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How Clean Coal Cooks Your Brain


By Jeff Goodell

Several years ago, in Gillette, Wyoming, I fell into a long conversation with the vice-president of a large American coal company about coal's public image problem. Gillette is in the center of the Powder River Basin, the epicenter of the coal boom in America, where 60 foot seams of coal lay just below the surface.

This vice president, who did not want his name to appear in print, was deeply concerned about coal's future and expressed frustration with environmental attacks on coal, suggesting that it was all a problem of perception: "People don't like coal because it's black," he told me.

"If it were white, all our problems would be solved."

Whenever one of those slick ads for "clean coal" pops up on CNN, I think about that conversation in Gillette. The $35 million "clean coal" campaign, spearheaded by a coal industry front group called American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (formerly known as Americans for Balanced Energy Choices), is nothing less than a nationwide effort to paint coal white.

And to the coal industry's credit, they're doing a pretty good job."Clean coal" is touted by Republicans and Democrats alike as the solution to America's energy troubles.

The logic is simple: America has lots of coal. We are a technologically advanced society. Ergo, we can clean up coal. What's the problem?

Well, here's one: "clean coal" is not an actual invention, a physical thing – it is an advertising slogan. Like "fat-free donuts" or "interest-free loans," "clean coal" is a phrase that embodies the Bush-era faith that there is an easy answer for every hard question in America today. We can have a war in Iraq without sacrifice. We can borrow more than we can afford without worrying about how we'll pay it back. We can end our dependency on oil by powering our SUVs with ethanol made from corn. And we can keep the lights on without superheating the climate through the magic of "clean coal."

Here's another: mining and burning coal remains one of the most destructive things human beings do on this earth. It destroys mountains, poisons water, pollutes the air, and warms the atmosphere. True, if you look at it strictly from the point of view smog-producing chemicals like sulfur dioxide, new coal plants are cleaner than the old coal burners of yore. But going from four bottles of whiskey a week down to three does not make you clean and sober.

Of course, the "clean coal" campaign is not about reality – it's about perception. It's an exercise in re-branding. Madison Ave. did it for Harley Davidson motorcycles and Converse shoes. Why not Old King Coal?

It's not a difficult trick – just whip out some slick ads with upbeat music and lots of cool 21st century technology like fighter jets and computers. Run the ads long enough, and people will believe.

But the real goal of the campaign is not simply to re-brand coal as a clean and modern fuel – it's to convince energy-illiterate TV viewers that the American way of life depends on coal. The ads remind us (accurately) that half the electricity in America comes from coal, then shows images of little girls getting tucked into bed at night or Little Leaguers playing ball under the lights.

The subtext is not simply that, without the electricity from coal, the lights will go out and your family will be plunged into darkness. It's that, without coal, civilization as we know it will come to an end. As one utility industry executive asked me while I was reporting Big Coal, "Have you ever been in a blackout? Do you remember how scary it was?"

From the coal industry's point of view, this is a brilliant way to frame the argument. If the choice is, coal or chaos, they win. This framing also disarms environmental arguments – yes, it's too bad that mountaintop removal mining has destroyed or polluted 1200 miles of streams in Appalachia and that the Environmental Protection Agency projects a loss of more than 1.4 millionacres – an area the size of Delaware – by the end of the decade.

But hey, if it's a choice between losing flattening West Virginia and keeping our lights on, good-bye West Virginia!

That's a false choice, of course.

The coal industry may not want to acknowledge it, but we're living in the 21st century now. We have indeed figured out other ways to generate electricity besides burning out 30 million year old rocks. And with each passing year, those alternatives are getting cheaper and smarter.

Wind is already less expensive than coal in many parts of the country, and so is large-scale solar thermal. Google is exploring enhanced geothermal. The creaky old electricity grid will soon morph into a system that looks more like the internet, driving big gains in efficiency and allowing for real-time pricing of a kilowatt of power.

This does not mean we can shut down coal plants tomorrow. But it does mean that coal is no longer the engine of civilized life as it has been since the industrial revolution.

Big Coal is best understood as a beast of inertia, pushed along by hundreds of billions of dollars worth of heavy metal infrastructure, and kept on track by an army of lobbyists, and our own ignorance of what goes on behind the light switch.

