One reason why the energy business is so fascinating is that smart, thoughtful and well-meaning people can look at the same facts and come to dramatically different conclusions.
In The Atlantic, James Fallows–one of my all-time favorite journalists, who’s worth reading on a wide range of topics–argues that clean coal offers the best hope of dealing with the threat of climate change:
To environmentalists, “clean coal” is an insulting oxymoron. But for now, the only way to meet the world’s energy needs, and to arrest climate change before it produces irreversible cataclysm, is to use coal—dirty, sooty, toxic coal—in more-sustainable ways. The good news is that new technologies are making this possible.
He reports in detail on China’s efforts to “decarbonize” coal by investing in carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Duke Energy is engaged in a joint venture with a big Chinese energy firm, Huaneng, to research clean coal.
Essentially, Fallows argues that we need an “all-of-the-above” approach to reduce greenhouse gas emissions–one that encompasses renewable energy, nuclear power, efficiency and especially coal, which is abundant in the U.S. and China. Fallows quotes Duke’s chief technology officer, David Mohler:
“Emotionally, we would all like to think that wind, solar, and conservation will solve the problem for us,” David Mohler of Duke Energy told me. “Nothing will change, our comfort and convenience will be the same, and we can avoid that nasty coal. Unfortunately, the math doesn’t work that way.”
Fallows goes on to say:
Precisely because coal already plays such a major role in world power supplies, basic math means that it will inescapably do so for a very long time.
But can we forecast the energy future using “basic math”? Perhaps. As Fallows notes, technological process in the energy arena has been painfully slow, not just in recent years, but for decades. The energy business is not like infotech or telecom; it’s slow to change and hugely capital intensive, as Silicon Valley venture capitalists are learning, to their dismay. “Energy production is essentially what it was in the time of James Watt,” Fallows writes, citing nuclear power as the most important exception. [click to continue…]