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The Battle of Kansas Coal

Oil prices are dominating the headlines, but important developments are rattling other parts of the far-flung energy business, too – including a potential watershed moment for the coal industry.

Last week, in a victory for Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, her foes in the state legislature abandoned efforts to overturn her veto of a bill that would have essentially forced her to accept the construction of two new coal-fired power plants in the western part of her state. Coal plant plans are drawn up and dropped all the time, but these were different.

That’s because last October, Kansas became the first state ever to reject an air permit for a new coal plant because of greenhouse gas emissions. The state’s health and environment secretary rejected the permit, citing last year’s Supreme Court decision, which said that carbon dioxide is a pollutant subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has been dawdling about coming up with those regulations, but the Kansas decision raises the prospect that proposed new coal plants could run into licensing problems at the state level.

Bruce Nilles, a Sierra Club lawyer in Wisconsin, has been active in fighting against new coal plants throughout the Midwest. Last week he was ecstatic. “This is a major epic heartland battle that has changed the thinking about new coal… If this is not a sign that there is a new day of clean energy coming, I don’t know what is,” he said.

“This is not one of those radical east coast states. This is Kansas.” What’s next? I asked him last week. “There are 86 plants left,” he said. “Our work is far from done.”

Even for those less partisan in the fight against coal, the Kansas fight is important. Coal-fired plants provide half the electricity in the United States, but as a sense of urgency about climate change mounts, there will be more and more focus on the carbon dioxide emissions from those plants. Carbon capture and storage techniques at a commercial scale are probably at least a decade away, and environmentalists and climatologists want to rely on conservation and renewable energy for the time being and at least delay new coal plants until new technologies are tested.

The end of the Kansas fight also comes at an interesting political moment. Sebelius has been a strong supporter of presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and she’s usually mentioned as being among those Obama might consider as a running mate. If so, her performance in this fight will be seen as a key test of her political abilities.

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Comments (15)

DFS:

Steve:

I wanna know why fossil fuel plants can't use solar hot water (lo-tech/low cost/19th Century technology/ a piece of glass painted black on one side) to "pre heat" the water to reduce the amount of coal needed to make steam in existing facilities?

If they can do it in Egypt of all places, why not here?

I wanna know whether there are fossil fuel plants that use CO2 emmissions to grow algae for bio-fuel? If not why not?

I wanna know why transmission lines can't increase conductivity and be better insulated to conserve energy?

I also wanna know why if they can build Fischer-Tropsch plants for diesel fuel, why they can't simultaneously use the same heat to make steam?

I wanna know whether there are fossilp fuel plants engaged in co-energy projects to increase productivity and profitablity?


JHS:

Using a strict cost benefit analysis every source of energy has advantages and disadvantages. A given, is that everyone needs it, benefits from it, and that it directly affects the quality of life. Dramatically increasing populations in emerging countries means that natural resources (including food and energy) are going to steadily increase in price in the future.

Technological advancement which directly impact the rate at which any improvements are made, require serious financial commitment, and solid visionary leadership. A new gasoline refinery hasn't been built in the last 30 years in the US due to a lack of planning, NIMBYs, and weak political leadership. As a result, if we have a hurricane in the Gulf which impacts southern refineries, the price of gasoline will go over $5 a gallon, and could stay there for months.

We have already had already had power shortages, brown outs, and cascading power failures on both the west and east coast. A hot summer and outages and rolling brown outs are not only possible but likely.

Prognosis, folks will protest and block coal plants because of the CO2, nuclear energy because of Chernobyl, wind turbines because of the dead birds, etc. etc. etc. until the lack of decisions and resulting gridlock produces an undeniable emergency, which makes it impossible to ignore the problem, and necessitates that hard decisions must be made. It is going to be a roller coaster ride. Be prepared...it ain't gonna be pretty, and there will be lots steep rises, sudden drops, twists and turns. And the price of the ride is definitely going up.

Dimitry:

==Free and non-polluting energy exists in geothermal and tidal power. Many options are being explored for biofuel, from switchgrass to algae. In this competitive environment, with rapidly rising economic incentives, progress will be rapid and very noticeable. No one can tell now which technologies will "win" but there will be winners and losers, and the competition will be reported in detail for all of us to read as it unfolds over the next few years and decades. This is THE big challenge for humans right now.==

I really do support all research into alternative energy. However, here is some "food for thought" on the newest "alt.e.flavor of the day".

1. Geothermal - best for cooling, not heating. Extremely expensive to construct - you have to move a lot of earth, also problematic for future maintenance. Needs high input energy and nearly unafordable for most situations as a retrofit.

2. Tidal power - very expensive and energy intensive to construct, may have significant ecosystem effects, not practical to provide any significant portion of energy needs in near or medium term future.

3. Biofuels - it's nonsense, all of it. If we want to capture solar energy and convert it to electricity, lets do so. But growing stuff, with all the energy and mineral outlay it requires, then harvesting it with energy chugging machines, then putting it into giant chemical factories to capture that solar energy back in liquid form at a great loss and huge cost - why?


j2hess:

S. David Freeman has a very useful little book on the prospects for renewable energy, "Winning Our Energy Independence: An Energy Insider Shows How" (~$14 new, used from 4%).

He's been a policy advisor and an administrator for the TVA and the Los Angeles electrical utility, so he's not talking pie-in-the-sky environmental radicalism.

We've got a lot of coal, but it's getting harder and more environmentally damaging to mine.