That may be changing.

Even seven year-olds know that the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide, is warming the planet. Coal is by far the most carbon-intensive of fossil fuels, with roughly twice the carbon content as natural gas.

Right now in the U.S., there is no financial cost to dumping CO2 into the atmosphere. That’s likely to change during the next administration. Big Coal is fighting for loopholes and safety valves to keep CO2 costs low, because if legislation passes that actually puts a serious price on CO2, coal's reign as a "cheap" energy source is officially over.

Big Coal insists they have solution for CO2. It's called carbon capture and storage. In most scenarios, capturing and storing CO2 from coal involves building a new kind of power plant that uses heat and pressure to gasify the coal, instead of burning it. In these new plants, the CO2 can be removed, compressed into an oil-like fluid, then injected underground in abandoned gas and oil wells or deep saline aquifers.

Big Coal would like us all to believe that capturing and storing CO2 from these new coal plants is a slam-dunk technology -- but one that's not quite ready for prime time yet (capturing CO2 from existing combustion coal plants, while theoretically possible, is far too expensive and ineffecient to be taken seriously by anyone but the most die-hard coal boosters).

Of course, Big Coal has always been better at touting new technology than actually deploying it. Yes, there are serious questions about how much it will cost to build new coal plants that can capture and store CO2, how soon will it happen, and whether or not the technology can scale up quickly enough to really make a difference. But it's not technology that's holding back CCS. It's politics. Without a price on carbon, there is little incentive to do anything serious about CO2 emissions from coal plants. Indeed, for Big Coal, the game now is not to prove that carbon capture and storage is a viable technology. It's to use the expense and complexity of it as leverage in negotiations over climate legislation.

Meanwhile, the need to reduce CO2 emissions grows more urgent every year. As NASA climatologist James Hansen has repeatedly pointed out, continuing to burn coal the old-fashioned way is a sure-fire way to melt Greenland and turn Miami into an aquarium.

In the end, the "clean coal" campaign is about using the tools of the 21st century to keep us locked in the 19th century. Like other greenwashing campaigns, it's about using the iconography of sexy technology and down-home Americana to maintain the status quo.

These campaigns always pretend to offer inspiration about we can do in America if we set our minds and hearts to it, but in fact the real message is what we can't do: we can't power America without coal, we can't keep our lights on without destroying Appalachia, and most important of all, we can't pass meaningful carbon legislation without wrecking the American economy.

This is why the false promise of "clean coal" is dangerous.

The goal is not to solve our problems, but to perpetuate our addiction. In one ad, the narrator even adopts the feel-good language of substance abuse and recovery: cleaning up coal is a "big challenge," he explains," but we've made a commitment – a commitment to clean."

After decades of stoking the engines of denial and obfuscation on global warming, it's nice that Big Coal wants to be a good citizen. But just because your pusher decides to shower and shave, don't delude yourself into thinking that he cares about your welfare.

His real goal is to keep you hooked.

Jeff Goodell is the author of Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future, (Houghton Mifflin, 2007).

This article originally appeared on Coal is Dirty.

Photo credit: Flickr/Daniel Shea, licensed by Creative Commons.

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Thanks for this article. The whole push for "Clean Coal" strikes me as so Orwellian, and I hate that I have to explain to people that no there really isn't such a thing as clean coal. This is probably going to down in history as one of the biggest greenwashing campaigns ever.

Posted by: Alan on 17 Jun 08

Give the right technologies and the will to use every part of this most valuable resource, coal may prove to be very clean, and profitable. The 'American Way', predator capitalists, rushing towards the fastest, easiest buck and run! won't work with coal. A truly hungry, profit maximizing capitalist with deep pockets is required. One who is willing to do all the processing to get every possible shred of good from the coal is needed. Look to England's industrial age, many chemicals, coal gas, coke, heat were all extracted, and now-a-days we can use the CO2 to feed algae for bio-diesel and greenhouses. When America is really resource strapped, and that is coming soon, we will be able to economically process coal in a fashion that will compliment the environment and our survival, but not now, while we are led by the madman oil baron concept of Bush and gang. We need real leadership. We need real natural capitalists,that would never 'leave money on the table' when processing a valuable resource like coal! If the capitalists are effective in their job, nothing is left over, not even the smell of a good kill!

