Monday, January 21, 2008

Coal Fights Back

It was inevitable that the US coal industry would answer last year's "Coal Is Filthy" ad campaign with a campaign of their own, and here it is. The Washington Post describes this effort as focused on key primary states, with the aim of enhancing the image of coal and stirring up opposition to legislation on climate change. Although the ads' tag-line isn't quite as visceral as that of coal's opponents, their appeal to energy security seems timely, and the assertion that coal is "the fuel that powers our way of life" is more accurate than many Americans would like to acknowledge. In 2006 coal generated 49% of US electric power, while all zero-emission sources, including nuclear, large hydropower, wind and grid-connected solar only accounted for 29%. But although the campaign touts the potential of coal to produce emissions-free power in the future, thanks to the technology of carbon sequestration, that will only happen if the government regulates CO2 emissions in some fashion. Without putting a value on greenhouse gas emissions, the economic incentive to increase the capital and operating costs of coal facilities in order to capture those emissions won't exist.

Contrast this with the potential of energy efficiency. Engineers and scientists have always known that we waste more of the energy from our primary fuels than we actually use. Efficiency experts argue that if the standards in the Energy Bill and various state regulations were applied consistently, we wouldn't need any new, large power plants for years to come. Among other things, the Energy Bill has written the epitaph for the incandescent light bulb, as we have known it, but it has done so without banning the bulb, but by means of lighting efficiency standards that conventional incandescents can't meet. Even today's compact fluorescent lights must eventually improve or give way to LEDs or other tech. However, our experience with efficiency so far has been that any net reduction in demand is likely to prove temporary. We love our gizmos too much, and it has usually been easier to add new power plants than to convince everyone to invest in better appliances, insulation, and other energy-saving measures. Climate change could be about to alter that balance, and it's getting harder to build new distribution infrastructure, too, but the jury is out.

Now factor in the rapid growth of renewable electric power, admittedly from a very small base, compared to coal. Last year US wind capacity grew by an amazing 45%. Although that additional 5,244 MW of wind generation will only produce about as much electricity as 1,700 MW of gas, coal or nuclear capacity, wind continues to grow at sustained rates that make it more consequential each year.

All of this makes for a very challenging planning environment for coal producers and the states that are home to the country's enormous coal reserves. Efficiency is reducing the size of the total future power market, renewables and a resurgent nuclear industry are competing for its future market share, and the gathering response to climate change will likely erase most of coal's cost advantage in levelized electricity costs. Those are daunting uncertainties, and no amount of PR can neutralize them.

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