We need to demonstrate political and technological leadership on the climate change issue. Could Kansas save the electricity that would have been generated by these plants through conservation? How many offices leave the lights on 24/7? How about figuring out how to build those little plug-in small appliance transformers so they don't draw power unless it's demanded? How many of your incandescent bulbs have you replaced? Do you use the power savings options on your computer?

Georgia619:

"Clean coal pollutes, solar goes off at night, there either isn't enough constant wind or the windmills kill birds and bats. The Sierra Club, at least in my part of the country, is opposed to everything and really wants "magic energy". Energy that's free, non-polluting and, ta da, technically feasible and which just magically appears."

Free and non-polluting energy exists in geothermal and tidal power. Many options are being explored for biofuel, from switchgrass to algae. In this competitive environment, with rapidly rising economic incentives, progress will be rapid and very noticeable. No one can tell now which technologies will "win" but there will be winners and losers, and the competition will be reported in detail for all of us to read as it unfolds over the next few years and decades. This is THE big challenge for humans right now.

Dimitry:

==Every day we put off building new power plants because nobody wants them in their back yard, because somebody tells us they're going to create catastrophic climate change, or because we all want to continue believing we can have our cake (modern electronics, bigger TVs, more internet access, etc.) and eat it too (absolutely pristine environment) means a future move into energy poverty by many in the lower fringes of society.==

Oh, I don't think it's the "lower fringes" that are going to be ones mainly affected, by either resource depletion of catastrophic pollution.

Coal is highly polluting and kills many people every year. But coal gives us electricity to attempt to deflect the massive effects of peak oil and stratospheric gasoline prices.

Increasing the use of coal will not make post-carbon age dissappear, but it will delay the onset of the worst energy/economic effects by a decade or two, at a price of likely non-revertible carbon dioxide build up and resulting catastrophic effects world wide.

Alternatively, not increasing the use of coal will moderate the onset of the environmental degradation caused by skyrocketing carbon dioxide levels from more dirty coal. However, the catastrophic effects of post peak oil economic collapse and food/fuel/water shortages will come at us full force.

Choose your poison.

gooddad5:

Probably the most unfortunate consequence of Governor Sebelius's victory is that "the new day of clean energy" the Sierra Club refers to will be, under these conditions (no new coal-fired plants), a very painful day financially for lower income Americans. Many of us can probably handle electricity costs that double or triple, but there are many on "the edge" that will be hurt in a big way by our society's obsession with "clean energy."

Every day we put off building new power plants because nobody wants them in their back yard, because somebody tells us they're going to create catastrophic climate change, or because we all want to continue believing we can have our cake (modern electronics, bigger TVs, more internet access, etc.) and eat it too (absolutely pristine environment) means a future move into energy poverty by many in the lower fringes of society.

Sticking up for those who have the least sounds like an ideal cause for the Democratic party. But don't expect this one to go very far.

I am a Democrat, by the way, and not too happy with my party on this particular issue.

DFC102:

Any discussion of using an irreplacable fuel that doesn't include details about energy efficiency and demand response programs is only half complete. The solution to the problem of coal isn't just to get more, but to use wisely any coal we buy or convert to electricity. I don't look at this as a matter of politics or party. it's a matter of engineering and money. Greenhouse gases are waste, simple as that. Waste is nothing but poor engineering and use of resources.

mobedda:

"Clean coal" is like "friendly fire."

D Davis:

The environmentalists will have to come up with a plan when the American people pay more for electricity than gasoline. I figure they are a "short term" breed of creature that will disappear off the landscape of economic chaos.

Arminius:

It is possible to remove most of the sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate emissions from the coal-burning process. But removing carbon dioxide emissions is not commercially available, and when it is, will raise the price of the power plant by 50%. Plus, nobody yet knows what to do with the captured CO2. Further, here is a little known fact: almost all coal has trace amounts of uranium and thorium, so a coal plant actually releases more radiation than a nuclear plant.

Oy!:

In this case, bring on the nukes!
And tax fossil fuels.

Tim:

Wow, where can I get wind, solar, wave energy to replace all the power generation in Georgia. What a bunch of hooey. Clean coal pollutes, solar goes off at night, there either isn't enough constant wind or the windmills kill birds and bats. The Sierra Club, at least in my part of the country, is opposed to everything and really wants "magic energy". Energy that's free, non-polluting and, ta da, technically feasible and which just magically appears. Certainly, we should be working on alternatives (and conservation), but this absurd opposition to everything, by the technically illiterate, gets old

farkdawg:

Clean coal is a misnomer. It's just like jumbo shrimp, they're jumbo - for shrimp.

Coal is trying to build 3 new energy plants in Nevada. What they don't tell you is the rub.

Each plant will use a couple thousand gallons of water per minute to cool the turbines. That is lost water that gets into the tens or hundreds of millions of gallons per year. In the arid climate of Nevada that should be a deal breaker right there.

But what's more is that the first phases of the new coal plants in the north part of the State won't even be "clean coal" technology. They will be the same old same old, let's call it "dirty coal".

And the cherry on top? The coal industry built a coal gasification plant close to Reno that NEVER WORKED! It had to be transitioned to natural gas and cost ratepayers $200 million to convert.

So the so-called "clean coal" technology doesn't even work! Ouch!!!

Is this thing on?

JBE:

There is NO SUCH THING AS CLEAN COAL.

All fissil fuel energy companies should be required to migrate to wind, and solar, wave energy and geothermal power, and distributed (roof-top) power generation.

The era of cxlimate destroying fossil fuel is over.

Only "dinasaurs" are still pushing it in politics and business, so let's help them go extinct in November!

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