In defense of coal opinion electricity and circuits physics


It is misleading to say Obama had a “war on coal.” The war was on carbon dioxide, because it causes global warming and consequent changes in climate. Obama was in step with the science and the nations of the world, all 195 of which signed the Paris Climate Agreement.

The editorial points out that the coal fired power plants were replaced by natural gas plants without explaining that this happened because of the cheap price of fracked natural gas. Yes, Obama and rational policy should have favored phasing out coal, but utilities responded more to the cheap price of gas than to the threat of global warming.

The editor complains of the subsidies for wind and solar and withdrawal of funding for clean coal. There have been subsidies for all forms of energy for several decades. Renewable energy has been subsidized in the laudable effort to develop energy sources that do not contribute to climate change, that is, that have zero or lower greenhouse gases associated with the production of energy. Fossil fuels have been subsidized for…? Right, there is no reason to subsidize fossil fuels.

Before we recognized greenhouse gases caused climate change, the effect of subsidizing fossil fuels had the effect of reducing energy costs, which is arguably laudable as a subsidy to poorer people, for whom the cost of energy is both a necessity and a larger part of their budget. However, that subsidy is a harmful distortion of the market in an era where it is critical to reduce greenhouse gases.

Regarding the subsidy for “clean coal” to even the playing field with wind and solar, there are two ways to make coal clean. This first has been in place for decades, where regulations have been used to reduce toxic pollutants like sulfur and nitrogen compounds and particulates. The second is to reduce the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. Only in recent years, however, has there been an effort to regulate carbon dioxide, which is not a toxin and is the natural and inevitable product of combustion of coal or any other carbon based (fossil) fuel. That is, even if coal burned 100% cleanly, it would still be an unacceptable fuel in an era where greenhouse gases must be reduced.

Past administrations, including especially the Obama administration, have funded research and pilot plants that attempt to capture carbon dioxide from the burning of coal and then sequester it deep in the earth’s crust. As you can see, this is a rather extraordinary exercise, since you are not merely trying to clean up toxic byproducts of combustion but actually the product of the chemical reaction of combustion itself. The emphasis on this research has waned as solar and wind have gotten so cheap that there is little hope that carbon capture and sequestration can ever compete in price.

The editor says that wind and solar cannot compete on a level playing field. Actually, parity of wind and solar with coal has been reached and surpassed in many if not most places in the country and world. In other words, wind and solar are cheaper than coal irrespective of subsidies and even if the damage coal does to climate and the environment is not accounted for.