The Locomotive Will Rust in the Shed
Back in April I was driving across the country and mentioned the controversy over a coal power plant in Kansas. ( Climate in America). As fate would have it, this summer I have met Johannes Feddema who is a professor at the University of Kansas, and yes, a member of KEEP. KEEP? -- Kansas Energy and Environmental Policy Advisory Group. Johan wrote this blog - and the next one. So thanks from me, and be good to him. Here's a previous entry of mine on Texas Coal
The coal conundrum: should we or should we not build more coal power plants?
Part I: Coal and climate
"Coal is everything to us. Without coal, our factories will become idle, our foundries and workshops be still as the grave; the locomotive will rust in the shed, and the rail be buried in the weeds. Our streets will be dark, our houses uninhabitable. Our rivers will forget the paddlewheel, and we shall again be separated by days from France, by months from the United States." ~ London Times English, editorial (1866).
As a Kansan who has closely followed the discussion of energy development and the saga of the Holcomb power plant over the last few years, I wish we would try a little harder to remove our blinders when it comes to solving our energy and climate conundrum. Some days I feel that we have not really progressed much in our thinking about energy and energy resources, well represented in the quote above, which holds the view that a particular energy resource is the one and only answer to our problem..
In a number of states, proposals for new coal fired power plants are being discussed, argued about, tabled and rejected or built. The proposed Holcomb coal fired powered plant in Kansas is perhaps the most contentious of all, and its development could have political implications for future power development strategies across the entire nation and the world. -- For more details on the Holcomb plant see The Kansas Coal Controversy, and at the Dole Institute - click on the picture of Rod Bremby 2/3 of the way down the page to see a video of the factors (.wmv) that went into the KDHE decision to deny a permit for the proposed plants.
Coal power plants have undeniable impacts on our well being, both good and bad. Electricity and all the other benefits from petroleum products have greatly benefited our societal development and well being, but they come at a great cost. Most of us now know that coal power plants produce a large amount of Carbon dioxide and other air pollutants that affect both climate and air quality in significant ways. Coal power plants in particular will produce some of the most significant environmental costs of energy production as we move forward (Analysis from greenmarkets.com).
Most often when we discuss these plants we only consider one side or the other. painting a stark black and white picture of the economic benefits or environmental costs . In addition, we, more often than not, do not evaluate the integrated impacts of these plants in a holistic way because we don’t really know how to.
In following the debate about these plants I have been struck by how little consideration has been given to factoring the environmental cost of these plants. Partly this is because of difficulties in measuring such costs. For example, how do you go about assessing the health impacts of an individual coal power plant? How far reaching are these impacts? How can we factor in the costs of potential climate change? As I watch all the signs of a changing climate, such as the possibility of an ice free pole for the first time in recorded human history. Is this event linked to other observed weather events (e.g. the present tornado season being not far from my mind in Lawrence KS) that seem to signal that perhaps we are entering uncharted climate territories? While I am not advocating that one tornado season indicates climate change (see Jeff Masters on 2008 tornadoes), the possible link between a reduced equator-pole energy gradient and more organized and stronger local weather systems keeps nagging at me (as is projected in GCM simulations).
So why are the coal power plant decisions so critical now? Think about the resources and commitment we make when we decide to build a new power plant today. When we build a new plant we are typically making a 50 year or longer commitment to maintain, fuel and operate such a plant. In today’s economy it can be argued that the instability of coal prices alone make such a plant a risky business, since the fuel costs could make a plant obsolete long before its project life cycle. These concerns and the uncertainty associated with CO2 emissions policy all contributed to a number of coal power plant projects being withdrawn for financial and environmental reasons (see LA Times). Yet, developers know that in the end society will pick up the tab should things go wrong; just as we have with the expense of nuclear fuel disposal.
Long term planning processes are even more critical for nuclear plants where there has been little consideration of whether there will even be sufficient fuel to operate all the operating and proposed nuclear plants around the world in 50 years’ time. Uranium is a limited global resource and projected to last “several decades” for “existing plants” (see from Euronuclear). It seems that societies are used to thinking about our energy resources in this large scale infrastructure way and have a difficult time conceiving alternative options or even the benefits of more distributed systems. The status quo and special interests suggest that we continue what we are doing, while the rest of us have a hard time conceiving of alternate paths.
I have to question what is causing this disconnect between our legislative discussions and our scientific knowledge. Is it that we as scientists are not adequately presenting our information to the public and legislature? Is it that our esoteric language just does not come across to the public and legislature (e.g. the meaning of theory in science vs. public discussion)? Or could it be that our political system is so entrenched with special interests and political infighting that it cannot see any but the path it is on and is unwilling listen to the warning signs and to consider alternative paths? How can we get beyond these problems to ensure a healthy fruitful discussion about our energy future?
Figure 1. Taken from The Holcomb Station Expansion Project. A photo simulation of the proposed Holcomb coal power plant.