Saturday, March 19, 2016

Coal Wars: The Future of Energy and the Fate of the Planet

Book Review: Coal Wars: The Future of Energy and the Fate of the Planet – by Richard Martin (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

Yes, another of the ubiquitous subtitles involving the fate of the planet. I guess it underscores that in modern times any energy decision needs to consider the global effects. This is a very good non-technical investigative journalistic overview of the state of the coal industry amidst its necessary contraction. The chapters are basically places: Kentucky, West Virginia, Wyoming, Colorado, China, and Ohio, and go into detail in each respective place regarding the implications of the contracting industry and the disagreements about future energy sources, costs, energy employment and retraining, carbon, and pollution. He travels to each place, interviews people, and goes to various mines and power plants.

He begins with an account of scheduled retirements of old coal power plants, some from WWII era. These and other inefficient and polluting dinosaurs have been disappearing and are now all but gone. He mentions Obama’s Clean Power Plan and Europe’s 20-20-20 plan where GHGs are planned to be cut by 20%, renewables increased to provide 20% of total energy consumption, and energy efficiency increased by 20%. These hopeful commitments may not be easy to achieve for political, economic, and technological reasons.

Coal is of course by far the largest CO2 emitter among burned fossil fuels. Martin mentions having gotten to see the 2008 billion gallon TVA coal ash spill in Tennessee, called the worst industrial spill in U.S. history. Coal ash contains toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, barium, lead, thallium, vanadium, and chromium. Coal ash slurry spills can directly access both surface water and groundwater. He also notes that 1200 new coal power plants have been proposed, representing 1400 GW, in 59 countries, with India and China accounting for 3/4ths of them.

The first section is about the TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority, its history, and the coal plants it runs and is retiring as they transition to natural gas. He tells the story through the eyes of plant engineer Bill Pritchard. The transition means less jobs as the new high tech, less polluting, less emitting gas plants require fewer workers. It also means less coal being bought from nearby Eastern Kentucky. The TVA was a big provider of electricity for rural America in the southeast in the 1930’s. They also built many dams. The dams made the rivers navigable. Both of these focuses were part of FDR’s New Deal. The TVA was called a socialist effort. By the end of WWII it was the largest provider of electricity in the U.S. Ronald Reagan would later call the TVA an example of Big Government. By the 1980’s the TVA became bureaucratic and inefficient and was eventually significantly downsized in order to compete in the power marketplace. The author also provides some history and context of power utilities in America with two main models: private, investor-owned ones and public utilities that usually don’t own the plants but do own the distribution end of power selling to consumers. The big private utilities have a sort of monopoly on power production that they leverage in order to supposedly keep power reliability predictable and keep rates down for customers. The low cost of natural gas is disrupting the traditional model by replacing both coal and nuclear, not only in terms of cost, but also efficiency and emissions compared to coal. Other threats are the aging inefficient existing plants, the aging and inefficient grid, and to a lesser extent so far the rise of distributed power from renewable sources. Utilities must scramble to integrate the new sources of renewables but eventually with added storage they may find advantages. However, in order to do that the very expensive smart grid technologies need to be widely implemented as is happening very gradually.

The TVA was actually implicated from within for trying to minimize their liability for the big Kingston coal ash spill. But ultimately the smoke rising from the aging TVA coal plants was more polluting than the coal ash spill. The EPA, the Sierra Club, and several states implicated the TVA in violating clean air statutes. By 2011, the TVA agreed to shut down 2.7 GW of coal-fired generation and install scrubbers and other pollution control devices at a cost of $3-5 billion. Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell fought to keep them burning Kentucky coal but it was the competitive price and qualities of gas that led them to the decision more than Obama’s so-called war on coal. The author visits the John Sevier coal plant, one that will remain burning coal although the pollution controls cost as much as would a new efficient combined cycle gas-burning plant. For the TVA, the loss of coal plant workers means the loss of local jobs, good jobs that helped the local economy. With less people around the demand for power will be less so the TVA is in essence contracting as is much of the coal industry.

In 2012 there were 589 coal plants in the U.S. representing about 30% of power generation capacity. By some estimates 300 of those could be shut down by 2020. That is a fair amount of lost jobs including the lost jobs of ancillary work such as with railroads that move the coal. The political idea of “transition assistance” and training of workers toward new jobs has had difficulty in the past being successful. Jobs are generally not easy to come by, especially in rural areas.