Posted by: Uncle B on 17 Jun 08

Well, let me then ask something. I'm going to preface by laying out arguments....

Wind isn't effective because cost per kilowatt hour is too high, and is currently being blocked all over the country for a) killing birds and b) providing a blight on the scenery in windy areas. There was a proposal to put some wind plants in Mass. and they were stopped because it would make Cape Cod ugly. There's currently a proposal to put three large windmills in Eastern North Carolina, and they've already stopped one for the "eyesore" and are attempting to stop the other three for the same reason.

Solar, for some reason, we can't seem to get the cost down enough. It's at about $5/unit compared to the Japanese solar units of $2/unit. (I say unit. I can't remember off hand what the size is that was in the article I heard on the radio.) There's also the fickle nature of it. We have a good bank for a week in one area and we've got brownouts?

O.K. Now, why can't we toss out the following ideas.

1) Short-term: Open up off-shore drilling for oil and natural gas. These will lower our per-gallon costs for gasoline and for home heating. We have many millions of gallons or more available for that. We can even look at bumping up the gas tax to put to alternative resources on the condition that we REALLY put the money away, and not just fritter it away on some snazzy new way of providing welfare moms more welfare (at $0.13/dollar sent to DC for welfare going to recepients, we're hoisting a huge fraud with that anyway).

2) Long-term: We can use the power of our researchers and do a public/private partnership to develop a solar/wind/geothermal/hydro electric generating strategy. Also, as far as environmentally sound and safe, with only 2 accidents world wide in the last 40 years and no US deaths related to it, we could follow France's lead and make nuclear a critical part of our electric strategy to make us independent from foreign sources of power for the most part.

Also, with hybrid cars/electric cars, it appears we're wasting valuable electrical reproduction facility. The wheels rotate, much like a generator. Is there NO way to harness that potential electrical output to reroute to the batteries to extend, possibly even double or triple the output?

(Just so there's no argument. I'm conservative. That doesn't mean knuckle-dragging or anything. It means that I'm conservative and truly want to find a market solution to this problem. I'm interested less because of the environmental impacts and more the national security aspects of energy indepenence, and if you look at it from that aspect, you might find that as a conservative, I have as much, if not more reasons to be an environmentalist at this time within reason than most of you who are in this only for "global warming" or the latest "climate change". Not here to troll, but to discuss ideas. If my ideas are wrong, please take the time to tell me why. I'll be glad to look at them and see if there's common ground, or if I'm wrong on something. I will also try to defend my positions not with name-calling or anything like that, but frankly with logic and reason.)

Posted by: Paul on 17 Jun 08

I find Paul's comment interesting:

I'm interested less because of the environmental impacts and more the national security aspects of energy indepenence, and if you look at it from that aspect.

Paul please read what coal companies want to do. Please understand that they aren't about homeland security but the profits they reap.
I know firsthand they don't care about coal miners and their families because my husband spent 27 yrs underground. Now that he was injured in 2004 and not able to work they denied him treatment, workers compensation benefits and if they are so worried about our homeland security why would they export coal to other countries? Please read below:

The fight over whether coal companies should be required to pay millions of dollars in federal royalties on the rapidly increasing amounts of coal
mined for export has moved from the courts to Congress.
Just days after a federal appeals court ruled that the royalty payments used to reclaim thousands of acres of abandoned mine land don't violate the export clause of the U.S. Constitution, language inserted into an
unrelated tax bill would mandate refunds of what it calls "excise taxes"on exported coal.

U.S. coal exports increased 19.2 percent last year to 59.2 million tons,about 6 percent of the 1.12 billion tons mined, and are expected to continue to rise to meet growing demand in China and India.

Believe me they don't get a hoot about coalminers or our country or they wouldn't even consider exporting our coal. They don't even care that they are poisoning our wells that we depend upon for clean water in our homes. They inject coal slurry ( a toxic cocktail of sorts underground and then blast near by to get the MTR or mountaintop removal coal. This cracks our aquafier and the toxins leak into our wells. Some of us only have wells which supplies our water. First it was our streams and now our wells.You think they care? No they won't even acknowledge what they've done.
It's all about the money. Keep your eyes on the prize!

