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The full cost of alternatives to coal
Old 07-27-2014, 09:22 PM   #1
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The full cost of alternatives to coal

There was an interesting article in The Economist this week about coal alternatives (Sun, Wind and Drain) . Basically, the conclusion of a study put out by The Brookings Institution is that reducing CO2 emissions from coal by encouraging the growth of electricity production using solar and wind power has a net cost, not a net benefit. The major glitch in the solar/wind model is that the production can't be counted on to be available, so backup baseline generation is required. When you add those costs in (and that's entirely realistic), then they are incredibly expensive ways to reduce greenhouse emissions.

The discussion and analysis is related to other ongoing threads here on "externalized costs" and "solar power producing paving materials". The Brookings study assumed various amounts for the externalized costs of CO2 production.




Note: The "Net Cost or Benefit" marker for wind power seems to have fallen off the online version of the graph (above). In the print version of the magazine, it was at about - 20 (i.e. -$20,000 per megawatt per year in net cost, compared to coal).

From the piece:
Quote:
If all the costs and benefits are totted up using Mr Frank’s calculation, solar power is by far the most expensive way of reducing carbon emissions. It costs $189,000 to replace 1MW per year of power from coal. Wind is the next most expensive. Hydropower provides a modest net benefit. But the most cost-effective zero-emission technology is nuclear power. The pattern is similar if 1MW of gas-fired capacity is displaced instead of coal. And all this assumes a carbon price of $50 a tonne. Using actual carbon prices (below $10 in Europe) makes solar and wind look even worse. The carbon price would have to rise to $185 a tonne before solar power shows a net benefit.
Obviously, the calculations and the decisions about the value of various alternative energy sources depend on the price allotted to the external cost of CO2, but also much more to other "costs" (e.g. cost in lives and environmental damage from coal mining, flooding river basins for hydro, etc). And, ultimately, what is the cost in human suffering and health of increasing the cost of electricity at all (esp in the developing world).

Anyway, something to chew on. . .
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Old 07-27-2014, 09:40 PM   #2
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No surprises there. Nuclear and hydro wind up as the best low-carbon bets.

The real trick with coal is to externalize as much of the cost as possible, making the soot, slag and ash, and mining residuals somebody else's problem.
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Old 07-27-2014, 11:58 PM   #3
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I'm not an engineer or scientist, but I do know for sure, eliminating coal fired power production on the United States will have ZERO effect on co2................

The same coal that was mined, put on a train and shipped a couple of hundred miles to a US power plant , will NOW be mined, and shipped on a train, to a port then on a ship to China or India, where it will be burned in a power plant, powering a factory, producing goods, largely shipped back to the United States.

The net outcome is higher cost power in the US. The coal will still be burned, releasing co2.

Controls of local emissions of sox, mercury etc. can and have been accomplished at US coal power plants for decades.

Bottom Line.....Is the US willing to stop mining coal for export ? I don't think so.
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Old 07-28-2014, 12:25 AM   #4
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There are quite a few advocates for the "Nothing we do matters, so don't do anything" school of thought. Heck, there are entire lifestyles built around this.
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Old 07-28-2014, 02:10 AM   #5
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Originally Posted by Lakewood90712 View Post
I'm not an engineer or scientist, but I do know for sure, eliminating coal fired power production on the United States will have ZERO effect on co2................
I disagree somewhat on this. While there will certainly be some coal use in the US, if the pressure by the current administration succeeds, then more coal burning will take place in China/India as a % of the (shrinking) global total coal burning pie. With a reduction in demand comes a lowering of the equilibrium market price. Which shifts sales to the absolute lowest cost producers - which means more coal is mined in China (and elsewhere with lower cost production), and less coal mined in the US (given more mines with higher total production cost).

The big question will be what form of redundancy is used to offset electrical demand when cloud cover interferes with solar cell electricity production, and how much will the public be willing to pay for it, as more and more solar collectors/windmill farms are brought on-line, since I'm not aware of any large scale power storage solutions currently being built.

Net result: fewer US coal-based jobs, some reduction in CO2 output from US.
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Old 07-28-2014, 05:06 AM   #6
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There's also an interesting dynamic in electricity cost from utilities dues to increased solar use by consumers (principally industrial ones, but residential users, too). When you install a PV panel on your roof, the utility still needs to maintain the backup baseline generating capacity to feed your house when the sun isn't out. But if they are selling you less electricity (because of the PV panels), then the cost of that backup capacity increasingly gets shed to other users. The increased electricity cost reduces the payback time for your PV panels, thus increasing the installation of PV and making the spiral continue. Further, the larger industrial users then find it is cheaper to install their own production capacity rather than pay these higher rates from the utility company. And smaller, point-of-use production is going to be less efficient (from a CO2 per KW standpoint) than larger turbines, and will also reduce grid flexibility.
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Old 07-28-2014, 08:33 AM   #7
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Originally Posted by Lakewood90712 View Post
I'm not an engineer or scientist, but I do know for sure, eliminating coal fired power production on the United States will have ZERO effect on co2................

