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Promoting Coal ... while ignoring reality -- US DOE report

by a siegel Thu May 3rd, 2007 at 06:22:13 PM EST

When it comes to choices about energy, is the Department of Energy agnostic, seeking the best, most holistic set of choices between energy efficiencies, usage requirements, and fuel/source options?  Or, is it promoters of specific solution sets, perhaps even sets that put this nation at risk?


From DOE's coal page: "Coal is one of the true measures of the energy strength of the  United States. ... Coal-fired electric generating plants are the cornerstone of America's central power system. ...  economically-vital energy foundation ..."

From DOE's wind page: "Wind energy uses the energy in the wind for practical purposes ..."

No editorializing difference there ...

And, well, DOE just released a report that takes this to a new level ...

As noted over at Grist, the DOE just released a report from the Office of Fossil Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) entitled Tracking New Coal-Fired Power Plants.  From the DOE press release, this report provides "a snapshot of coal's resurgence in the generation of electric power."

Now, of course, don't worry yourselves about any complications since the report doesn't mention any complicating factors, like that minor little inconsequential thing of so-called Global Warming.

Instead, this report simply tracks coming electrical power generation from coal.  As the press release tells us:

Highlights from the report, which includes summary charts of proposed advanced boiler technologies and feedstocks in slide format, include the following:

  • One hundred forty-five (145) gigawatts of new coal-capacity are projected to be needed by 2030 according to the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration.

Let us note, for the record, that this additional power requirement is basically BAU (Business as Usual), without any serious efforts to pursue energy efficiency and an improved economic structure.  Of course, as well, that totally discounts the potential for Peak Oil and a disruption to the world's energy system.

  • Ninety (90) gigawatts of new coal-fired power plants are under consideration or have recently become operational.

If built, the plants will be critical in helping to meet future electricity demand in the United States. The new and proposed plants would theoretically produce enough electricity to power 90 million homes.

The quibble here ... "will be critical" as Global Warming considerations might drive us (US) to shut them down "if built" to reduce their GHG impact.
Coal is vital to the nation's energy security. Providing more than 50 percent of U.S. electricity, coal is an abundant, domestic energy source with more than a 250-year supply at current use rates.

 "more than a 250 year supply at current use rates".  Hmmm ... isn't the coal industry pursuing serious increases in the use of coal? And, what happens to that supply with a doubling of use?
America's coal reserves, estimated at 272 billion tons, contain more energy potential than all of the oil in the Middle East.

Estimated ... estimated ... hmm ... well, do we have full confidence over these numbers? Well, that is a different discussion.
Proposals to build new power plants are often speculative and the ultimate decision on whether a plant will be built is based upon the economic climate of regional power generation markets. Although comprehensive, the information in the new report is not intended to represent every possible plant under consideration, but instead illustrates the large potential emerging for new coal-fired power plants.

Okay ... well coal is bursting at the seams, ready to solve America's energy challenges.  There are many issues with the above, as per some of the comments.

But, what is more interesting is what is not mentioned. Neither in the press release nor in the report is there any discussion of global warming implications.  Just so that we understand what we are talking about, another portion of the Department of Energy, the Energy Information Agency, reported that

Coal ranked a close second as a source of carbon dioxide emissions from the consumption and flaring of fossil fuels in 2004, accounting for 39.2 percent of the total. World carbon dioxide emissions from the consumption of coal totaled 10.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2004, up 30.8 percent from the 1994 level of 8.1 billion metric tons. China and the United States were the two largest producers of carbon dioxide from the consumption of coal in 2004 and together they accounted for 56 percent of the world total. India, Russia, and Japan accounted for an additional 15 percent.

Okay, Global Warming (and CO2 emissions) is not what NETL's data-based examining of electrical power generation is focused on. While it might frustrate the lack of discussion of free-ride implications, this is simply reporting on that electrical power generation.

But, look at the report for a moment.  Page 3 is a chart about adding electrical power generation, with columns for natural gas, renewables, and coal.

First, you have to wonder how there can be no mention of , considering the noise about it, nuclear power generation?  Is the DOE predicting that there will be no nuclear-power generated electricity added to the system in the next 25 years?

