As someone that owns a Prius, you be correct in assuming that I tend to support clean energy sources like solar and wind energy. But the more that I know the limits of these energy sources, the more I tend to think that until we can find an source of energy that is clean and on-demand, America and indeed the world have to use some of our current sources of power: nuclear and coal.
James Fallows does and excellent job of explaining why coal might be the path to a clean future. He explains all the drawbacks of coal and then talks about how China’s experiementation with ways to make coal cleaner might help bring greenhouse gases down.
He explains why coal will be king for a while and why renewables won’t this way:
Isn’t “clean energy” the answer? Of course—because everything is the answer. The people I spoke with and reports I read differed in emphasis, sometimes significantly. Some urged greater stress on efficiency and conservation; some, a faster move toward nuclear power or natural gas; some, an all-out push for solar power and other renewable sources; others, immediate preparation for “geo-engineering” or “abatement” projects to offset the effects of climate disruption once they occur. But in a sense they were all in harmony, because everything on all the lists works toward the same end.
The best-known illustration of the need for an all-fronts approach is the “carbon wedge” analysis from the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton. Its premise is that to keep the carbon-dioxide level from going into the 500s, or twice its pre-industrial-age level, over the next 50 years, the world collectively will need to reduce its carbon-dioxide emissions by a total of about 26 billion tons per year. (Technically, CMI measures its goals in billions of tons of carbon contained within the carbon dioxide. For clarity, I’ve converted the figures.) To reach that total, CMI proposes seven “stabilization wedges” of a little less than 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide each. A 4-billion-ton “wedge” through efficiency efforts of all kinds; another wedge of that size through renewable power; another through avoiding deforestation and changing agricultural practices. Eventually it adds up. “There are many good options,” Julio Friedmann, a geologist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, told me soon after I first met him in Beijing two years ago. “But there are no unlimited options. Each is limited by cost, limited by scale, limited by physics and chemistry, limited by thermodynamics. For example, there’s nothing wrong with switchgrass as a biofuel”—one of George W. Bush’s novel proposals—“but there’s not a lot of energy in it.”
We’ll hear from Friedmann again. This emphasis on limits is what begins pointing us back to coal.
“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.
Precisely because coal already plays such a major role in world power supplies, basic math means that it will inescapably do so for a very long time. For instance: through the past decade, the United States has talked about, passed regulations in favor of, and made technological breakthroughs in all fields of renewable energy. Between 1995 and 2008, the amount of electricity coming from solar power rose by two-thirds in the United States, and wind-generated electricity went up more than 15-fold. Yet over those same years, the amount of electricity generated by coal went up much faster, in absolute terms, than electricity generated from any other source. The journalist Robert Bryce has drawn on U.S. government figures to show that between 1995 and 2008, “the absolute increase in total electricity produced by coal was about 5.8 times as great as the increase from wind and 823 times as great as the increase from solar”—and this during the dawn of the green-energy era in America. Power generated by the wind and sun increased significantly in America last year; but power generated by coal increased more than seven times as much. 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.
Fallows received some flak for his article, but I think he is on to something here. I don’t think Fallows is advocating to ignore clean energy and to just let coal just rule like crazy. But think about the fact that our need for energy is growing over time, not just because we are just wasteful. Even in the world of Facebook and Google, we still need energy to run our laptops and iPads (and the new crop of electric cars like the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf). Even if we try to conserve, our energy needs grow with technology. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I do know that we are going to need a lot of land full of solar panels and wind turbines to keep up with our thirst for power and even then it won’t be enough.
So, at the end of the day, we need to find a way to combat global warming and also provide a cheap source of energy. We need to find ways to make the cheapest and easiest form source of energy cleaner and also find alternative sources of energy that are cleaner and plentiful.