October 19, 2007
Opposition Builds Against Coal Electric Power Plants

Environmentalists who oppose coal-based electric power generation are beginning to make headway in blocking new coal electric power plants.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment yesterday became the first government agency in the United States to cite carbon dioxide emissions as the reason for rejecting an air permit for a proposed coal-fired electricity generating plant, saying that the greenhouse gas threatens public health and the environment.

The decision marks a victory for environmental groups that are fighting proposals for new coal-fired plants around the country. It may be the first of a series of similar state actions inspired by a Supreme Court decision in April that asserted that greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide should be considered pollutants under the Clean Air Act.

This is good news for nuclear and wind power technology suppliers. Take away coal and the most obvious next choice is nuclear for baseload.

The New York Times has an article on the growth of coalitions against new coal electric plants.

Government projections suggest that coal, which provides 50 percent of the nation’s electricity and a quarter of its total energy, will continue to dominate the nation’s energy mix, despite its environmental problems. As of last May, the Energy Department projected that 151 coal-fired plants could be built by 2030 to meet a 40 percent rise in demand for electricity, largely from soaring populations in Western states.

“Coal is still very much alive,” said Jim Owen, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, an industry group.

But opponents of coal plants are winning some battles. Reports from the government, the industry and environmental groups show that at least three dozen coal plants have been canceled or scaled back in the last two years.

The coalitions that form against proposals for coal electric plant construction include ranchers and other rural Republicans in the West. Opposition to coal isn't just found on the left half of the political spectrum.

While coal plant construction will become increasingly limited by environmental opposition in the United States I do not expect this to happen any time soon in Asia. To the contrary, we are probably going to see a continued explosion in Asian demand for coal. The industrialization of India and China is creating huge demand for energy among populations who are not yet affluent enough to place much value in cleaner environments.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 October 19 11:21 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels

Mark Plus said at October 20, 2007 9:23 AM:

For some reason nobody wants to talk about restructuring our society so that we can meet our needs with less electricity and therefore not have to build more and more coal-fueled electrical generation. In other areas of life Americans have had to cut back on food (a good idea given all the obesity and diabetes in the country), turn down the thermostats in winter, car pool, get out of debt and start stockpiling more savings for healthcare, emergencies and retirement. Atlantans may even face water restrictions reminiscent of wartime rationing in a matter of weeks. But try suggesting that we cut back on our use of electricity, and the dominant world view frames that idea as coming from kook territory.

ben said at October 20, 2007 9:39 AM:

Hey Mark,

It is Kook territory!

How silly it would have been in 1910 for someone to say "lets cut back on energy because we fear that the world temperature will rise by 0.7 degrees by 2007."

Think of all the world advancements that would not have been made if we had cut back in 1910. And what we would have gained? The world would be 0.8 degrees colder (according to global warming theorists, but possibly would not have made a difference on weather anyhow--if the theory is wrong.)

So, yes, you are a kook if you think the world needs to cut back on energy and end progress so that a future generation possibly won't have weather a few degrees warmer.

Having said that, the political reality is there are a lot of kooks like you. The only thing that a rational person and a kook can agree upon in this arean is that we need to be building as many nuclear power plants as possible! This will reduce our dependence on energy supplied from our enemies who will use their leverage against us--and it will reduce carbon emission which satisfies kooks.


Mark Plus said at October 20, 2007 10:04 AM:

I didn't say anything about global warming. The exponential growth in the use of coal has plenty of immediate costs that we have to consider, including the fact that some experts forecast that world "peak coal" production will happen in the 2020-2030 decade. (In case you haven't noticed, world oil production probably peaked in 2005, and we've entered a downward-sloping plateau in oil supplies.)

Nuclear power plants look unsustainable to me over the long run. Nuclear power requires a massive energy subsidy from fossil fuels to work, and uranium prices have shot way up along with oil. I expect that uranium mines will eventually shut down when oil gets high enough and the mining companies can't afford the gasoline or diesel fuel they need for their equipment. Mines for various minerals in the Southern Cone over the austral winter just ended had to stop operations because of fuel shortages, and uranium mining suffers from the same vulnerability.