Next he visits coal mines in Harlan County, Kentucky. Coal was/is a big industry in Kentucky, where most electricity is still made from coal plants. The Clean Air Act in 1970 allowed the decline of easy to mine but high sulfur coal production in Western Kentucky and the rise of production in Eastern Kentucky where low-sulfur coal was present. Longwall mining is the method there. However, the 1990 update of the Clean Air Act which was hugely successful in reducing acid rain, also devastated Kentucky Coal production. Since then Kentucky coal production has continued to decline. Unemployment is high in Eastern Kentucky. Obama and the EPA are the usual scapegoats but there is much more to the decline of coal. Martin tells some of the story of Kentucky coal through travels and interviews with Danny Karst of Karst Coal and colleagues. The decline of coal has also long been causing a depopulation of the mountainous areas of Eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia. Moving to cities to find work is often the only option for young people. Kentucky remains a coal state where all politicians, and especially Mitch McConnell, pander to it. The loss of jobs is sad but there are few options back in the hills.

West Virginia is also a huge coal state, with reserves in the southern and northern parts of the state. The southern parts are where most of the mountaintop removal sites are – a practice that has long been controversial since mountains are blasted away and streams are covered with debris never to run on the surface again. He mentions a political event in Congress in 2012 when famed climate-denier Senator Jim Inhofe set about to make an official statement of the coming due Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) when West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, long associated with coal and fossil fuels spoke out in favor of implementing the standard and against the coal barons and executives. He did not offer much else than to say that it is time to face the facts.

The author visits with Marie Gunnoe, an anti-coal activist from Boone County, daughter of a coal miner and mother of a coal miner. She has seen wanted posters with her on them and people threatened to burn her house down (a common threat in Appalachia we had received as well). Anti-fed sentiments have been common in West Virginia for a long time and regulatory agencies like the EPA are chief targets these days. The author travels to a flattened reclaimed mountaintop removal site where local developers and business visionary Eric Mathis hope to establish an industrial park to build locally-owned sustainable businesses such as wood flooring, an industrial hemp-processing plant, a solar farm, and a gas power plant. The author also tells the story of Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, an archetypal coal baron who scoffed a lot but was implicated for a poor safety emphasis in the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 miners. Blankenship turned down an interview with the author for this book but he did get to interview another archetypal coal baron, Robert Murray, the outspoken CEO of Murray Energy. He does acknowledge that coal is on the way out yet he still rails against Obama and the EPA as fascist and continues to file lawsuits against the government for regulating safety and environment. He bought coal companies, terminated benefits for miners, and blamed the government. While he may well care for the livelihoods and families of the miners that work for him he still sees the world in terms of friends and enemies of coal. The coal industry is contracting for several reasons, only one of which is regulatory in nature.
Growing industrial hemp as a cash crop on reclaimed mine land has been proposed in both Kentucky and West Virginia and pilot projects have been approved. Mingo County, West Virginia built a new airport in 2013 on donated flat reclaimed MR mine land. However, the post-coal future of West Virginia has been slow in gaining steam. The author chronicles the work of lawyer Terry Sammons who is liked by both coal companies and environmentalists. He is an advocate of post-coal redevelopment. Maria Gunnoe called such work “bullshit,” an acknowledgment that the more radical environmentalist call any and all compromise with the coal companies, collusion in their crimes against nature. While there are grassroots anti-coal environmental groups there is also the grassroots group Friends of Coal. Mountaintop removal is incredibly destructive and so it is easy to oppose. But poverty is also easy to oppose. There is no easy answer but economics guarantees continued contraction of the industry and so people will have to adapt.

