The Weekly Carboholic: US coal exports boost electricity prices and China's CO2 emissions

Posted on March 26, 2008

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carboholic

coalmineAccording to the New York Times, the U.S. has begun exporting coal to countries like Japan, Germany, India, and China. In the process, our domestic coal prices have risen more, percentage rise, than oil prices have risen over the last year. And the reason we’re voluntarily increasing the prices of our electricity and steel? Foreign demand and expected federal curbs on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have made the domestic markets risky, and foreign markets represent a growth opportunity. Put simply – higher profits.

“This export boom right now is the difference between slow growth in our markets and hyper-expansion in our markets,” said Gregory H. Boyce, chairman and chief executive of Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal company. “You have two billion-plus people looking for a better standard of living. The world is energy-short and the U.S. coal sector is beginning to fill that gap.”

Profit, properly understood, is a good thing. But profit at the cost of public health, clean air and clean water, and rapidly increasing CO2 emissions and the global heating that follows those emissions is grossly unethical. So is profit earned at the expense of increasing domestic energy prices. According to a Washington Post article on the same topic, “If high prices last, that would raise the cost of U.S. electricity, half of which is generated by coal-fired powered plants.” China’s demand is growing strong and has outstripped it’s mining capacity. Even European nations are hypocritically burning more and more coal, especially in countries like the U.K. and Germany. But the Washington Post article points out the fundamental problem that Peabody and the other U.S. coal producers have yet to face – there simply aren’t enough mines to mine all the coal demanded by energy and industry worldwide, and even if we had enough mines, we lack the rail and port capacity to ship it all.

Coal isn’t the solution, but maybe higher coal prices will make alternative energy sources like solar, wind, geothermal, ocean current, etc. more cost competitive. After all, the price of solar doesn’t have to come down as far if the price of coal goes up. Let’s just hope that our economy survives the shock as domestic utilities have to renegotiate their long-term coal supply contracts and as the price of electricity doubles or triples.

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In an unexpected turn of events, Planet Ark reports that the Dutch have opted to go green with coal and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) instead of going nuclear. The Dutch have chosen to stay nuke-free except for the one plant at Borssele, but are planning on sequestering the CO2 from new coal plants in former and now empty natural gas fields underground and offshore.

This is a fresh approach to CCS in that it takes a depleted resource area, former natural gas fields, and turns them into a new industrial resource for carbon dioxide storage. What makes this also interesting is the simplicity of it – the geology of a natural gas field has to be able to contain pressurized gases or else it would never held natural gas in the first place. This reduces the risk that CO2 injected into the old fields will leak out again, and in areas where natural gas extraction has led to the land subsiding (sinking, a la New Orleans), the addition of sequestered CO2 might just stabilize the land as well.

While I can’t ever really consider coal to be a clean fuel due to the problems associate with mining, transportation, and the plant inefficiencies that CCS causes, this sort of approach may be a good bridge technology, along with nuclear power, to get us to truly clean energy sources.

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Experts have been telling us that access to sufficient freshwater will become a serious problem as the planet heats up. And last week, we got more bad news about this topic from an AFP article (A thirsty planet looks for solutions to water shortage). The UN has just warned that it estimates that a third of the global population will lack access to safe drinking water by 2025. The litany of problems is impressive – overuse of aquifers draining them faster than they can be refreshed, pollution, biological contamination, accelerating glacial melt, and even seawater encroaching on depleted aquifers making them undrinkable. Scientists are looking to upscale reverse osmosis for mass desalination of seawater and to develop better micro-filters that can be used by single families to filter out pathogens and toxins inexpensively. Dramatic improvements in sanitation are also required, as well as drought-resistant staple crops like rice, wheat, and potatoes.

Genetically modified rice, anyone?

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There’s a concept called “food miles,” where the distance your food has traveled is used as a proxy for how “green” your food actually is. In an excellent story, the Guardian online dissects this oversimplified idea as it applies to food consumed in the UK. And in the process, the story illustrates how using distance traveled as a proxy for total carbon emissions is grossly inaccurate and actually contributes to global heating.

Consider these two staples: apples and lettuce. The former are harvested in September and October. Some are sold fresh; the rest are chill stored. For most of the following year, they still represent good value – in terms of carbon emissions – for British shoppers. But by August those Coxs and Braeburns will have been in store for 10 months. The amount of energy used to keep them fresh for that length of time will then overtake the carbon cost of shipping them from New Zealand. It is therefore better for the environment if UK shoppers buy apples from New Zealand in July and August rather than those of British origin.

Then there is the example of lettuces. In Britain these are grown in winter, in greenhouses or polytunnels which require heating. At those times it is better – in terms of carbon emissions – to buy field-grown lettuce from Spain. But in summer, when no heating is required, British is best. Picking the right sources for your apples and lettuces depends on the time of year.

The entire article is full of examples of foods that are actually better for the environment to import than to eat locally, and it’s a fascinating article for that very reason. There are many excellent reasons to eat close to home, from supporting local farms and ranches to access to organic foods, but reduced carbon emissions may well not be one of those reasons in every case. Maybe, though, if the entire planet started incorporating the carbon emissions costs into the cost of food, then this might balance out. After all, those same apples that were stored 10 months would be dramatically more expensive due to the increased energy costs for storage, making imported apples both cheaper and better for addressing global heating. Now, if we could reduce the carbon emissions of container ships too….

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oceanturbineFor the first time ever, a utility will install a commercial oceanic current turbine (instead of a research turbine) and use it to power homes. According to the Independent, the first SeaGen turbine, generating 1.2 megawatts (MW) to power up to 1400 homes, will be anchored to the bottom of Northern Ireland’s Strangford Lough, where it will generate electricity as the tides pull water in and out of the Lough. And if the first turbine proves out, up to seven more turbines may be added to the Lough, for a total of 10.5 MW.

While the Severn Barrage would generate a great deal more energy from the ebb and flow of the tides, the environmental impact of the Barrage is expected to be much larger, and tidal turbines like the SeaGen project (and similar to those pictured at left) can be re-sited if necessary. And their impact on the environment and marine animals is expected to be minimal.

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