Randall Parker said at October 20, 2007 10:51 AM:

Mark Plus,

Actually, the US government has raised appliance efficiency standards a number of times and some state governments mandate that their electric utilities offer financial incentives for customers to install more energy efficient gadgetry.

We can not build more coal-fired electric plants simply by requiring new electric power plants to have very low emissions.

I do not see how nuclear power requires a big fossil fuels energy subsidy. I've dug up info about this and as near as I can tell the first 6 months of a nuclear reactor's operation produces enough energy to make up for the energy needed to build the nuclear reactor in the first place. Since electricity can smelt iron and aluminum I do not see how we will need much fossil fuels to construct new nuclear power plants.

Paul Dietz said at October 20, 2007 2:43 PM:

I've dug up info about this and as near as I can tell the first 6 months of a nuclear reactor's operation produces enough energy to make up for the energy needed to build the nuclear reactor in the first place.

The energy payback for nuclear is no longer than, and in some cases much shorter than, the payback period for wind and solar. So if the fact that concrete, steel, etc. are currently made with fossil chemical energy input rules out nuclear, it also rules out the 'renewables'.

Nick said at October 20, 2007 6:41 PM:


"Take away coal and the most obvious next choice is nuclear for baseload."

Utilities hate uncertainty. On the one hand, managing wind variance is an additional management task that utilities would prefer to avoid. On the other hand, nuclear has much more construction uncertainty than wind, so I don't think the choice is so clear.

More importantly, wouldn't the best choice be to avoid new construction entirely? Almost all proposed new plants are intended to handle peak demand. Wouldn't it be best to install smart meters, and just incent peak demand to other times of the day??

Mark Plus,

"Mines for various minerals in the Southern Cone over the austral winter just ended had to stop operations because of fuel shortages, and uranium mining suffers from the same vulnerability."

Can't uranium mining be done with electrically powered equipment (with some delay for the transition)? A lot of coal is mined that way.

Randall Parker said at October 20, 2007 7:40 PM:


At the moment nuclear has construction uncertainty. But in 5 years it won't.

Dynamic pricing will shift some demand from peak to baseload. That actually increases the baseload demand.

Proposed coal and nuclear plants are for baseload demand.

David Govett said at October 20, 2007 9:23 PM:

The Singularity will cure all. Processing...

Nick said at October 20, 2007 11:01 PM:


"At the moment nuclear has construction uncertainty. But in 5 years it won't."

Unless I misunderstand the situation, in 5 years, nuclear construction will have just started in a serious way, and one has to hold one's breath until the plant is actually operating. So, utilities & investors won't really know for 10 years.

"Proposed coal and nuclear plants are for baseload demand."

Really? Have you seen sources on this? Everything I see says that there's plenty of power at night, and prices are cheap - that's baseload. Everything I read says that the anticipated shortages are during peak periods.

So, why isn't gas still preferred over coal, despite fuel that's 4x as expensive, if it's only needed for a few hours? Well, turns out gas is still leading coal for new planned generation (as measured by peak capacity contribution), by a fair margin...

Actually, for that mattter, wind is out in front of gas.

Randall Parker said at October 20, 2007 11:16 PM:


There is the practical question of what constitutes baseload. Is it the demand at the lowest level of the day?

Comparing natural gas, coal, and nuclear: Natural gas plants have the lowest capital costs but the highest fuel costs. Nuclear has the highest capital costs but the lowest fuel costs. Coal is in between.

For peak capacity to build a plant that has higher capital costs doesn't makes sense because revenue to pay the capital costs only comes in for a few hours of the day. So it does not make sense to use nuclear power for peak needs. But it does make sense to use natural gas for peak needs. Coal is again in between. How many hours a day does a coal plant need to operate to justify its construction? That depends in part on the expected price of coal. The higher the coal price the less the sooner it makes sense to turn off the coal plant as the price of electricity falls into the night.

