Alternative Energy, Energy

Electricity- Can we do it without coal, when can we do it, and what do we do in the meantime?

I believe that carbon pollution is a problem, and I believe we are running out of time. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration for August 2013 was 395.15 ppm.  Atmospheric CO2 was 392.41 ppm in August 2012 and 390.19 ppm in August 2011.  These results are not surprising, it is common knowledge that atmospheric CO2 levels are and have been rising.  The big question that many have is, “Is that normal or are we causing that?” Those who do not believe in global warming can see by the global average temperature increases (here) that it is happening. What is not entirely understood is the cause and timeframe. Is it occurring over thousands of years or since the industrial revolution? Playing it safe, the likely answer is since the industrial revolution. If the data and research are accurate and atmospheric CO2 elevations are anthropogenic, then harsh realities for us and generations to follow may be approaching quickly.

There are many consequences and threats from elevated atmospheric CO2 levels that we hear about. Many of these threats have strong supporting evidence. Warming that causes ice cap melting results in sea level rise. This same warming results in ocean water density increase which contributes to more sea level rise. Sea level rise causes many problems, just to name a few: flooded cities, salt water intrusion to fresh water aquifers, and disruption of ocean currents which are crucial components to marine life, the climate, and fisheries that many countries depend on for food and income (not to say there aren’t a whole different set of environmental problems with the fishing industry). Increased atmospheric CO2 will also lead to a decrease in ocean pH (ocean acidification). This ocean acidification can result in destruction in coral reefs and ultimately extreme harm to the vast biodiversity found within coral reefs (not to mention the tourism aspect of the coral reefs which local economies depend on). Another issue with the ocean acidification is the disruption of the breakdown of ocean deposits that contain calcium ions necessary for ocean waters to absorb atmospheric CO2. In short, there are a lot of detrimental consequences to elevated atmospheric CO2.

With the aforementioned details on elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations, this blog post will primarily discuss carbon dioxide emissions associated with the power generation industry. The image below is of Plant Bowen, one of the largest coal-fired power plants in North America with a capacity of over 3000 Megawatts (MW). It is a coal-fired power plant located near Cartersville, GA. According to the Energy Information Administration the U.S. burns approximately 50,000,000 tons of coal for electricity generation each year in these kinds of facilities.  Plants like Bowen consume 1-3 train loads of coal a day; these train loads are 1-2 miles long with 10-15 thousand tons of coal on each. I have included this image to point out a few details that are typically misunderstood by the general public. The shorter (approximately 400 feet tall) parabolic-shaped towers are the cooling towers; the vapor rising from these towers is water. Most of the vapor sent to the cooling towers is condensed; what is seen rising from the towers is the fraction that does not condense. The shorter two stacks (the wet stacks) that have vapor leaving the chimneys are the only stacks being used. The vapor leaving these stacks is mostly carbon dioxide and water vapor; it is what remains from flue gas after the environmental controls  such as electrostatic precipitators and scrubbers have done their part. The two taller stacks (the dry stacks- approximately 1000 feet tall) are no longer used. Not all coal-fired power plants are like this. Some do not have the shorter wet-stacks and do not scrub sulfur oxides out of flue gas. Plant Bowen has been doing this since 2007. With the addition of these environmental controls, Plant Bowen and other plants with this technology are able to remove over approximately 95% of sulfur oxides from flu gas. This is just one example of a drastic improvement associated with coal-fired power generation. It is not an example given to try to show that this is a ‘clean’ plant or an argument for the advocacy for coal. It is an example meant to show that improvements…substantial improvements…are possible.

Plant Bowen Pic

According to the Energy Information Administration, the electric power sector emitted 2,039 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2012. This is about 39% of the total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions related to energy. Of this 39%, coal fired power plants generated 1,514 million metric tons, or 74% of the carbon dioxide.

Many of these figures only concern the United States. What about the entire world? There is much concern with the possibility of the United States implementing laws and regulations on carbon emissions. People worry, for good reason, that we could jeopardize our national security and the health of our economy while global carbon pollution continues.

Perhaps other less-regulated countries would follow suit to carbon pollution control. If the United States were to work towards carbon capture and sequestration and find a way to make it economically feasible, maybe other countries (with push from international governmental agencies) would also be inclined to move towards reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology could be a way to help coal-fired power generation be a viable option in a diverse power generation portfolio. Even if coal is on its way out, carbon capture and storage may be able to help slow the increase in atmospheric CO2 in the meantime. Perhaps research and developments in CCS technology in the electricity generation industry could lead to efforts in the manufacturing and transportation industry which are other significant carbon dioxide emitting industries.  Look here.

