO2 (16% of fleet)
  • Average age: 55 years old
  • (For plants with available data – Data from Clean Air Task Force): 2,042 pre-mature deaths, 3,229 heart attacks and 33,053 asthma attacks prevented each year (about 15% of total health impacts from fleet).  All together these plants retiring will save about $15.6 billion in health care costs.

This is no way to imply that the effort on behalf of climate change is winning. As producers are moving away from coal in some parts of the country, plans for new coal plants (“clean coal”) are progressing. And much of this generation is being replaced with natural gas, which has its own questions.

But it is important to take a step back from time to time and acknowledge that despite what the big political stories of the day might be, progress is being made.


Written by Christopher ZF

March 7, 2012 at 10:46

as the Politics has shifted, the dangers have remained the same

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It wasn’t that long ago that Americans on both sides of the political spectrum understood that burning fossil fuels was bad for the Earth. Coal and gas were understood as the root cause of climate change, they polluted our drinking water and our oceans and our skies. As a result, the idea that we should consume fewer hydrocarbons was widely accepted, the science of climate change was accepted, and moving towards a diversified, clean, home-grown energy portfolio was a plan everyone got behind.

But something else was also happening in that time of climate harmony. It was understood that alongside decreased consumption would come decreased production. We were running out of cheap sources of oil and gas in the United States anyway.

Fast forward to today. Consumption of coal and gas are still root the cause of climate change, they are still polluting our drinking water and our oceans and our skies. The science behind climate change has only gotten more sound. And yet, the bi-partisan acceptance that we should move to a clean energy future has eroded. Heck, even President Obama is calling for increased production of oil and gas. So what changed?

Technology. We could all get along on energy when we all thought we would be producing less. Now we can get a whole lot more of that out of the way, expensive hydrocarbon bounty that was just not worth it in the past–the “unconventional sources.” And if we can recover more oil, if we can successfully drill deeper and further and in more remote places, if we can continue to make money off oil and gas, then the arguments against consuming fossil fuels become much less impressive.

So the argument shifts, the new era of technology makes energy security and energy jobs and domestic production the holy grail of the political energy sector, on both sides of the aisle, and relegates what has not changed, the very real and potentially catastrophic environmental threat of continued dependence on fossil fuels, to the background.

For a clear, thoughtful, reminder that we are indeed reverting, read America’s Fossil Fuel Fever, by Michael T. Klare, at The Nation.

Advocates of the new techniques claim that the environmental risks are overshadowed by the greater benefit of economic gain and national security. “Even while the environmental argument rages,” Yergin wrote in the Washington Post in October, “oil sands are proving to be a major contributor to energy security” by lowering the nation’s dependence on Middle East oil. Increased domestic production, he adds, is generating jobs and reducing the nation’s dollar outlays for imported petroleum.

These arguments have great appeal and are attracting support. But they are deeply flawed. While highlighting some benefits to the nation’s security and well-being, they overlook detrimental outcomes of equal or greater significance.

The most important, of course, is the impact of these trends on global warming. By shifting the emphasis from renewables to fossil fuels, we can expect a significant increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—from the consump-
tion of oil and gas and from its production. The consumption aspect is well understood: all fossil fuels contain carbon and this carbon is released when the fuels are burned, so any increase in fossil fuel use will result in increased GHG emissions. But the production aspect requires closer attention. All drilling activity requires energy, which produces GHGs; producing unconventional oil and gas, however, usually requires far more energy than drilling for conventional fuels and so emits a correspondingly greater amount of GHGs.

TRC Regrets its acknowledgment of the WSJ Op-Ed on Climate Denial

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Sorry about that.

I’m not quite sure what possessed me to open the pages of TRC to the opposition argument on climate change presented by the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed page. The editorial, signed by 16 scientists, makes a terrible argument against climate change. I guess I was just feeling that day like that was a reasonable thing to do.

Of course it isn’t. I stated in that post that there is nothing new in their argument, and nothing that has not been thoroughly discredited. But still. If you want more proof, Bad Astronomy takes down the boldest of the mis-information pieces.

Needless to say, the Wall Street Journal op-ed page won’t be represented here as an open and fairly treated source. Because they are unwilling to do the same. It is no surprise that they posted a global warming denialist editorial. It is actually a surprise that they won’t publish science-based reality in the same pages.

An editorial page that does not open its arms to the opposition makes them hacks. We all know that the WSJ op-ed page is an obvious supporter of Republican and Conservative politics, which is fine. We all have our biases. But I actually did not think that the WSJ was willing to stoop to such embarrassment for the purpose of political absurdity. Shit. If the NY Times will publish Robert Bryce-the fossil fuel funded “expert” on a mission to oppose any environmentally friendly energy development, you can find a place for reality.

So, when I heard that the WSJ accepted an op-ed piece signed by 16 scientists (4 of whom are climate-related) that based itself on claims that have been scientifically refuted over and over, and then turned around and rejected an op-ed signed by 255 scientists from the field in support of the accepted science of climate change, I regretted my decision to post fairly about their published ‘scientific’ editorial. WSJ, I tried to give you the benefit. What a terrible decision.

From Forbes:

The most amazing and telling evidence of the bias of the Wall Street Journal in this field is the fact that 255 members of the United States National Academy of Sciences wrote a comparable (but scientifically accurate) essay on the realities of climate change and on the need for improved and serious public debate around the issue, offered it to the Wall Street Journal, and were turned down. The National Academy of Sciences is the nation’s pre-eminent independent scientific organizations. Its members are among the most respected in the world in their fields. Yet the Journal wouldn’t publish this letter, from more than 15 times as many top scientists. Instead they chose to publish an error-filled and misleading piece on climate because some so-called experts aligned with their bias signed it. This may be good politics for them, but it is bad science and it is bad for the nation.