The number of hours needed to be operated per day is more for coal than for natural gas. But the needed coal hours per day is less than for nuclear (which pretty much has to run all the time to maximize ROI.

To put it another way: new coal plants generate electricity more cheaply than any other way (excepting hydro) to generate electricity. So it makes sense to operate coal plants late at night when electric prices are lowest. T

Brett Bellmore said at October 21, 2007 5:38 AM:

The uncertainty of nuclear is uncertainty about whether you'll be permitted to build it. A very large chunk of that uncertainty vanishes when you get the permit to build it, and it progressively diminishes as the plant is built, at the end of which you have a VERY reliable source of baseline power.

The uncertainty of wind, in addition to the question of whether you'll be allowed to build it, (Senator Kennedy might live nearby, after all!) is the perpetual uncertainty of whether, and how hard, the wind will be blowing at any given moment. You can't schedule wind, and outside of a few places, you can't really rely on it, either. You can just use it when it's available, knowing that in order to use it, you have to have fast response (IOW, expensive fuel) plants online and sitting idle, ready to replace 100% of it at a moment's notice.

THAT is an entirely different order of uncertainty, so far as utilities are concerned. And it's why wind can never be more than a small fraction of our energy supply. Outside of places with exceptionally reliable winds, I doubt it would be a part of that supply at all were it not for political considerations.

Speaking of exceptionally reliable winds, there are some places on Antarctica which were just about MADE for wind, and they can't be seen from the Senator's home...

Nick said at October 21, 2007 8:19 AM:

"There is the practical question of what constitutes baseload. Is it the demand at the lowest level of the day?"

I think that's the traditional definition. As best I can tell, nuclear advocates like to re-define "base-load" as meaning very reliable, i.e.,.....nuclear.

My point here is that existing capacity is under-utilized at night, especially coal. So, much easier and cheaper to move consumption away from the peak. As far as I can tell, that's not happening due to perverse regulatory incentives: utilities are rewarded for generating capacity and KWH production, and so they want build, build, build.

Now, as to Brett Bellmore re: wind:

"The uncertainty of nuclear is uncertainty about whether you'll be permitted to build it. "

Not as far as I can tell. The horrendous construction cost over-runs in the US in the last big nuclear build all happened during construction, and some happened after construction was largely complete, and things had to be redone.

"You can't schedule wind, and outside of a few places, you can't really rely on it, either."

On the contrary, wind provides a substantial capacity credit, varying from 10% to 90% of average production.

"you have to have fast response (IOW, expensive fuel) plants online and sitting idle, ready to replace 100% of it at a moment's notice."

Not at all. Wind doesn't vary as much as you perceive, and dynamically schedulable consumption is going to grow at night in the form of PHEV/EV's. This is a long discussion...

aa2 said at October 21, 2007 12:42 PM:

I believe in 2100 we will use 14 times as much electricity as in 2000. Its not realistic for coal to scale up that much. Only nuclear based technologies can provide that kind of power. And even today many policy makers are surprised that yes they are going to have to build new generation. Many thought that conservation was going to stop the need for new generation, and some even believed we could start retiring plants.

But even in this era of conservation when you examine the numbers electrical use is growing at its usual rate. So now that its obvious to officials that new generation is needed there is an argument to which kind.

Local authorities can't just say no we won't build new generation. Imagine the demand was for 3000 megawatts and they only created 2500 megawatts for argument's sake. They would either have to tell some citizens they could not use more, or raise the price so dramatically to stop that amount of demand. Think in California electricity how dramatically prices had to rise for demand destruction to set in.

Now beyond that industry of all kinds needs cheap energy. If one American state made their energy 10 times more expensive in an effort to lower demand.. industry is going to relocate to cheaper areas. And then the workers have to relocate to where the jobs are.

Nick said at October 21, 2007 5:19 PM:

"Only nuclear based technologies can provide that kind of power."

No, both wind (at 72TW average resource, about 50x current world consumption) and solar (at 100,000TW) could do it.