Second, however, you simply have to wonder about the reliability and factual nature of this chart (and the NETL research).  Examine the projected "capacity additions" by GigaWatt (GW) by five year period, from 2005 through 2030.

  • 2005-2010 shows roughly 40 gigawatts of power generation addition, half from Natural Gas and the other half roughly split between renewables and coal. (somewhat more from coal).

  • 2011-2015: perhaps 15 GW total, 90+% by gas and coal, with miniscule renewables

  • 2016-2020: roughly 40 GW total, about 23 from coal, 16 from natural gas, maybe 1 from renewables

  • 2021-2025: 65 GW total, 45 from coal, 19 from NG, 1 from renewables

  • 2026-2030: 80+ GW total: 55 coal, 24 NG, 2 renewables

Notice anything odd about this? In addition to coal's skyrocketing potential, there is the 90% or so fall-off in renewable capacity additions and, at most, neglible contributions to electrical capacity generation capacity from renewables over the 2011-2030 time period.

To be polite, but WTF?  The people who produced this graphic certainly are not on the same planet that I'm on. And, they evidently are not operating on the same planet as the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.  NETL could take a look at the DOE's colleagues from NREL's work, such as the Green Power Marketing in the United States: A Status Report (pdf) which shows a tripling of green power electricity marketed in the US between 2001.

NETL could have looked to the private community, such as Clean Edge's annual Clean Energy Trend reports (2007)  which forecasts a huge growth in

both the global and US clean-energy sectors. In this, our sixth edition, we find markets for our four benchmark technologies -- solar photovoltaics, wind power, biofuels, and fuel cells -- continuing their healthy climb. Annual revenue for these four technologies ramped up nearly 39% in one year -- from $40 billion in 2005 to $55 billion in 2006. We forecast that they will continue on this trajectory to become a $226 billion market by 2016.

What about actual additions to generation capacity? Writ large, let's look at another recent private analysis, Global Energy Decisions' US Renewable Energy Wall Map.
"We've mapped a 50% increase in operating renewable facilities, and a 75% increase in planned renewable facilities during the past three years, creating the most comprehensive view of United States renewable energy," said Jason McMahan, President of Global Energy's Maps unit. "Wind continues to dominate the renewable energy landscape, but solar, geothermal and, for the first time, tidal power -- at 14% of new proposed capacity -- are starting to make inroads. Diversification in technology is becoming a necessity of implementing our growing commitment to renewable sources."

In other words, we're seeing real growth (50% increase) in actual power generation, growth (75%) in planned renewable, and a diversification in renewable resources being brought to the renewable energy table.

How about some specific areas:

  • As per the American Wind Energy Association, wind generating capacity has been growing by 25+% per annum for years now. As per the wind basics, wind power is one of the fastest growing energy sources on a percentage basis over the past five years - 29% annually from 2001-2005." As long as there is some form of Production Tax Credit (PTC, double-digit growth will continue for years to come. Wind right now is roughly 1% of US electrical generation capacity.  At current growth rates, it gets to the 20% range about 2020.

  • Solar is growing at 40% rates right now. New potential breakout technologies and options are getting announced almost daily.  Does anyone expect solar to disappear off the face of this earth? Now, solar is at a low level of power generation (roughly 0.1% of US electricity currently) but currently growth rates could have it at meaningful percentages by the middle of the 2010s ... even without breakthrough technology introduction.

  • Oh, yeah, there is also biomass, ocean (tidal, wave, thermal), new hydro, geothermal ... which are likely to add to the electricity generating capacity in the nation.

From the Department of Energy's Energy Information Agency World Energy Overview 1994-2004,
The generation of geothermal, solar, wind, and wood and waste electric power increased by 170 billion kilowatthours between 1994 and 2004, or at an average annual rate of 7.4 percent. The United States led the world in geothermal, solar, wind, and wood and waste electric power generation in 2004 with 97 billion kilowatthours.

Note, however, that this lumps the accelerating growth of solar and wind with slower growth (but higher based) "geothermal ... wood and waste electrical power".