What are we supposed to do in the meantime before renewables, nuclear, and natural gas can completely take over? What if hydraulic fracturing proves to be unsafe and is banned? What if nuclear powered electricity generation is shut down because of public and governmental concern? What will happen if coal is removed from the puzzle before renewables have enough time to be developed into a solution that can generate all of the world’s electricity? According to the International Energy Agency and the Institute for Energy Research , in 2012 only 12% of electricity generated in the U.S. came from renewable resources. Data showing electricity generation quantities from different sources can be found in Table 945 here .  With population increase, cost of technology, available methods, and the sluggish decision making in the United States, how quickly can renewable energy cover that separation?

Final Thoughts and Questions
There is no doubt that coal is dirty. It’s dirtier than natural gas, but natural gas extraction methods are controversial. Depending on who you ask, coal-fired electricity generation is better or worse than nuclear power generation. Renewable energy sources on a large scale will likely require vast amounts of land area and rare materials. Those are negative aspects of renewables, but they certainly could prove to be much less negative than current generation methods.

What can we do to bridge the gap between electricity generation sources now and a time where electricity is generated primarily by renewable sources? Will/should that time include nuclear power generation? Do you think that carbon capture and sequestration should be aggressively pursued and implemented on a national and/or international scale?


10 thoughts on “Electricity- Can we do it without coal, when can we do it, and what do we do in the meantime?

  1. kvsims says:

    I agree with the majority of your blog post – America is facing enormous energy problems without any clear solutions. In my personal opinion, I feel that nuclear energy is the way to bridge the gap between our current electricity portfolio and a future one primarily composed of renewable energy generation. It is a reliable energy source that does emit harmful emissions like other power generation sources. It has been an active process in America for over 50 years without a single death. (A quantitative FACT that the nuclear industry can say that BP and other oil companies cannot.) Although I am optimistic about all avenues of technology, I do not believe that carbon capture and sequestration will become an energy solution. The technology is not advanced enough or economically feasible at this current time that America is looking toward change. Also, I do not believe that it could be implemented on an international scale. China relies on coal-fired power plants as cheap energy and emits large amounts of CO2 without concern to the environmental or health hazardous. How can we implement carbon capture on the Chinese whose economy relies on inexpensive energy and production?

  2. I agree with the fact that there needs to be something to bridge the major gaphat is forming between coal and renewable resources, and that nuclear might be the solution. Although nuclear does have dangerous waste, I think it is our best bet, and it’s something we can manage until more research is developed for renewable resources; and it is something the public knows our energy is already coming from. Like kvsims said, its something that has been producing our energy for 50 years, so we can continue to use nuclear until renewable resources become more accepted. It is crazy that 74% of our emissions from energy can be cut by cutting out coal, and yet there is still no major push for change. I am not familiar with carbon capture and sequestration, but I feel like we need to completely walk away from coal in its entirety and find something that is renewable as well as efficient. As far as international issues go, I think that the United States as a whole needs to work on our own energy needs and hopefully the other nations will either follow suit or figure it out on their own. We as a nation already have too many problems to deal with, the last thing we need to do is get involved with other nation’s energy problems; Maybe we can be an example for the world on how we can live off of renewable resources, being a largely populated nation.

  3. pfc1344 says:

    There is no doubt that we need to start looking for and implementing solutions that ultimately reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere, and I understand that there is no 100% right way to do something. In my opinion, bridging the gap between our present methods and future will take time as well as a combination of different materials. While there are controversial issues with many different kinds of energy sources (ie- fracking, nuclear waste, CO2 emissions), I think using a combination of these methods might be a way to help wean America off of our coal infatuation. I do think that nuclear energy is a promising source despite the waste that comes with it. However, TerraPower is working on designing a reactor that will be powered off of nuclear waste. As for carbon sequestration, I do not think that it should be viewed as a solution to the problem, but it could be very beneficial. However, I do think that the technology does need to be developed more, and implementing policy regarding carbon sequestration could be an excellent way to start moving in the right direction.

