Coal’s unknown (and unknowable) future

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.

Two examples just came across my desk: the cover story in the new issue of The Atlantic and a report out today from DB Climate Change Advisors, both with a focus on coal.

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…]

PSEG’s Ralph Izzo: Greening the garden state

Before we discuss big issues like global warming, carbon pricing and renewable energy, I toss a couple of “lightning round” questions at Ralph Izzo, the chairman, president and CEO of  New Jersey-based PSEG, a $13.3-billion a year energy company with strong commitment to solar power and action to curb climate change.

Izzo, Ralph1First, Yankees or Mets? Izzo grew up in Queens (Mets country) and pitched for the baseball team at Columbia University (Yankee territory), where he earned an B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineer and a Ph.D in applied physics. “Yankees, Knicks, Rangers, Giants,” Izzo replied. He’s still a big sports fan.

Second, Democrat or Republican? After a stint as a research scientist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Izzo worked as a science fellow in the office of Sen. Bill Bradley, a New Jersey Democrat, and then as an energy-and-tech policy adviser to New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, a Republican. “Independent,” he said. “Pretty much down right down the yellow stripe.” True enough–he’s given money to George Bush and Hillary Clinton.

Third, nuclear power or “clean coal”? Much as it would be nice to light up the world with wind, solar or geothermal power, odds are that the U.S. will need nuclear power, coal or natural gas to provide baseload (i.e., round the clock) electricity for the foreseeable future. Izzo, as  a utility CEO and a scientist, gave nuclear his qualified endorsement over clean coal.

“The technology is in existence already,” he said. “It has a more benign environmental footprint. It doesn’t have the mercury, NO2, SO2 or carbon baggage. Having said that, all of our investments right now are in natural gas.” [click to continue…]

Washington’s coal wars

The debate over clean coal has come to Washington in a big way. Specifically, you can see it in Metro Center, D.C.’s busiest subway stop, where millions of people, including those headed to town for President-elect Obama’s inauguration, will see walls of posters and banners saying that “clean coal” is a myth.

The ad campaign comes courtesy of a coalition called This is Reality. Behind it are enviros including the Alliance for Climate Protection (Al Gore’s group), the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council (disclosure: they’re a client for whom I do some writing) and the National Wildlife Federation. The “reality” coalition says

In reality, there is no such thing as “clean” coal in America today. Coal cannot be called ‘clean’ until its CO2 emissions are captured and stored safely.

Let’s be clear: there are no US homes, factories, shopping centers or churches powered by coal plants that capture and store their global warming pollution.

Today, coal power plants emit carbon dioxide (CO2), the pollutant causing the climate crisis. A third of the America’s carbon pollution now comes from about 600 coal-fired power plants. And of the more than 70 proposed new coal power plants, barely a handful have plans to capture and store their CO2 emissions. If these dirty plants are allowed to be built, this will mean an additional 200 million tons of global warming pollution will be emitted in America each year. Until coal power plants no longer release CO2 to the atmosphere, coal will remain a major contributor to the climate crisis.

This is, in part, a response to a costly campaign created by a coal industry group called the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a group which says:

As you might have guess, we are pro-coal and proud of it. Not only does coal keep America’s lights on, it keeps everything else that needs electricity running.

ACCCE believes that the robust utilization of coal – America’s most abundant energy resource – is essential to providing affordable, reliable electricity for millions of U.S. consumers and a growing domestic economy. Further, ACCCE is committed to continued and enhanced U.S. leadership in developing and deploying new, advanced clean coal technologies that protect and improve the environment.

The truth is, both the anti-coal and pro-coal forces have a point.

There is, today, no such thing as clean coal—not even close. And there is, today, no way to power the slumping U.S. economy without coal. If you hate coal, then turn off your TV, iPod, refrigerator, air conditioning, etc, for 12 out of every 24 hours – because half of America’s electricity comes from coal.

The reason that the debate is getting so heated is that coal, and clean coal, will be at the center of the debate over greenhouse gas regulation in Congress this year. Environmental groups, scientists and some big companies will argue for a rapid reduction in greenhouse gas pollution—saying that a tight cap will be the only way to stimulate innovation, including the technology breakthroughs needed to capture and store the C02 created when coal is burned. Coal-industry types and utilities will argue that the regulation can’t get too far ahead of clean coal technology or it will wreck the economy by driving up electricity costs.

This morning, the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of environmental groups and big companies, will unveil it latest climate change proposals. Here’s a preview from the WSJ’s Environmental Capital Blog.

Six weeks from now, coal will again make headlines. As Bill McKibben writes in Grist, environmentalists are planning a day of protest and civil disobedience at the coal-fired plant that powers the Congress. He writes:

There are moments in a nation’s — and a planet’s — history when it may be necessary for some to break the law in order to bear witness to an evil, bring it to wider attention, and push for its correction.

So those posters in the metro are just the opening shots in the coal wars.