The same coal that was mined, put on a train and shipped a couple of hundred miles to a US power plant , will NOW be mined, and shipped on a train, to a port then on a ship to China or India, where it will be burned in a power plant, powering a factory, producing goods, largely shipped back to the United States.

The net outcome is higher cost power in the US. The coal will still be burned, releasing co2.

Controls of local emissions of sox, mercury etc. can and have been accomplished at US coal power plants for decades.

Bottom Line.....Is the US willing to stop mining coal for export ? I don't think so.
A good bit of coal used in SC is barged in from South America as we speak. It is cheaper since wages are lower in SA, they can strip mine and it is a good grade of coal. Charleston, Jacksonville, and Savannah are the entry ports.
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Old 07-28-2014, 08:37 AM   #8
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You can't put up a large solar fam, it kills the birds flying by. Wind farms also kill birds. Dam's cause salmon to not reproduce. Nuclear is a disaster when it goes bad. Coal causes Co2 emissions.

It's pretty simple. If you are complaining about one source of energy, and using another, you are part of the problem. Shut off your power. Don't always make the 'other guy' to be made out as the bad guy.
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Old 07-28-2014, 08:43 AM   #9
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Originally Posted by Redbugdave View Post
A good bit of coal used in SC is barged in from South America as we speak. It is cheaper since wages are lower in SA, they can strip mine and it is a good grade of coal. Charleston, Jacksonville, and Savannah are the entry ports.
Maybe I have bad info, but as far as I know, as of 2013, the US was/is a net exporter of coal.
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Old 07-28-2014, 08:59 AM   #10
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Sounds like the message from the OP is "burn baby burn"?
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Old 07-28-2014, 09:03 AM   #11
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Just this morning read in one of the Pittsburgh papers that since the administration has been dissing coal as energy source in the US. The US has been exporting increasingly larger tonnage to outside. To be burned as energy source in a far less efficient manner than the US coal fired plants.

Next thing, will the EPA ban coal mining?

I live in an area where many of the locals I know are coal miners. They are not happy campers.
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Old 07-28-2014, 09:16 AM   #12
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Originally Posted by Lakewood90712 View Post
Maybe I have bad info, but as far as I know, as of 2013, the US was/is a net exporter of coal.
Yes, I think the export tonnage is higher. But the imported coal they are bringing in is a better quality and cheaper from South America. Low sulfur, hard coal. It's all about money. For example, we need crude...have an abundance of it, but still export it at a profit.
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Old 07-28-2014, 09:32 AM   #13
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Next thing, will the EPA ban coal mining?

I live in an area where many of the locals I know are coal miners. They are not happy campers.
I am pretty draconian (and not very free market) about this issue, but yes, as a country we should curtail and then ban coal mining. The are two very good reasons for this - one from the left and one from the right:

1) Environmental concerns - reducing emissions even at a higher unit cost. This will encourage innovation as well. (That's the left leaning....)

2) Coal is a great and low-cost strategic energy reserve. The cheapest energy reserve there is is to leave coal in the ground. Then 2-4 generations ahead we will have an energy card to play when times gets tough. (right leaning....)

Not a perfect plan I know. This idea also is unfortunately DOA because we have rarely shown a propensity to actually think ahead and sacrifice now for future generations.
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Old 07-28-2014, 09:49 AM   #14
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What about the externalized costs of nuclear?

Ultimately the federal govt. bears the cost and responsibility of disposing of nuclear waste and maintaining it for lifetimes.
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Old 07-28-2014, 10:12 AM   #15
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What about the externalized costs of nuclear?

Ultimately the federal govt. bears the cost and responsibility of disposing of nuclear waste and maintaining it for lifetimes.
And is the ultimate insurer in case of a catastrophic failure.
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Old 07-28-2014, 10:25 AM   #16
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Since I already smell bacon, I'll simply ask if there is (anyplace) an "accepted cost" of carbon to the environment? IOW, we can calculate how much "good" (in the form of electricity or heat or other useful "work") we get from a ton of CO2 emissions. But, while I've seen "cap and trade" values for carbon, is there an "accepted" cost to the environment of a ton of carbon? If so, it would be interesting to know how such a value is obtained and what limits of error are associated with the value. Without that, we can only start with assumptions of relative carbon contributions. Currently, we simply assume coal is "worse" because it is essentially all carbon. Oil is better because it has some hydrogen as well as carbon and methane is even better because it has even more hydrogen (per unit of energy).