    NY Times Article about TerraPower and their reactor-

  4. shreyasvangala says:

    I think carbon sequestration is necessary, even if the United States does manage to completely make a complete energy switch to non-coal sources. The fact remains that there is excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and for the reasons that Kevin mentioned in his post, those excesses of atmospheric carbon dioxide will continue to pose those same threats unless we manage to fix that carbon. Carbon sequestration is an exercise in national security, not merely a bridge to invest only until coal has been replaced entirely with Nuclear and renewable energy sources. While we still continue to use coal as a major energy source, however, investing in technology that keeps particle emissions from negatively impacting air quality and threatening human health is key. This series of diagrams from the EPA were interesting and helpful in furthering my understanding of geologic carbon sequestration:

    My emerging questions from this and my own brief reading on the subject stems from whether or not there are negative externalities to pumping carbon into the ground and whether or nor it is better to use biological carbon sequestration (i.e. planting trees to offset atmospheric carbon doixide).

  5. Wow, I was unaware of all of the damage that CO2 could cause within the environment, especially in aquatic areas. I am also amazed at how large coal power plants are and how much coal they use per day. Another issue associated with coal power plants would be the amount of water that a coal power plant uses. A typical 600MW coal power plant takes 265-681 billion liters of water from the watershed and then releases it back into the environment after it has cycled through the plants cooling system (“Environmental Impacts of Coal Power: Waste Generated” and “coal”). But, as you said some of the water vapor is released back into the environment as an off put from the cooling towers. While this water vapor is released back into the environment it is not going back to the waterway that it came from which could cause a decrease in water availability downstream. This is an issue associated with coal power plants that many people are probably unaware of because it doesn’t deal with air quality.
    I think there should be worry within the United States public about CO2 emissions from coal powered plant, but I also think that people are going to have to decide which is the lesser of the two evils. Americans are scared of nuclear energy, but it could be a cleaner source of energy for air quality. Like you said I think it is important that the United States forms programs that work towards a cleaner solution. I think that it will take time, money and a lot of public opinion before anything will change though. People need a reason for them to jump behind a movement and make a change. Unfortunately that reason usually starts with death. When a catastrophe happens surrounding CO2 emissions a larger percentage of the population will stand behind a new program and push the government to make a change. I believe that when this happens there will be a change in CO2 emissions and coal power plants.

    “Coal.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.
    “Environmental Impacts of Coal Power: Waste Generated.” Union of Concerned Scientists, 2012. Web. 8 Sept. 2013. .

  6. The United States has been dependent on coal and petroleum since the beginning of the industrial era. This attachment to the past will be the hardest thing to overcome when trying to switch to renewable energy sources. I think this shift will only be accomplished with strict rules and regulations that over a long period of time force the population to change. Current corporations are making too much money to stop their coal power production and invest in something that is still only on the ground floor. It will be a slow gradual change, which I personally think will use nuclear power as a stepping stone. It has many benefits when compared to coal and petroleum, but is also a finite resource that must be replaced with renewable source in the end. As for sequestrating, this will only be worthwhile if we use smart and innovative ways to tackle the problem. The current administration is being too lackadaisical about their policies and regulations. I would agree with Klaus Lackner , Ewing-Worzel professor of Geophysics at Columbia University , who says, “The government isn’t thinking big enough in its plans to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere”. He gives specific examples on his ways of fixing the problem, which I believe is the best route to stopping carbon emissions during this transition from coal to renewable energy sources. .

  7. dnlo10 says:

    One of the energy sources that I believe is not being utilized enough is geothermal energy. Since the energy is coming from the heat that is being emitted from the center of the Earth, it is essentially limitless. The heat continuously flowing from the Earth’s interior, which travels primarily by conduction, is estimated to be equivalent to 42 million megawatts of power, and is expected to remain so for billions of years to come, ensuring an inexhaustible supply of energy. Also, because there is no burning that is taking place, the only thing that is released into the atmosphere by geothermal facilities is steam. While I realize that geothermal is limited to geography, it is still a vital resource that we should be taking advantage of much more often. In February 2011,, the U.S. Department of Energy looked into low-temperature geothermal. They hope to bridge the gap between fossil fuels and renewable energy by tapping into vast amounts of low temperature geothermal resources in America’s oil and gas wells. I do believe that we should also use nuclear power to bridge this gap. While it is considered too dangerous to some, the fact is that with the new regulations and such, it has turned into an incredibly reliable source of energy that is also very underutilized.
    While we need to start moving in a direction away from coal, I believe that it is going to take a very long time for this to happen. Therefore, I believe that if we can implement a method of capturing harmful things before they reach our atmosphere, like carbon capture and sequestration, we should utilize it. I do believe that it is far from perfect, but it is a start and it shows that we will hopefully make the switch to a fuel that will not destroy our environment.