Posted by: Patty on 17 Jun 08

Great article! As for Paul and Uncle B, there is no net benefit in an economic or national security "improvement" if it isn't ecologically sound. If it destroys the ecosystems our lives depend on, we will die.

The reason I am against nuclear and coal is that they both have unacceptable side effects and generating energy in these ways is completely unnecessary. Promoting nuclear and claiming to care about national security is quite the contradiction. What better terrorist target than a nuclear reactor?

You think solar and wind are expensive? Hmm. Let's see... a couple more cents per kWh for clean energy or trillions of dollars in death and destruction from climate change, mining, nuclear waste removal and storage, centralized energy production that takes political power out of people's hands, a broken economy, etc. Those dirty sources aren't looking so cheap anymore ay?

I don't even know where to begin with people who think wind turbines are "ugly" or that "they kill birds." The national audubon society promotes wind power in this speech before congress They understand that continuing business as usual would kill far more birds than wind turbines ever could. Care should be taken in the placement of the turbines to avoid being in major migratory paths or critical habitat. As far as being "ugly" well, how ugly is your child's severe athsma from air pollution or learning deficiencies due to mercury poisoning? How ugly is millions of people dying from floods and droughts? How ugly is the removal of entire mountain tops to extract fossil fuels, leaving behind toxic sludge?

By the way, trying to use one or more wheels of a car as a generator only makes sense if you're putting on the brakes. It's called regenerative braking. If you do invent a perpetual motion machine, please let us know.

Posted by: greensolutions on 17 Jun 08

Patty, first off, I am very much in agreement with you that if a company does wrong by their employees (causing them pain or forcing them not to be able to work by injury), then they should be responsible, and held responsible. And I hope your husband is able to recover and be able to share a happy and good retirement with you (or go back to work in whatever new profession he choses that he can work in, given his injuries).

Green, I'm not 100% certain what you mean when you say "in unnecessary ways". Why is it France can successfully generate 79% of their energy from nuclear, but we can manage less than 10%?

I think in the short-term, we need to get the people who are the nay-sayers and fighting wind-turbine power to stop pushing so hard. If there's a valid reason, fine. But, from the arguments here in NC, we've had basically boiling down to two. 1) it's ugly and 2) it kills birds. Frankly, it's clean, it's got a lot of potential (where in Western North Carolina, we've had wind gusts of upwards of 110 mph, so we have a lot of wind blowing off the mountaintops). If we need the power, we should be able to put the resources together. A lot of the turbine projects I've heard of have been halted because someone didn't want it and fought tooth and nail to prevent it. It seems no matter what the effort, there's no way to satisfy some folks.

Solar is, at this time, a less cost-effective solution because we've not got our processing down to a low enough cost. Given the recent rises in fuel prices, it may become cost-effective shortly.

As far as the suggestion I had with regards to the cars, it's simple. It's not perpeptual motion or any other sort of nonsense. Just a way to possibly make the electric car actually customer palatable to a wider audience. The axels of the cars spin. When they spin, they perform similar to the rotor of an electrical turbine. If we were to have a turbine system under the cars, on all 4 wheels (or at least close to them), we could use that generation system to generate some recoverable energy and possibly allow an electric car to go further without recharging.

Another possible option is to make the batteries a standard size/shape with standard connectors. For a $10 fee (or whatever the cost would be) someone could have at multiple filling stations nationwide a system of recharging dead batteries, and just do a simple swap-out (if we could get a standard and easy access battery hatch). Currently, the biggest drawback to electric cars is the fact that you cannot take them for more than a few hundred miles. I cannot drive my kids from North Carolina to Los Angeles with an Electric car. I'd have to stop every 5-6 hours and recharge. And that's not an acceptable solution with kids in the car. The family trip to Orlando? Not going to happen.

Posted by: Paul on 17 Jun 08

If France's grid is "successful" by being 79% nuclear dependent, I could say, "I just had a successful bowel movement... oh and by the way, there's a turd on your sofa."

...except that nuclear waste is far worse than a turd. Let's not forget the enormous amounts of energy that go into nuclear fuel mining, processing and enriching, constructing, operating and decommissioning nuclear plants and waste facilities. Then this deadly stuff sits there remaining dangerous for hundreds of years longer than this country has even existed.
Plus, every new nuclear plant further legitimizes a global industry with a nuclear-weapon-critical fuel production as part of its process. As soon as some shady group of people seizes some of this material, we need to learn the "duck and cover" song all over again. For these reasons and more, nuclear energy in all its forms should be banned internationally. It is completely unnecessary.