Wyoming and the western coal reserves are somewhat different. The author visited mines in the prolific Powder River Basin and gives some history of coal exploration in the area. After the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act signed by the first Bush the low sulfur bituminous Wyoming coal experienced a sustained boom. The Powder River Basin in Wyoming and parts of Montana produces about 43% of U.S. coal. (now 50% I have recently heard). The U.S. has some of the biggest coal reserves in the world. Coal trains run out of the area non-stop. The coal in Wyoming is Cretaceous age, much younger than the Pennsylvanian age coals of the Appalachian Basin. He describes some of the features of the big extraction operations. The big U.S. coal companies: Arch, Peabody, Cloud Peak, are all working Wyoming.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that energy demand will increase strongly to 2040 and even though the percentage of coal in the mix will drop its overall drop in production will only be about 1%. I think it will be more due to greenhouse gas regs but we will still be mining and burning coal in significant amounts as will the rest of the world. Coal usage rose 18% in Europe in 2012. Its low cost there and in China and Asia assures that it will remain a fuel of choice regardless of its environmental issues. Lower cost LNG can only compete a little and is still short of infrastructure although supply is ample. Renewables and nuclear will continue to increase in Asia and parts of Europe but their high costs limit their ramp-up ability and will for some time to come. China consumes over half of the world’s burned coal and India is on the rise. 2013 estimates had Chinese coal demand doubling by 2030 but government acknowledgment and public outcry about air quality and to a lesser extent, greenhouse gas issues, and recent pledges suggest that it will be less and coal production/consumption will peak earlier than previously predicted. The author spoke with Greg Boyce, the CEO of Peabody Coal. His predecessor used the oft-cited argument that coal was put there by the creator to mine and burn and so is good regardless of its environmental effects. More recently, Boyce has switched to the argument of ending energy poverty as a cheap source of energy – a better argument for sure but not foolproof as other cheap energy sources such as natural gas are present in certain areas and even solar energy is a valuable aid to relieve poverty in the tropics. Boyce argues, correctly I think, that solving energy poverty should precede solving the environmental issues of fossil energy extraction and consumption. It is a more direct life and death issue. Coal export terminals to serve Asia along the U.S. Pacific coast have been the targets of radical environmentalists with many allies including Native Americans. The main argument they give is one of global warming. Of course by not enabling U.S. coal exports will not stop China and India from receiving coal – they will just get it from Indonesia, Australia, Mongolia, or Russia – places that generally do not have good environmental records (with the exception of Australia). Of course, the energy poverty argument does not negate the global warming argument (as Peabody seems to suggest with their dismissal of it) but simply de-prioritizes it a bit.

Much of the Wyoming coal land is leased from the government, the BLM, and so has a special status that trumps grazing rights and gives the coal companies financial advantages – ones that Obama very recently sought to rein in.  The big companies have tended to successfully play out the cyclicity of the coal market, investing when it is down and reaping the rewards when it is up. Former Wyoming governor Dave Freudenthal thinks the jig is almost up for coal, that contraction is inevitable, and I think he is correct. He has in the past promoted carbon capture and sequestration but the technology is not ready yet, not yet close to being economically viable, and Wyoming is not an ideal place for it. It may well be too late for such ideas as “clean coal,” although if gas goes up in price as it probably will eventually then CCS might become more viable.

Next he goes to Colorado, to his home town of Boulder, where community energy development with significant renewables (Colorado has sun and wind) has been a big issue. Socialistic ideals are prevalent there and some refer to it as the Peoples Republic of Boulder. The Steamboat Springs group, Yampa Valley Electric Association (YVEA) blocked getting into a multiyear power purchase agreement deal with Minneapolis-based Excel Energy to buy power from coal plants. Another group from Colorado, Clean Energy Collective helped power the community solar model. CEC was favored by government subsidies for solar and was able to make a small profit by providing power for utilities to meet their renewable energy mandates – which is effectively another subsidy for renewables. Of course, the solar developers are smart enough to know that solar is not a viable replacement for coal and is just a nice drop in the bucket toward less carbon. Billions of acres of panels would be required to replace coal (at least during sunny days). He goes over some spats over building solar farms on land where a coal company owns the mineral lease and could potentially trump solar at some future time.

He mentions Friends of Coal again and their propagandist tactics in favor of coal: complaining that natural gas plants will cost more to run because of high gas costs (which actually is not likely at all to happen soon) and jobs will go away. Bob Greenlee, a free market conservative, ended up being the unlikely candidate heading the Boulder experiment of running their own utility. While there are plenty of municipal power utilities in America, about 2000, Boulder would be a big one – supported by wanting to be free of Big Power and show to off show off their environmentalist hubris. At issue after 3 or more years of battles and lawsuits was whether Boulder would buy power from what would probably be the last coal power plant built in Colorado, the high-tech 2010 built Comanche-3 plant with the best pollution controls and efficiency coal power has to offer. Even the Sierra Club once supported it. Excel has since moved more toward clean energy power investments. Excel accepted significant sunk costs with the plant – offering to build enough wind turbines to supply Boulder with most of its power by 2020. Of course, the Boulder environmentalists think that the reason Excel is now moving toward clean energy is that their activist actions made them do it. While that can happen and I do believe activism has its place in bringing ideas to the forefront and giving influence if done decently, I also suspect they are just congratulating themselves and dancing on what they perceive as some kind of higher moral ground. Decarbonization is the goal and Boulder understandably didn’t want to get into a multi-decade agreement to buy coal power. Of course Excel who already sunk costs in the coal plant will likely also not profit much from the wind except for the government perks and renewable energy credits. They can sell gas and coal power to other customers. The author thinks Boulderites voted in favor of municipal power mainly to be on the right side of history and oppose the Big Corporation. After spending $13 million Boulder has yet to make any power. Excel, sometimes referred to as a multi-state quasi-monopoly, lost $1 billion in sunk costs and still seeks some retribution from Boulder. Boulderites acknowledge that full renewable energy would have to be phased in over time – perhaps a long time and the costs have been and will continue to be high. They won their goal to decide their own energy fate but it has come at a very high price. Luckily for them people there and the city itself are pretty wealthy. 

