The economy of burning coal is not enough


This is good news for communities, the environment and the climate

Northampton, MA –News Direct– Ray C. Anderson Foundation

Did someone close to you receive a piece of coal for the holidays? Although threatened from time to time in our household, our children have done juuuuuuuuust enough to earn real Christmas presents this year (it’s ironic – if my kids ever read this year down the line, I want you to know at how proud they are of you I am for how you handled your second year of COVID-19).

Coal for naughty listeners is a funny old tradition, so I went digging to find out its origins. This seems related to the fact that 18th and 19th century homes often had coal fireplaces. If you were bad, Santa would just bend over and stick the closest thing to hand in your stocking. This was not because coal was undesirable per se, but rather because it was convenient.

Why smut is on the naughty list

It amuses me that coal has had a bad reputation for hundreds of years. At the time, it may have just been a holiday threat made by the parents of disobedient youngsters, but now we know better. We now know how dirty and undesirable coal is. Here is the naughty smut list:

  • Underground coal mining is dangerous for workers, with threats including collapsing mine shafts, fires and health threats like black lung;

  • Although safer for workers, coal mining via mountain top abduction and other forms of surface mining destroy habitats and can displace entire communities;

  • Burning coal releases sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain and respiratory illnesses;

  • Burning coal releases nitrogen oxides, which cause smog and respiratory illnesses;

  • Burning coal releases fine particles, which cause smog, haze, and respiratory illnesses (see a diagram here?);

  • Burning coal releases mercury and other heavy metals, which can cause neurological and developmental health issues;

  • Burning coal produces fly ash and bottom ash, which can leach into water supplies;

  • Burning coal releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is the main contributor to human-caused global warming, and;

  • Coal mining often causes a release of underground methane emissions, which also contribute significantly to climate change.

I guess it’s a good thing that people don’t burn this stuff in their living rooms anymore. Coal as an energy source transports significant public health risks that go beyond carbon.

Are coal regulations sufficient?

To be fair, many of these negative impacts of the coal industry are controlled by various environmental regulations. For example, air scrubbers help capture sulfur dioxide emissions and coal ash ponds store toxic coal residues. However, they do not always work, and the environmental damage caused by disasters such as the overflow of coal ash ponds is immense.

Even when working to contain environmental damage, these coal safety measures are expensive. It turns out that we’ve been paying for artificially cheap coal for decades, often thanks to powerful corporate and lobbying interests that resist safety regulations every step of the way.

As more and more Americans realize the threat of climate change, one would think that it would be concerns over greenhouse gases that would present the biggest challenge for the coal industry.

It turns out, however, that it is only pure economics that is behind the recent withdrawal of coal-fired power plants.

The math doesn’t work for coal-fired power plants

This Associated Press article of last fall makes it clear. A new sewage rule was announced at the end of August 2020, and it has forced many coal-fired power plants to take additional measures to clean up their discharges into waterways. As this rule begins to take effect, many power companies that operate coal-fired power plants are announcing their intention to shut them down rather than bring them into compliance. I see that (and encourage it) here in my home state of georgia also.

This is all part of the larger trend for coal to become unprofitable. I extracted data from US Energy Information Administration website to see electricity production by energy source over the years. The math is coming, but bear with me here.

In 2000, the electric power industry in the United States generated 3.802 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity, of which 1.966 billion came from coal (or 51.7% of the total). In 2020, the figures were 4,007 billion kWh of total US electricity, of which 773 billion came from coal (19.3%). That’s a massive reduction in both raw terms and network mix percentage.

Alternatives to burning coal: what are the options?

It must be said that the main driver of these reductions in the use of coal has been the rapid adoption of natural gas. This energy source has increased from 601 billion kWh in 2000 (15.8% of the total) to 1,624 billion kWh in 2020 (40.5%). This represents a 270% growth in kWh of natural gas. Unfortunately, natural gas as an energy source has its own problems (after all, it is also a fossil fuel that must be extracted from the earth’s crust), so what about renewables?

I took a look at solar and wind in particular, and together they produced a measly 6 billion kWh in 2000 (0.2% of the total). By 2020, however, the number had jumped to 427 billion kWh (10.6%). That’s an increase of over 7000%! Additionally, as costs continue to fall for renewable power generation, I expect wind and solar to take much more market share from the US grid in the coming years.

In a word, coal is dying. Cheap natural gas has crippled it for the past two decades, long-awaited safety regulations are shutting down more and more coal-fired power plants, and the push for renewables is leaving coal without to come up. Thank God! The sooner we get our grid out of this great-great-great-grandfather of a no-good-dirty-rotten-thief power source, the better.

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