When I say unnecessary, I mean that there are other ways to produce electricity without all the harmful side effects. Solar thermal, solar PV and wind are just a few examples of resources that have the potential of being zero-waste, win-win solutions, especially with conservation and efficiency as a prerequisite. They haven't gotten a ton of private investment or good PR because corporations can't control the fuel source for these renewables, like they can with coal, nuclear, oil and natural gas. The perception of solar and wind also suffers from their potential to empower massive amounts of regular people, which is not a popular theme among the richest folks controlling the largest flows of wealth. Control over peoples' energy sources is control over peoples' lives....just look at how Russia is behaving.... they couldn't do that with distributed wind and solar.

As for the car thing, it violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics. When you use the motion of a wheel to generate electricity, it loads down the wheel it makes it harder for the wheel to turn (which is great when you're using it for regenerative braking). At that point, if you want continue at the same speed, you need to draw more power than the wheel generator is actually producing. You don't gain anything or break even, you actually lose energy because a certain amount of energy is turned into heat every time it changes forms. Doing what you propose would actually reduce the range of the electric vehicle, as it would if you added a wind generator to its roof. Luckily, we can use electronics to regulate when a motor is a motor and when a motor is a generator and thus we have regenerative braking.

The battery-swapping idea is a great one and, in fact, it is being developed right now by a company called Project Better Place in partnership with Renault-Nissan who will mass produce the cars. Very exciting!

Posted by: greensolutions on 17 Jun 08

I remember about 10 years ago, environmentalists were worried about landfills. Don't bury plastic, it takes a gazillion years to degrade. See this newspaper from 1887? You can still read it today. We dug it out of a landfill yesterday! These arguments were used to press for more expensive, "Biodegradable" products.

Of course, plastics, paper, and the vast majority of everything else that is tossed in a landfill is primarily composed of (are you ready for it?) Carbon. More specifically, various hydrocarbons and carbohydrates.

All vegetation on the planet is composed of carbon that has been captured from the atmosphere. Every ton of carbon we remove from the atmosphere equates to approximately 3 tons less bio-matter on earth. The CO2 produced by coal is NOT causing any problems with the environment. It is actually making the planet greener.

Environmentalism is rapidly running into a dead end with the CO2 argument. The doomsday scenarios it foretells are spawned from bad science that ignores historical temperature trends and humanity's ability to affect global climate. While focusing on CO2 will tend to help the alternative energy industry, when people realize that temperatures are simply not rising at the rates the anti-CO2 camp has been predicting for 30 years, environmentalism will suffer the backlash.

The other issues with coal are quite valid - it is not a "clean" fuel. Acquiring it is a very dirty process, and burning it does release dangerous, carcinogenic compounds.

We need to focus our efforts on environmentally AND economically profitable ventures. We need to focus on research and development of alternative energy sources. We need to recognize the deficiencies of solar and wind power (inconsistency, DC vs AC, etc).

We cannot simply dismiss the argument that alternative energy is more expensive. The average person is much more concerned about his bank account than about the environment, and that's not going to change just because we tell him this. He knows that the EPA and other organizations are responsible for doing what's right for the environment, and he thinks that if what he does is really harming the environment, they wouldn't let him do it.

Fortunately, this average person is easily swayed. Make it economically feasible to do so, and he will jump on the bandwagon.

Solar power simply cannot compete economically with coal fired electricity, and won't be able to without a LOT more research. But, a residential sized, solar powered, hydrogen generation system could drag solar into competition with gasoline and diesel powered transportation.