The letter, from Science Magazine.

WE ARE DEEPLY DISTURBED BY THE RECENT ESCALATION OF POLITICAL ASSAULTS ON SCIENTISTS in general and on climate scientists in particular. All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts. There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely proves anything. When someone says that society should wait until scientists are absolutely certain before taking any action, it is the same as saying society should never take action. For a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet.

the simple argument: we need water.

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Sometimes the most important way to understand a problem is also the simplest. In that light, here’s a problem. The world has a fixed water supply and we are not using it well. The availability of clean water is becoming more and more limited for many reasons, of which a major part is energy use. Make the problem simple:

The greatest use of freshwater in the U.S. is to cool electric power plants, comprising 41 percent of the total. Most is withdrawn from lakes and rivers. Of today’s two main power production options — coal and gas — gas uses less than half the water, emits almost no air pollution, and releases less than half the carbon dioxide of coal. Wind power, which is expanding quickly across the U.S., uses no water and produces no emissions.  By reducing demand, energy efficiency also cuts water use and CO2 emissions.

That’s a problem, and it cannot be argued. It is complicated severely by the reality of climate change. But even if one does not accept climate science, this is still a major, global, human, environmental and social problem. Providing water for the current human population, let alone the generations that will (hopefully) thrive on the planet for next several millenia, requires actual changes at every level, including moving toward energy sources that are not water intensive, i.e. coal, nuclear, and gas.

This is as simple as environmental concern can get: We need water.

Written by Christopher ZF

November 30, 2011 at 12:06

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.

Written by Christopher ZF

October 4, 2011 at 16:25

Solyndra fails to change minds on clean energy jobs

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Just a quick note on the Solyndra fall-out (or lack of) from Wall Street Journal.

 Solyndra LLC is far from becoming “dinner table conversation” the way health care reform was in 2009 and has not undermined voter support for public investments in clean energy, according to a poll released this week from Public Opinion Strategies…“Thus far, Solyndra is still news junkie fodder,” the pollsters concluded, citing a recent voter survey in Ohio and focus groups in California.

There are few things that seem to be as broadly popular among US voters as investing in clean and renewable energy. The Solyndra scandal, despite the best efforts of folks trying to whip the issue into a tizzy, just hasn’t had traction to to change opinions about clean energy initiatives, green jobs, or renewables.

In this poll, 62% percent agree that 1 company’s failure should not slow our desire to create clean energy jobs. 32 % oppose such initiatives. Also, the poll makes an important note on party distinctions in the results:

Notably, though, only certain subgroups of Republicans are skeptical of investments in clean energy; GOP women and Republicans who do not identify with the Tea Party more closely resemble the overall electorate in their views.

Oh Tea Party, you always know just what to say.


Written by Christopher ZF

September 29, 2011 at 14:58

Science, Presidential Politics, and Solar Energy

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Well. It’s been a long time. Here’s a few things that have been keeping my attention:

My last post here was on the Alex Berezow USA Today opinion piece on the anti-science nature of both the political left and right. It seems that story got quite a bit of attention in the science blogging community, including from Chris Mooney, who writes The Intersection, which is quite good and worth your effort. He makes some very strong points on why Berezow, and the resulting turn out in support of Berezow, are wrong. Here’s Mooney, in response to Kenneth Green, who wrote in response to Mooney’s response to the Alex Berezow piece (got that?):

Not only does Green dramatically downplay the Christian Right (free market conservatives’ cozy bedfellow, whether or not they want to acknowledge it). He doesn’t seem to understand that science abuse isn’t about getting something wrong. This happens all the time in science, in academia, etc. That’s okay, because science has a self correcting mechanism—and this is part of its very nature.
The real problem is therefore not mistakes. It’s attacking established knowledge, and spreading clearly refuted falsehoods, for political reasons. And clinging to them, sinking into denial. That is what we are actually talking about.

Indeed. The problem, as I see it, is a fundamental misunderstanding of scientific process. What it means when someone says “scientific consensus,” for example.

Second is  the 2012 GOP Presidential Extravaganza. I missed the last two weeks of coverage, and suddenly Michele Bachmann is an afterthought, Herman Cain won a thing that probably means nothing (Ron Paul’s always winning something or other), Rick Perry is fading because he is a terrible debater, and Jon Huntsman said  he wants to be a rising star. If you want to be a rising star, can you say that you want to be a rising star and not have it sound totally ridiculous? I don’t think so. Anyway, when did all this happen? Now Mitt Romney is going to win, which, well, was probably going to happen anyway, unless, you know, he loses. But who would he lose to?

The real story that has been consuming TRC is the “scandal” President Barack Obama finds himself in regarding the federal government’s guaranteed loans to the solar panel manufacturing company Solyndra. Every day I considered writing this story up, but kept getting too worked up, because there’s no scandal here, at all, no how no way. It’s not indicative of the failing of solar as an industry, which is doing very well. Nor it is indicative of poor vetting by the President. Rather, it is for the President terrible timing for a company who was out-competed, to go bankrupt. End of story.

Guaranteed loans for green energy companies are certainly not a Democrat only desire. And they absolutely should not be. Because they are smart policy. The US Gov’t made an investment to spur energy technology, and that investment didn’t pan out. That’s really not that big of a deal. It happens. It’s not a Democratic or GOP failing, it’s what happens when you can’t tell the future. Bad timing, embarrassing e-mails, over-zealous political maneuvering from the White House, I grant you all this. But scandal? I fail to see it.  That Solyndra couldn’t compete in a global market for pv-cells is Solyndra’s fault. Or the fault of the Chinese, who are kicking our asses on solar manufacturing.

Written by Christopher ZF

September 27, 2011 at 16:40