Now we come to China, first to the city of Shanghai where the author is attending a coal industry conference. Coal powered the Chinese economic miracle and continues to do so in spite of the historical Nov. 2014 agreement between Obama and Xi to reduce emissions and the Dec. 2015 Paris COP21 commitments. The author calls the Chinese coal industry broken although the government is trying to rein it in, closing small and unlicensed mines by the hundreds. As in the U.S. coal was mined in China and spurred the building of railroads to move it – mostly in the early 20th century. Although Chinese coal production had climbed to monstrous levels even more was needed. By 2007 China became a net importer of coal and surpassed the U.S. in carbon emissions. In 2014 China decided to make greater commitments to reducing carbon emissions and slowing growth of coal usage. This has been aided somewhat by contraction in Chinese economic growth rates. In 2013 and 2014 China developed a coal glut that has led to depressed global coal prices. This means that coal is currently oversupplied AND its use is being more and more strongly discouraged due to its emissions. Coal miners in China are facing similar issues to the ones American coal miners are facing. Increase in energy efficiency and the corresponding decrease in energy intensity is likely also affecting coal demand in China. China has been cracking down on small unlicensed mines – just this year (late 2015) announcing that about 1000 of them will be closed. Consolidation into larger more efficient mining operations is the trend. There is also a new carbon market in China which is seeking caps on consumption and emissions. The author cites estimates that 64% of China’s power will still come from coal in 2030 so coal is not likely to go away any time soon. Some hope for a peak in coal consumption before 2030 but others say it won’t happen until then. Still, China is concerned about unrest due to pollution so efforts may be stepped up to decrease coal usage. The trend in China is for large coal power plants near large mines to bring power from the inland coal areas to the populated coastal cities via large high voltage power lines, so-called “coal-by-wire” once advocated long ago in the U.S. by President Kennedy. While that might help reduce smog near Beijing and other large cities it won’t reduce overall pollution and carbon emissions – it would actually increase them due to power lost during long-distance transmission. As everywhere, people in China like the idea of green energy but realize is practical limits compared to fossil fuels.

Next he visits mining complexes in Shanxi Province as part of a week-long “coal safari.” Near the city of Datong he talks with an old miner, Liang, who had worked in the notoriously dangerous Chinese mines for decades. Although Liang is fit some of his former coworkers have black lung. He also visits mines with Liang unannounced, slipping in under the radar so to speak as potential investors. Everyone seems to speculate about coal prices. This is true of most commodity businesses: when prices are good you are working and when they are not you are speculating about prices.

Next he visits Ta Shan mine, one of the large consolidated mines. About 200,000 miners work the mine, although future plans for mechanization will no doubt reduce the amount of miners needed. One of the miner’s sons has a Ph. D. in chemistry, specializing in coal-to-liquids technology and the author arranges to meet him in the city of Taiyuan. Most in the coal industry favor such “clean coal” technology but it is still expensive and processes need more R & D. He visits Tai Bao mine, once the largest open-pit mine in the world when it opened in 1986. The author notes that in arid and sparsely populated rural parts of Shanxi Provence, where there is no coal there are no people. He visits the miner’s son professor Zuo at the Key Laboratory of Coal Science and Technology. Since China is very dependent on importing oil it wants to develop an alternative liquid fuel – thus coal-to-liquids technology. Thus far producing and burning liquids from coal are significantly more carbon emitting (nearly double) than simply producing oil, refining it into gasoline, and burning it. It is thought that emissions can be reduced and processes made cheaper but to make it economically and environmentally feasible needs much more work and is likely years or decades away, if at all. He speaks with another coal company executive that believes coal bed methane, or CBM will be the source filling natural gas vehicles – he suggests 30 million by 2020. That seems quite ambitious! He is correct that it would decrease carbon emissions and pollution and is currently cheaper – and likely to stay that way. Public buses are subsidized to convert to compressed natural gas (CNG). However, plans to utilize CBM to run gas power plants have slowed due to less CBM being produced than planned and with low natural gas prices and thus low profits that is not likely to happen anytime soon.