It is easy to convert internal combustion engines into hybrid gasoline/hydrogen engines. In fact, it can be done VERY simply. A modern vehicle's computer already adjusts the fuel/air mixture ratio. The Oxygen sensor in the exhaust stream tells the computer how much air is left unburnt. If there is no oxygen, or too little, it leans the fuel mixture, lowering the fuel/air ratio. If there is too much oxygen, it increases the fuel/air ratio. It has to do this to account for differences in air pressure due to weather and location. (Otherwise, a car from the coast would run too rich in the mountains, and vice versa)

If we manually increase the fuel by adding hydrogen, the computer decreases the gasoline. We can't add very much hydrogen with a stock computer, but we can probably get a 5 to 10 mpg increase with supplemental hydrogen. The computer would simply attribute this to a change in atmospheric pressure, provided you don't exceed certain pre-set "error" limits)

Adding a normally closed valve to allow hydrogen into the intake stream only while the engine is running will force the engine to use less gasoline for the same total power.

If the hydrogen can be acquired "freely" (through a personal, solar powered, hydrogen generator and compressor) and can increase the gasoline efficiency by 5 or 10 mpg, you can quickly create a market for solar power, and once people begin to adopt it, research and development and mass production will bring the prices down, possibly to the point that solar power can compete with coal.

Posted by: Dave on 17 Jun 08


Thanks for the education. I think there may be some possibilities for the application, but if I'm wrong, that's fine. I'm trying to come up with alternatives. I am glad to read about the battery project. It makes the viability of the electric car much higher. When you say that nuclear is an unviable source, I will have to say we will have to agree to disagree. France seems to have found ways to deal with their waste problems (reprocessing, which for some reason, while viable there, is banned in the U.S. is one of their methods). Yes, it has some inherent dangers, but frankly, I think a lot of them are hyped (like California having 3 nuclear plants, but not allowing them to sell energy in California, and not allowing nuclear energy to be sold to them from other states. They export all their nuclear to other states and buy the same amount back from other states. It's just flat stupid.)

Dave, you're right. We can't just dismiss the cost factors. The average person won't understand. So, how to accomplish clean power at a cost that the people will accept? That's the hard part of the equation.

I like the whole idea about injecting hydrogen. I hope that would be able to work. There are a LOT of viable solutions to removing the barriers to cleaner, safer, economically viable energy.

Personally, I like the idea of taking a few of our faster moving rivers and putting some hydro power generators in them. Utilize our natural resources in a way that can be viable, economical and even create new opportunities. We have a filtering system to keep the fish and any debris from being sucked into the system, and then we can provide lots of clean, friendly, economical energy.

Posted by: Paul on 18 Jun 08

If coal were white I still wouldnt like it.

Let us not forget that we are all influenced by the personal.
Blogs are personal journalism.
Personal, but journalism nonetheless.

Dont be swayed by the gladhanding, teethshowing, brighteyed destroyers of the truth, no matter how painful.

Posted by: Bill Goldschein on 18 Jun 08

Great discussion folks! As for the French having the ability to run ~70% of their e-grid on nuclear, that is correct, but the facilities are very heavily subsidized by the French government. No nuclear plant in France has been profitable since they started energy production. The cost in maintenance, security and uranium production are too high, even with the French nuclear power plants essentially sharing the same design specifications and construction techniques. In that instance, the "market" forces clearly chose against the nuclear power plants, but the government wanted them for nationalist reasons.

Here in the U.S. power plant design are on a case-by-case basis, with each plant built having cost overuns that are double and even quadruple the original estimates. No nuclear power plant has successfully come under budget or under-time.

For more information on the realities of nuclear, coal and natural gas (and the alternatives available for them) Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute are good reading. The materials they discuss come chock-full of numbers that you can grind through and check for yourself.

Posted by: Xavier on 18 Jun 08

I can't see how anyone can favour natural gas or coal fired plants over nuclear power. Nuclear power might be more expensive but the benefits are huge - drastically less pollution, better long-term fuel availability and so on. 15.7% of world electricity comes from nuclear power.

No more coal plants please!

Posted by: Pierre on 18 Jun 08

So far, all of the arguments presented here leave out one factor that is the most important of all: reducing the NEED for electricity. Most large-scale, fuel burning power plants are dramatically inefficient, losing most of the power they make between the mine mouth (or equivalent) the the user's electricity-using devices. I've seen many analyses that show the overall efficiency of rotating machinery in our society averages less than 10%. We can do a lot better than that. The comment above, recommending the writings of the Rocky Mountain Institute and its co-founder, Amory Lovins is right on. He and his Institute have proved to be correct over and over,an d it is likely that their work will inform the best way for our society to move forward. They have the numbers, rather conjecture. Check 'em ou to see what's what. Jay Baldwin

Posted by: Jay Baldwin on 20 Jun 08

Pierre & all the above friends:
firtsa of all, France produces just 20% of his total energy needs with nuclear, and, as someone remembered, the State sustain private investments. That is not free market.

