Alex Massie

King Coal Will Reign For Years Yet

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Like Andrew says, James Fallows' Atlantic article on clean coal - and China's advances in developing the stuff - deserves to be read in full. But it's also a useful corrective to the notion that "alternative energy" sources (with the exception of nuclear power) can come at all close to meeting our energy needs either now or in the foreseeable future. For all that relatively few people talk about coal anymore (and of course we no longer mine the stuff ourselves) it's still the King of Energy:

“Emotionally, we would all like to think that wind, solar, and conservation will solve the problem for us,” David Mohler of Duke Energy told me. “Nothing will change, our comfort and convenience will be the same, and we can avoid that nasty coal. Unfortunately, the math doesn’t work that way.”

The math he has in mind starts with the role that coal now plays around the world, and especially for the two biggest energy consumers, America and China. Overall, coal-burning power plants provide nearly half (about 46 percent this year) of the electricity consumed in the United States. For the record: natural gas supplies another 23 percent, nuclear power about 20 percent, hydroelectric power about 7 percent, and everything else the remaining 4 or 5 percent. The small size of the “everything else” total is worth noting; even if it doubles or triples, the solutions we often hear the most about won’t come close to meeting total demand. In China, coal-fired plants supply an even larger share of much faster-growing total electric demand: at least 70 percent, with the Three Gorges Dam and similar hydroelectric projects providing about 20 percent, and (in order) natural gas, nuclear power, wind, and solar energy making up the small remainder. For the world as a whole, coal-fired plants provide about half the total electric supply. On average, every American uses the electricity produced by 7,500 pounds of coal each year. 

[...] As Americans have read many times, Chinese companies are the world’s leaders in manufacturing solar panels, often using technology originally developed in the United States. Many of the panels are used inside China for its own rapidly growing solar-power system; still, solar energy accounts for about 1 percent of its total power supply. In his book PowerHungry, Bryce describes a visit to a single coal mine, the Cardinal Mine in western Kentucky, whose daily output supports three-quarters as much electricity generation as all the solar and wind facilities in the United States combined. David MacKay, of the physics department at Cambridge University in England, has compiled an encyclopedia of such energy-related comparisons, which is available for free download (under the misleadingly lowbrow title Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air). For instance: he calculates that if the windiest 10 percent of the entire British landmass were completely covered with wind turbines, they would produce power roughly equivalent to half of what Britons expend merely by driving each day.


That doesn't mean they don't have a role but wind power should probably, I suspect, be subjected to a more rigorous cost-benefit analysis than sometimes seems to be the case. For that matter, the views and wishes of local communities might be considered more important than arbitrarily constructed "targets" imposed by central government (whether at Holyrood or Westminster). As matters stand, local councils often reject* wind farm applications, only to see their decision overturned by central government.

For that matter, reading Fallows' piece makes me think that  the case for increased nuclear capacity in Britain (with all the costs and trade-offs it imposes) is stronger than I'd previously thought. (And I'd thought it strong to begin with.)

*This is a growing annoyance in these parts. I quite like the look of some wind turbines but there's a limit to how many there need or should be in any one area. If all the turbines planned for the Borders are built there will be, at least, one turbine for every 400 people in the region. And that's only counting existing "farms" and those currently grinding through the planning process.

As I say, the whole thing is worth reading and so is Fallows' blog.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.