The last area he visits in China is the coastal city of Hangzhou. Here he talks with Diwen Cao, a young female environmental activist. Of course, in China it is apparently preferred that activists are vetted and somewhat approved by the government. However, there are also occasional protests of new coal power plants, some even successful. Hangzhou was the first city in China to seek to shut down the local coal plants and to reduce coal use altogether. Thus, it is considered a city of the Chinese environmental movement. Diwen sees the essence of the Chinese philosophies of Taosim and Confucianism as – harmony with nature. With China’s “economic miracle” the new religion became money. China has 5 of the world’s 11 supergiant 5000 MW coal plants with 3 in the Zhejiang Province which Hangzhou is a part. The sky in Hangzhou is typically smoggy and there was one incident – the so-called “coal storm” of March 10, 2013 where black coal dust came down as a sticky rain and covered surfaces and people – although no real explanation was made public. Later that year a massive flood of sewage overran a lake in the city. These events helped make the city a hotbed of environmental activism and the government took it in stride to try to make the area a testing ground for cleaner energy like renewables and natural gas.

Next he visits another environmental activist Xin Hao who had traveled 2000 kilometers around China documenting and photographing environmental damage, things like untreated effluent discharges and fish kills. Like Diwen Cao once did, Xin works for Green Zhejiang, an NGO kind of like a Chinese version of Natural Resources Defense Council, although with Peoples Republic of China idiosyncrasies. They are more controlled and don’t engage in local street protests but are expected to raise environmental concerns more quietly. NGOs are gaining traction in China. Street protests can be met with crackdowns as one against a waste-to-energy incinerator was in 2014, with several people injured, some severely. Large protests of over 10,000 people against coal plants have occurred in some coastal cities, some which led to riots and crackdowns. Opposition to polluting plants has been more successful in China when the opposition has worked with local government officials, business leaders, and environmental groups. Balancing the need for electricity with the desire for clean air is likely to continue in China for a while yet. A coal plant was successfully delayed and relocated near the city of Shenzhen.

Next he talks with Zhao Zhong, a nuclear physicist who created the city of Gansu’s first environmental org. Gansu was known to be polluted with heavy metals from mining and petrochemicals. It was a typical small NGO but then Zhao begun to react to newly adopted (but typically ignored) rules for companies to disclose the waste components of their effluents and emissions by documenting them by GPS and making maps of waste emitting sources. Zhao now works for a bigger environmental org in Beijing, Pacific Environment. His approach is still mainly to document source points and compare to test results and health issues.
The author notes that although China has serious pollution and climate issues he is optimistic that the heroic energetic spirit of the people in the country can make change for the better. He notes the impressive large engineering feats in China, the hydropower dams, and the current research in thorium reactors for new generation nuclear power. He notes the saying that crises equals danger and opportunity.

Next he comes back to the U.S. to a place he calls Ground Zero, here in southern Ohio, less than a half hour from where I am – although lucky for me I guess, I am upwind. Here in Cheshire, Ohio – a town that was bought out by American Electric Power (AEP) is the largest coal plant in Ohio and one of the largest in the U.S., built in the 1970’s. Just down river is the smaller Kyger Creek plant, built in 1954. All but a handful of the 450 residents of Cheshire were relocated in the buyout. The reason was air emissions and the potential health effects long-term and a huge coal ash landfill with radioactive and heavy metals materials. More specifically a bluish sulfurous fog blanketed the town on certain days and people complained about headaches, scratchy eyes, and sore throats. In 2000 many complained and hired a law firm to look into it and begin a class-action lawsuit. In 2000 the EPA declared the Gavin plant to be in violation of the Clean Air Act. I have heard some people up-river in Pomeroy complain that they can smell it when they do periodic clean-outs of the stacks or something of that nature. Even though hardly anyone lives in the town they still see fit to issue speeding tickets by camera, as I unfortunately experienced by getting a ticket in the mail. Apparently, there is a new documentary out called Cheshire, Ohio made by Brooklyn filmmaker Eve Morgenstern. AEP payed $20 million upfront to avoid years of litigation and very possibly more payouts to claimants.

