Saturday, November 27, 2010

Post # 23: Sustainable Coal ?

Sustainable coal?  Clean coal?  King Coal !

The December issue of The Atlantic magazine has an interesting and challenging article ( ) that I find at once accurate, balanced, troubling, and angering.  The article is by global- and (especially) China-watcher, James Fallows.  Fallows begins by reviewing the consensus facts regarding the current and recent trend in global carbon emissions (37 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year) and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (~ 280 ppm).  He next shifts to giving a high-level factual account of the role coal plays in U.S. world-wide energy production.  (Coal-fired power plants are responsible for ~ 46% of the total U.S. electricity production.)

He then states what should be obvious to almost everyone:  the role that coal plays in global energy production is unlikely to change dramatically over the next several decades regardless of the onward-march of technology in the energy conservation, renewable energy, and nuclear energy arenas.  This because there is so much of it, it is relatively cheap, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future regardless of rather feeble (to date) attempts by various entities to internalize the external costs of the black commodity.

Next is a quick review of the options for cleaning-up coal:  burn it more cleanly, and capture the carbon after it is burned but before it is released to the atmosphere.  Nothing new here.

Fallows now turns to the element of the article I find most encouraging and at once, most frustrating... the fact that governments around the world (particularly in the West) are failing to make significant advances in improving coal technology because they are no longer places were "doing is done".   We aren't building new power plants in the U.S.  Thus the U.S. isn't a viable test and demonstration platform for new technologies.  Fortunately, China is such a place.

Lastly, a hopeful element to the article... businesses are doing what governments can't seem to pull-off.  "B-to-B" alliances are forming between the U.S. and China, that are beginning to have impact in the deployment of improved energy technologies.  New technologies are being deployed in China, and U.S. businesses are learning lessons they cannot learn in the U.S. because we aren't building anything here.  Fallows highlights Duke Energy Company in Charlotte as a forward-looking company who has become a leader in U.S. engagement in "the doings" in China.

Congratulates to Duke Energy.  Let's hope more companies will follow suite...