  8. Thanks for the post, Kevin! CO2 emissions has been a topic of discussion lately and I have been trying to process it for a while. There are definitely economic impacts and implications that occur with the regulation of CO2 emissions. One argument that my roommate puts forth is to continue doing what we’re doing, make a lot of money, then adapt to whatever happens with the climate with said money, mainly because other alternatives of spending, like feeding and sheltering the homeless, etc., will always be more of a priority than reducing CO2. His argument is valid, honestly. However, there is a great risk involved with that, as you mentioned, and it is the uncertainty that comes with increased temperature and the adverse effects that accompany them. By creating more natural disaster effects and more difficulty to survive, do we harm more people in the future by helping people now and ignore the future? This is assuming that fossil fuels will last us for at least our lifetime and a couple of generations.
    This just creates a dilemma. But, implicitly, there must be a breakeven point that says that the most optimal solution is to do both. Even with this argument out there, new sources of energy must be established. If we could harness renewables in a more economical way, I think that we could see a nationally secure, eternal power source (with using those rare materials as initial resources of course). Nuclear could also be the best solution if we could only figure out what to do with the nuclear waste. Thankfully, Bill Gates is on that one.
    All in all, I like the policy progression that is occurring to push us away from CO2 emitted forms of energy. Hopefully, although the initial cost is huge now, it could become more economical to use alternative sources of energy rather than the conventional methods we use now. Policy, both here and especially abroad, is going to play a huge role if we are to reduce our CO2 emissions and reverse this problem. IF we can get everyone on board, all large and industrial nations especially, we’d be set.

  9. wavant says:

    Most people agree that there needs to be a movement from using primarily dirty fuels (mainly coal) to cleaner and renewable fuels for our energy needs from an environmental sense . However, what we do not completely agree on as a nation is how we make this movement until that time from an economical sense. Coal is a much more cost efficient option as compared to the newer, more expensive renewable energy sources. Coal companies are making too much money and are too invested for anything of great magnitude to change this. As a result, I initially thought carbon capture and sequestrian (CSS) would be a viable option. However, I just do not know how far along this technology is and how much of a difference it would actually make. In addition, according to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, CSS would be beneficial if it is implemented into a new plant, but would not work well as an “add-on” to an older plant. ( If I am not mistaken, there are not too many coal plants being constructed as of now. Thus, after hearing this, I do not know how motivated this option would be.

    Therefore, I think that a combination of energy sources in which coal is slowly phased out while nuclear energy and renewables are steadily increased into our energy needs is the way to go. I think this is going to be a slow process, though, and patience must be administered. Yes, I would love to have renewables supplying our energy needs in like five years, but that is just silly and is not feasible. America demands too much energy (and this energy amount continues to increase each year) for this to occur in such a short timeframe, so coal must still be used for now and on into the future. It is going to require a transition phase through many years, but a little improvement is better than no improvement for this concept.

  10. I am not very familiar with the carbon capture and sequestration method that is gaining support in recent years. I think any effort to reduce emissions is commendable; however, after reading about it, it does not seem very practical. According to a project proposal at the University of Michigan, carbon capture and sequestration is the placement of carbon dioxide from emissions of factories and power plants deep into the ground or ocean for disposal. This is an avenue rather than emitting them into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming.” So now instead of emitting this carbon dioxide into the sky, we are storing it underground or in the ocean. This makes me uneasy, especially with last week’s fracking discussion. A large majority of the class agreed that injecting harmful chemicals in the ground was not the best approach to harvesting fuel, or in this case storing emissions. With fracking, there was a huge concern that the chemicals injected into the shale could contaminate groundwater. Luckily, fracking is performed so far underground that the risk of groundwater contamination is minimalized. Carbon capture and sequestration, though, is not performed at the same depth. There might be reason for concern of injected carbon dioxide contaminating our groundwater. There are also concerns with pumping the captured carbon dioxide into the ocean. It is uncertain whether “a radical shift in the chemical balance of the ocean, a loss of marine life, possible CO2 escape over the years or a sudden burst of it, which would result in a high loss of life due to asphyxiation” would occur. Escaping carbon dioxide is paramount. Even if companies ensured that their pipes were sound and prevented any leaks from occurring, they could never prepare or predict shifting plates or rock underground. A simple earthquake or plate shift could rupture the pipe. A leakage of carbon dioxide can be fatal.
    Currently, there are efforts being made to further reduce emissions. Just a week ago, new standards were proposed for coal fired power plants. It is nice knowing that the EPA and federal government are concerned with “cleaning up” coal-fired energy production while we have yet to maximize on the potential of alternative energy production.


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