Coal as cleanup is a serious issue, a conundrum that needs to be dealt with in some way that is acceptable. That is not going to be easy. Acid mine drainage (AMD) has some other ways it can be used, for instance it can have the sulfides removed and be used for fracking. Treated coal ash may be used to develop durable composite materials or to chemically extract rare earth elements, but these are both long-term research projects and not likely to utilize the vast quantities of coal ash sludge. Decommissioning and environmental clean-up of a retired coal plant takes tens of millions of dollars and at least a decade. However, it also employs people. The power companies have to pay so they tend to want to make those plants last as long as possible. For this reason they are often at odds with the EPA and environmentalists. AEP’s plans to shutter coal plants and build gas plants involved billions of dollars in investments. Another big issue currently is that AEP, First Energy, and others are seeking to guarantee profits at some of these old coal plants by charging their customers – essentially asking for customer-paid bailouts, subsidies. Keeping them open for longer would protect some jobs, save the companies money during transition, and prevent the possibility of blackouts – they say. Many factors are affecting utilities. In 2008 Ohio passed one of the most ambitious renewable energy standards – to get 25% of power from renewables by 2025. That has since been repealed – mainly because of implementation costs. The utilities have to pay to purchase energy from competitors. Renewables cost the governments- state and fed, through their direct subsidization, and there are also grid integration costs. Ohio’s push-back of renewable energy standards has spearheaded pushbacks in other states. Perhaps the goals should have been a little less ambitious and a little more reasonable in order to balance cost estimates and feasibility. Ohio does have significant wind power in the northwestern part of the state and a fair solar potential but 25% is a huge mandate. Retiring aging coal plants will likely make electricity prices rise a bit as in Ohio they are generally pretty low compared to other parts of the country. AEP has done a great job making efficiency upgrades which have saved their customers hundreds of millions of dollars while helping them keep a decent profit. But there is adaptation in some sectors: the Honda plant in Marysville Ohio is partially powered with a couple of wind turbines. Honda finds that it decreases their carbon footprint and is good PR. They are keen on energy efficiency as well. It is probably pretty close in price to getting energy from the grid too. The use of automation in manufacturing has the ability to drastically reduce energy usage in the sector. The author interviews an exec at Rockwell Automation, a key manufacturer of automation products.

Obama’s Clean Power Plan has stoked quite a bit of debate. States are essentially being asked to re-engineer their energy systems to reduce carbon emissions. One issue in coal-to-gas switching which is the most inexpensive and fastest way to reduce emissions, is that coal plants employ many more people and ancillary jobs as well than do gas plants. Even so, with the transition to gas (and to a significantly lesser extent renewables) the power utilities will probably save money as gas prices will likely not rise too much with the guaranteed supply provided by predictable and abundant shale gas. Wind energy is dominating the upper Midwest and newer generation turbines are more efficient and locally competitive, especially with the renewal of the wind production tax credit (PTC).
The Epilogue goes to Germany, the Ruhr. RWE is a coal plant utility there and they have been affected by Germany’s “energy transition,” the most aggressive push thus far in the world for renewables. In 2011 Germany chose to phase out nuclear. Since the renewables are not enough to replace that nuclear the building of many expensive coal power plants is in the works now in various phases. Europe has a carbon market, the EUETS, but carbon prices have been strongly suppressed to 10$ per ton. Germany mostly burns self-sourced lignite coal which has significantly more emissions per BTU than bituminous or anthracite coal. The U.K. and Poland (also lignite in Poland) are also increasing coal usage, in some cases to offset the price and geopolitical reliability of Russian gas. Coal clearly has a future. However, that future has limitations. Investors are moving away from coal, seeing it as a potentially stranded asset in the long-term. The coal glut and low prices and increased competition from gas in the thermal market and growth-reduction of the Chinese economy affecting met coal usage for steel production are affecting the industry. Several of the largest coal companies in the U.S. and many around the world are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy despite still robust overall coal demand. As with a similar situation with oil, gas, steel, and other raw materials (even electricity) and commodities the key issue is maintaining supply-demand balance so that prices are not too high for consumers and not too low for producers.

The author does reveal his own preferences at the end: make the choice to shut-down coal (for carbon and pollution reasons), do not abandon the workers (much easier said than done), and finally he asserts that the solution must be global. The global solution is lent some support with recent commitments at the Paris COP21 summit but it is probably going to be a long slow wean away from coal and significant amounts of coal usage will remain for decades. However, significant and continuous slow contraction of the industry seems inevitable.   

No comments:

Post a Comment