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Coal: Moving Beyond Burning Stuff

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 3:56 AM GMT on July 19, 2008

The coal conundrum: should we or should we not build more coal power plants?

This is the second of two guest blogs by Johannes Feddema. Here is a link to the first one.

Part II: Coal and future energy sources
Johannes Feddema

‘A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
Max Planck, a German physicist (1949)

When discussing the future of coal and coal fired power plants it is appropriate to take a step back and reflect on how we use fossil fuel energy. We take a highly valuable resource, energy from the sun, captured by ancient vegetation that has been stored and provided to us by astonishing geologic processes, and we literally burn it. In this process it converts into smoke, low energy materials, heat, and some usable energy. For what purpose do we do this? In the US it is often times to over air condition our houses and offices in summer, to overheat our houses in winter and sometimes just to sit and idle our cars for air conditioning while we wait for our kids to get out of school. At the same time it provides energy to refrigerate and secure our food supply, to let us visit distant realms, to perform life saving surgeries and to provide a raw material to create such useful products as plastics.

We have made little effort to distinguish or price energy based on its usefulness; i.e. the cost of wasting energy is the same as the cost of putting it to good use. Today little of our energy use in the U.S. is efficient. Our impact in this regard is ever more visible, even from space (thanks to NASA).

Figure 1. Taken from NASA. The Earth at Night – a satellite picture of city lights composited from NASA and DMSP (Defense Meteorology Satellites Program) satellites.

Thinking about the number of lights it takes to create such a dramatic display is astonishing. To give you some idea of the energy cost of this display, think that for every 100W light bulb it takes about 714 pounds (325 kg) of coal to keep it burning for a year. That’s a pile of coal like this (see National Geographic article and How Stuff Works for energy calculations). Do we really need all those lights?

Perhaps we should start seeing fossil fuels for the valuable resource they really are, including their ability to provide the thousands of things from drugs to fertilizer to plastics that are invaluable to our society. If we took such a view, we might see that burning these resources is not the wisest use even in present conditions.

Instead we should emulate nature and see if there are better ways to capture alternative forms of energy. How quickly could we develop alternative resources, if we put our imagination and perhaps one percent of our annual GDP to good use? The ancient plants that became our coal and oil of today used solar power. Surely we can make a focused effort to replicate this process with that most abundant of free energy provided daily by our sun.

Think about how much heat absorbing roof area exists in the world! Can we put this to good use to effectively capture solar energy? Such companies as Sun Edison are doing it today, providing some measure of energy independence and sustainability while making profits. If we can even change the energy mix a little, think of the potential unimagined benefits future generations will extract from the fossil fuel resources we conserve today.

We need a fresh outlook and new ideas in developing energy generation schemes. Our current debates on new power plant development reflect an old, outdated, entrenched mindset. The controlling voice of special interests in this debate should concern us all. It is time to look to younger voices, those who will inherit the world we create today. Science and technology needs to be brought to the table to open eyes to new and exciting opportunities

For the future it seems prudent to think about our coal plant debates in a much larger light. Perhaps it is wise to put off construction of these 50+ year commitments a few years and give ourselves some time to reflect on the best ways to proceed. This reflection needs to include experimentation and development of processes that consider multiple methods for generating energy.

Most of the answers are already out there, solar and wind are well known examples, but there are also other schemes using such intriguing resources as salinity differentials in coastal waters and many more innovative ideas (many older and ignored). We just need a bit of creativity to harness them more efficiently. How do we buy time to do such an evaluation? Most simply, by being more thoughtful about our energy use.

Through conservation and wiser energy policy we can extend our existing infrastructure for decades should we choose to. Let’s turn off a few light bulbs at night, it would surely make astronomers happy, and me too, when I get to see the Milky Way once more! This would be a first step to ensure we minimize our impacts on climate, and would have immediate benefits to our own health and that of natural and managed ecosystems that support us.

In the end energy decisions will be made by our society as a whole and will include a mix of solutions, including coal. Whatever our choices, they will most certainly make a difference to the climate, quality of life and options available to our grand children and all living systems on the planet.

After watching the Holcomb power plant debate I initially thought Max Planck’s quote above was what it would take to get there. However, in the last few months I have become more optimistic. I believe we can do better, especially if we listen to the ideas, and act on the hopes, enthusiasm and aspirations of our younger generation. It is time to see and seize the opportunity before us rather than clinging to outdated energy technologies. We can create jobs and economic prosperity by conserving, getting more energy efficient, and deploying renewable energy like wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal. I hope my generation will consider our children and theirs, and seize today’s opportunities to improve all of our lives.

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.