I'm ignoring the other pollutants, because it is possible to remove most of them from any source (even coal). If not, then we do have sources of energy with low levels of these pollutants.

I'm no expert on this subject nor have I done a major search on it. That's why I ask the question. I think the answer would help us compare apples and oranges (or coal and solar, etc.). YMMV
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Old 07-28-2014, 11:05 AM   #17
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It is certainly complicated, so I can't speak with any authority, but coal does strike me as a pretty awful thing from an environmental view. In very general terms, burning it creates more of just about all pollution types as most other sources, and the mining has some pretty bad effects.

But I think the point of the article (I have not analyzed the numbers yet for specifics) has some truth to it. The alternatives are just not easy drop ins like some would suggest (or hope?).

I've read some articles about how power is balanced on the grid. Much of these renewable sources are wasted - since coal and nuclear baseline power take hours to throttle back, and peaker power is relatively expensive, they are conservative in backing down baseline power, due to the unpredictable nature of most renewables. If they guess wrong, you get brown/black outs, and/or spend too much on peaker fuel.

So at some point, storage becomes needed - but that conversion wastes some of the renewable power, and really adds to the cost, and has its own safety and environmental issues.

I think we will come up with technical solutions or maybe alternatives to the current alternatives. But in some ways, I think it is rather silly to promote some of these things until they actually provide more benefit at lower cost. It's a little like telling someone to buy a big bulky expensive portable computer in the 1980's, because someday in the future they will be light and cheap.

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Old 07-28-2014, 11:24 AM   #18
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I think the question is cost vs environment. Where those fall on the scale.

Neither coal nor the alternatives are ideal, so it is what it is, as the saying goes
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Old 07-28-2014, 11:34 AM   #19
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It is certainly complicated, so I can't speak with any authority, but coal does strike me as a pretty awful thing from an environmental view. In very general terms, burning it creates more of just about all pollution types as most other sources, and the mining has some pretty bad effects.

I agree. It's tough to put real numbers to all the costs. My parents grew up in an area that was home to mine fires. They burned for almost 90 years. Some say they're extinguished, other folks still find small amounts of smoke and smell.

The environmental aspects aren't exclusive to coal, it's just something I saw first hand. I know that experience has made a bigger impact on my perception. I still remember going to visit family; the scorched earth, smoke coming up from the ground with the smell of buning coal(lots of sulphur smell). As a little kid I was afraid DM/DF were taking me to h*!!.
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Old 07-28-2014, 12:25 PM   #20
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I think the question is cost vs environment. Where those fall on the scale.

Neither coal nor the alternatives are ideal, so it is what it is, as the saying goes
I guess that's why I've always been as interested in efficiency improvements as in generation "improvements." A KW saved is (more than) a KW earned to borrow a phrase. I'm slowly replacing all of our light bulbs with LEDs. At our $.30+/kwh cost, it's pretty favorable for routinely used applications (not closets, maybe). We also use overhead fans instead of AC. We gave HECO permission to turn off our electric hot water heater for an hour at a time. It earned us a $3/mo credit.

I realize that conservation efforts actually tend to increase per unit costs over time, but from an environmental point of view, it seems a more rational policy (to me). I think I'd rather see gummint efforts aimed in such a fashion instead of at an individual fuel source - especially since folks in the developing nations will take up our coal slack - and use it without our current relatively-clean coal burning technology.

Co-generation (electricity and heat) at the user level is another concept that fascinates me. Imagine domestic hot water in the summer/winter and home heating in the winter PLUS electricity to the home (and grid). Imagine having the ability to balance peak loads by selectively turning on everyone's "co-generator" a few times per month via telemetry. The initial installation of such a system might actually be less expensive than building new regional power plants. Wouldn't natural gas be better utilized in such an elegant system rather than just to boil water 100 miles from many end users? Wonder if this has been seriously considered.

Years ago, I read an article suggesting "free" insulation with installation in all US homes. The point of the article was that it would actually be cheaper in the long run (in terms of fuel prices, environmental damage, and not going to war, etc.). Not sure it was well sourced, but one could make a case for gummint subsidy of conservation as easily as for "new" technology such as wind and solar. I take no real position on this since I don't know the numbers. But it seems it should be considered whenever we talk about environmental "costs" and allowing gummint to choose the winners and losers. But, YMMV.
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