Then, we cannot forget to take in account the real amount of money which the nuclear energy needs. We cannot limit our vision to the costs needed for building a plant.
-Nuclear waste treatments need (big money).
-To secure old closed plants needs (big money)
-The uranium cost will grow fast in the next years, and we could become dependent from the nations which extract uraniun.
-Even if so rare, when a nuclear accident happens, its terribly destructive (ie Chernobyl), and leaves no hope for the near lands. And human errors (ie Japan) are rare, but possibile, it's just a matter of time.
-I am absolutely sure that a quote of nuclear waste, due to the high costs to secure it, finishes under the oceans. How many examples of eco-mafias do we know? Really a lot.

I just cannot stop being surprised @ the many people who accept the risk to destroy their only environment, the health of their sons & daughters. I'm so sad.

Posted by: no coal citizens on 20 Jun 08

Thanks Jay for your comment highlighting that all these arguments never once mentioned lowering NEED. Not only are most power plants extremely inefficient, but our built society is as well. Everything mentioned here focuses on the big picture of energy and rightly so, that needs to change, but what about increasing energy efficiency of the built environment or creating an energy-literate public? These solutions are not the only answer, but they are a piece of it. There are issues that need to be addressed with the amount of energy we use, not just with how it is produced.

Posted by: Dee on 20 Jun 08

No coal citizen:

Your information is out of date and you should really re-evaluate all of those points.

- Nuclear waste treatment in many types of modern plant designs mean more recycled fuel and extremely small quantities of waste. Orders of magnitute smaller than coal plants.
- Uranium price will not suddenly skyrocket and I'd like to see your forecasts and sources on that claim please.
- Nuclear accidents are pretty much impossible with new passive-safety core designs. Look at how many people has died since Chernobyl and then look at how many died at coal plants.
- Then you say that you're sure waste ends up in the ocean. What? Wild speculation is now a valid argument?

Also you don't seem to offer any alternatives. Should we build coal / gas plants? Cause that's what the government is doing currently. The only alternative is nuclear. Or what do you propose exactly?

Nuclear is the cleanest cheap power source we have by far.

Posted by: Pierre on 20 Jun 08

Paul and others re: wind and a few other random comments.

yes, there has been opposition to some wind plants including the one off cape cod, but interestingly, that plant has sustained final legal and political victories, apparently conclusively now, and will be built. there will always be opposition to building almost anything, even a large tree-house, but that doesn't mean it will not, or should not (more to the point) be built. it just means that getting things done is difficult. so, what else is new?

there is NO, repeat NO threat to birds from the modern version of wind turbines. that's why those blades were made so bloody long, so they can develop huge torque while rotating at mesmerizingly SLOW speeds. the birds practically stroll out of their way. it has made wind turbines more expensive than they used to be to build and install, but also more likely to go long periods between breakdowns. but the main point: no bird of wildlife hazard.

yes, wind and solar and other renewable energy forms have needed some subsidy to compete, but for heaven's sake, the HUGE subsidies that have been and still are given to the extractive coal and oil industries dwarf to the point of microscopy the little bitty tax breaks allowed for solar and wind (which, by the way, are currently expired in the US--we are certainly hoping they get renewed, but each renewal has only been for two years at a time--a hell of a bad way to build a new energy system.)
the oil depletion allowance ran for a century. the tens of millions of acres of federal and other public lands (that is to say YOUR land) that have been opened to oil and gas (and uranium, by the way)exploitation are mind-boggling. and so on. the list is depressingly long, the market value of the subsidies almost impossible to believe.
there is no reason why renewables should not now be majorly financed, tax-forgiven, incentivized and the like. it would take a century of this before they would match what coal and oil have gotten.