According to the NETL report coal "accounts for 59% of new capacity additions". Of course, that number results from (a) assuming away any coming limitations due to Global Warming concerns and (b) assuming that renewables simply disappear off the face of the earth.

While we know that this perspective is simply wrong, I hope that it is horribly wrong.  The nation (and globe) would be far better served if it were the coal that would disappear off the chart.

Ask yourself:  Are you doing your part?


While, perhaps, a minor little nitpicking of an unimportant report from the United States, this sort of disinformation about energy, about coal, helps build momentum for bad policy. This report's core is, in essence, 'economy falls apart if you touch coal's growth'.  

Yet, even while we might disagree with it re Global Warming etc, the point is that this does not stand up to the most basic factual scrutiny ...

Blogging regularly at Get Energy Smart. NOW!!!

by a siegel (siegeadATgmailIGNORETHISdotPLEASEcom) on Thu May 3rd, 2007 at 06:25:11 PM EST
If you view this as a report based upon current policy assumptions it sounds pretty realistic.

The agency could plausibly make a case that it is not up to them to make projections based upon policies that have not yet been proposed (let alone adopted).

As such it provides a good basis for discussions as to what the worst case scenario may look like.

We have no nuclear policy (pro or con), no national renewables policy and no meaningful plans to raise vehicle efficiency (including CAFE increases).

I'm willing to bet that tomorrow's IPCC climate report will also be another meaningless document. If international scientists can be intimidated why should those in the US be any better?

Keep blogging, however, the people are ahead of the leaders on these issues.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Thu May 3rd, 2007 at 06:43:22 PM EST
Perhaps fair ...

This is like budget predictions that have all the Tax Increases on the Unborn (those so-called 'tax cuts') ending in 2011 to solve budget deficits.

In this case, no financial subsidy for wind/solar, but lots of subsidy for oil/natural gas/coal. No GHG penalty. No requirement for storage. And, by the way, no peak oil.

Yes, you provide a good explanation ... even if it is distasteful.

Blogging regularly at Get Energy Smart. NOW!!!

by a siegel (siegeadATgmailIGNORETHISdotPLEASEcom) on Thu May 3rd, 2007 at 09:56:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You think this is sad, wait until you look at this desperate notion for cooking the oil out of shale, using the electricity from coal fired plants.

The following article offers the best non propaganda based analysis of the process, and thus a realistic critique:

Shell's Approach and Electricity Demand

Shell's Mahogany Research Facility is near Rangely, Colorado. As of 2005, the company has produced some 2,000 barrels of oil shale from a test plot the size of a three-car garage. Shell now plans to test key aspects of its method, including the frost wall and down-hole heaters, at a larger scale. Results will be available in 2009. Spokesmen say they expect to harvest about 65% of the oil in place, two-thirds as a liquid, the remainder natural gas.

According to the RAND Corporation, "An operation producing 100,000 barrels per day requires approximately 1.2 gigawatts of dedicated generating capacity." This is a very large power plant, equivalent to the capacity of Colorado's largest existing power plant. It follows that production of a million barrels a day would require ten such power plants, plus five new coal mines to feed them.

Shell believes it can harvest 3.5 units of energy for every unit of electricity consumed. But this presumes the electricity is produced at a 60% efficient power plant. A standard new coal plant has efficiency in the 35% range, reducing the "net energy" balance to 2:1. Shell has not released detailed studies of this critical issue, but we suspect the real energy return may be even lower.

At this early stage, one can only guess at Shell's initial capital cost for producing 100,000 barrels per day. Including the necessary power plant, our guess is that it would be in the $7 billion to $10 billion range.

The following give some notion of how this is being viewed by Congress, since most of the oil shale is on US lands:

Oil Shale Development in the United States: Prospects and Policy Issues - Rand (pdf)

CRS Report for Congress: Oil Shale: History, Incentives, and Policy (pdf)

Policy Issues for Oil Shale Development: Testimony presented before the House Natural Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources on April 17, 2007. (access to pdf document

"I would pillow myself on the stream, for I'd like to cleanse my ears" - Sun Chu (218-293) Chinese recluse

by Ren on Fri May 4th, 2007 at 08:21:30 PM EST

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