Friday, February 20, 2009

Elections have consequences

This blog has sucked lately, for which I apologize, but as I think I've mentioned before, there's a surprising amount of work that goes in to a Masters degree. (Who knew?) In the whole minutes that I have both free and awake, I do try to actually speak complete english sentences to my fiancée, and occasionally contribute to the housework. (Imposition of gender roles: bad!)

Still, this is worth breaking radio silence over: it's looking more and more clear that in there will be a de facto, if not de jure, moratorium on any new coal-fired generating stations throughout the US, as a result of a) lawsuits brought during the Bush term and b) the recent change in power in DC.

You should be reading Joe Romm and Gristmill, but the short version (assuming I understand it) is that the Federal EPA has been ordered to regulate CO2 emissions as a result of a Supreme Court decision handed down last year. The EPA regulates power plant emissions by mandating "best available commercial technology", or BACT.

Now, typically BACT for things like NOx and SOx emissions are comparatively minor filters or firing technology that reduce emissions. But CO2 can't be addressed that way, because of the physics of oxidizing carbon.

This means that the EPA could be in a position, within 12-18 months, of basically mandating a revolution in new coal generation in America: requiring biomass co-firing (basically mixing in farm or timber wastes with the coal, lowering the net CO2 emissions), cogeneration, and possibly even requiring something like IGCC (the holy grail of coal technology.)

Ah, but it gets better: all of these options (save biomass co-firing, I believe) will raise the cost of coal generation radically. These technologies, some of them in combination, would effectively raise the price of coal to well over that of wind, nuclear, in some cases solar thermal, and in the American southwest possibly even rooftop PV. Yes, coal will be made too expensive to use.

Future improvement of existing plants could be affected as well, I believe.

(Note: the cost of new nuclear generation is going up rapidly as well, so that in particular is a moving target. Still, it's hard to believe that an IGCC plant is going to end up costing less than nuclear when much of the carbon capture and storage infrastructure will have to be built beforehand.)

This is fantastic news, and I daresay will be one of the most consequential acts of the Obama administration if it unfolds well. There's always the chance that the coal industry will manage to have us all conscripted in its defense with some damn bailout of one kind or another (this is particularly a concern with the former Senator from Illinois in the White House, frankly) but at the moment this is my smile for the day.


Anonymous said...

Um, you're talking about a large number of coal miners being put out of work in a relatively short period of time.

I figure there's about a zero percent chance that this ends up killing the coal industry. Seriously - the politicians are going to get it from both ends - labor and the owners. It's too easy to reverse through appeal to politicians and there isn't an industry with an interest on the other side that can provide enough counter-pressure on the politicians to stop it.

Industries don't collapse like that - they get replaced. The wind and solar industries have to get powerful enough to have the clout to push back. A sudden collapse like that caused by government action is pretty much a recipe for the government to step in for a rescue. The only other alternative is to write off votes from coal states for the next few generations.

Leslie Glustrom said...

John--When you get a break from your Masters (or decide you need something else to cheer you up) take a look at the report "Coal:Cheap and Abundant--Or Is It? Why Americans Should Stop Assuming They Have a 200 Year Supply of Coal." You'll find it at .

It is an 80 page report (with a nice simple one page abstract) and over 200 solid references on why the assumption about a "200 year" supply of US coal just isn't so...

Good luck with your Masters!