a small point on another matter. natural gas is indeed a fossil fuel, but it differs in some important ways from oil. it is comparatively clean, burning with much lower emissions and especially soot-an asthma trigger and itself a climate changer even though not techniccally a 'greenhouse gas'--soot is not a gas, but its shading action is a critical cooling agent.
second, it is a fossil fuel, but peculiarly,a renewable at the same time--that is, through biomethane. this is not science fiction, methane recapture and use has taken off in the last decade or so and is now common (if not yet nearly typical) practice almost everywhere there is serious biomass decomposition--landfills, wastewater plants, anaerobic digesters on farms and at food plants, and so on. so, a 'fossil' fuel today, but a comparatively clean one, and increasingly becoming a renewable, bio-fuel. the still unexploited opportunities for capturing and reusing--in microturbines or otherwise--methane are huge, and i really mean huge. we have only begun to scratch the surface of this one.

and although it is not an environmental concern, but a world security one, natural gas used in the West--the big consumers--does NOT come from the middle east. in fact, Canada is the biggest exporter to the US, i believe.

lots to think about in the EXTREMELY useful article and the comments that followed it. thank you, worldchanging

Posted by: brendan on 21 Jun 08

The Google ad the top of the email page on which I received this article is

Clean Coal Technology - - The Ultimate Energy
Source See What Coal Can Do for you!

Posted by: Spike on 23 Jun 08

When is clean energy from nuclear clean , Pierre and the last I looked it was by far the most expensive as far as infrastructure development goes. If you can consider it clean when it is clean in 25,000 years well yes I suppose it is clean, but when it's waste products are dumped in your backyard it might be rather a long time to wait. Then there is the fact that it's waste heat has to be got rid of and currently that means vast ponds of superheated water from the steam generated for electricity turbines which have a detrimental affect on surrounding climatology and water systems and land use. Then there is the staggering cost even for rich nations to invest in the building and upkeep of the nuclear power stations.
The problem of electricity generation is in its transport to where it is used. Even modest sized systems loose up to 70% of the power through resistence in the cables used to transport electricity. Therefore smaller and thus economicaly efficiant generation methods that feed users close to the source are the cheapest option even if many more power units have to be built. Nuclear power stations just don't stack up when that is the consideration and especially considering how much of thier heat is actually used to generate electricity compared to how much is simply evaporated out of cooling towers and the associated cooling ponds.
Haven't you ever wondered why the cooling towers are so huge. That is all wasted heat because to make them small and dotted all over the country would generate far more power than could economically be used and thus produced and the power units themselves would present a security nightmare because when damaged, they are absolutely leathal for thousands of years.
Your comfortable assumption of the cheapness and cleaness of nuclear power is a delusion I am sorry to tell you. It is neither, by far, as even a cursory examination of plenty of available data will show you. Even the security bill for existing nuclear power stations is astronomical compared to securing coal-fired generation plants. It's time to look at the available options but it is also time to think smaller and simpler for cheapness of infrastructure and embodied energy, economics of power delivery versus generation cost, reliability of generation, security and cleaness. And that excludes nuclear power from consideration because of all those, only reliability is the one it can claim.
Have you heard of the tidal power and ocean current generators that are currently being developed by South Korea. They are far cheaper and safer than nuclear and are still in development stage, but since most people in the world live on coastlines near to ocean currents, I think they are a far better option.

Posted by: simons seasons on 24 Jun 08

I came from Scranton, Pennsylvania, which sat on the largest seams of anthracite coal in the world. Scranton was mined to exhaustion by coal companies up until 1927 (literally up to within inches of folks' basements, until the Pennsylvania Supreme Court told the coal companies that "surface rights" did not give them license to destroy homes). The entire area was mined to exhaustion in 1959, when the Susquehanna River broke through a mine wall and flooded out the entire honeycomb of mines beneath Luzerne and Lackawanna Counties.

I like to call the Scranton area America's first great environmental disaster zone. Perhaps there's a theme park in there somewhere...kind of a time-elongated Chernobyl.

Rules of thumb from one who grew up there:
1. If a coal company says it, it's a lie.
2. If they say coal is clean, it isn't.
3. If they say you won't suffer, you will. (Just Google "black lung" for starters).
4. If nature stands in their way, nature will be destroyed.
5. If they say it's economically necessary, the money's leaving your area and never coming back.
6. If they say they'll clean it up and make it better, they won't.

Posted by: Anthracite Man on 26 Jun 08



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