We currently have an average demand of 440GW in the US, and capacity of about 950GW. There's a fair amount of capacity going unused at night. Can we grow forever by shifting demand to the night? Would that reduce CO2? No to both, but we can add wind & solar, which have the bonus value that they're much faster than nuclear.

aa2 said at October 22, 2007 12:45 AM:

I especially am a big fan of solar and have been for a number of years. I forgot that they could cover a lot of the load.. like the deslianation point that Randall made.

Quite a bit of the load would either have to be solar + pumped hydro.. or nuclear. For example in the evenings in the winter when there is no sun you need a lot of energy available.

Nick said at October 22, 2007 8:52 AM:

"Quite a bit of the load would either have to be solar + pumped hydro.. or nuclear. For example in the evenings in the winter when there is no sun you need a lot of energy available."

Don't forget wind, and demand management.

Wind is a little stronger, on average, at night and in winter.

Evening peaks are an artifact of flat pricing: people turn on the heat when they get home. Raise the price for that time period, and it will become economical to start the heat earlier or later, or install heat storage. Also, dynamic pricing combined with smart-meters would allow non-time sensitive tasks, like heating your water, or charging your PHEV, to happen during the day when the sun is out, or whenever wind peaks.

Randall Parker said at October 22, 2007 7:02 PM:


Are you sure about when wind power peaks? At a site in Pakistan they expect peak in July and lowest in November. Also, I've read that in areas where ice melts on mountains the biggest winds come in the spring after the ice melts and the cold soil on the mountains creates cooler air as compared to warmer valleys. I've also read that evenings and early mornings have strong winds along shorelines because the land and sea don't heat and cool at equal rates.

Here's a short blurb about winds in Iowa:

Seasonal winds in Iowa are strongest in winter and early spring and weakest in summer. Daily winds generally are strongest during the afternoon and lightest during the early morning.

Anyway, I get the impression that peak winds come at different times of days and years depending on geographical factors. I haven't yet found a great web page that synthesizes all of this into a good overview.

Randall Parker said at October 22, 2007 7:13 PM:


More on wind power peaks, this from a USDA report about wind power in Texas:

The installation of megawatt-size wind turbines on 65 to 80 meter towers at Class 4 wind sites in Texas has resulted in the cheapest form of renewable energy ($0.04/kWh). However, wind farm output has a diurnal mismatch to the utility electrical loading. Combining solar thermal power plants with wind farms was shown to result in a good match to the utility loading, and if storage was used then virtually a perfect match could be achieved. The seasonal mismatch for wind farms (i.e. peak load occurs in summer when wind energy is at a minimum) was also improved significantly by combining solar with wind. The peak electrical load during the year is critical to a utility and a wind/solar hybrid was shown to be much better to the utility than a wind alone system for the two regions studied: the Texas Panhandle and Central West Texas.

So wind occurs most strongly at night and in the winter. In the short term that's a problem. But when solar becomes cheap that will actually become a feature.

See their figure 2. Note that in almost all sites the wind was strongest from 10 PM to 6 AM. That's a pretty serious mismatch to when we actually need electricity. Also, solar won't totally fix that mismatch since electric power demand peaks late in the afternoon after the sun is well beyond its peak.

Fat Man said at October 22, 2007 10:36 PM:

Every form of mechanical energy has some downside to it.

The cases against fossil fuel, bio-fuel, and nuclear have been gummed to death. The cases against wind and solar are newer, but I note that the wind opponents on Cape Cod have another notch on their guns.

Solar has not attracted the negative attention that the other sources have because it is still too expensive to be actually used by any substantial number of people. But I look forward to the day that the blind desert pupfish makes a reappearance on the public scene to block a proposal to cover a couple of thousand square miles of the Sonoran desert with solar machines.

Solar and wind, being by their nature inconstant, need storage. Pumped hydro was mentioned above. Anybody ever hear of Storm King? If you rely on solar, you can't claim that middle of the night uses will obviate the need for storage.

Maybe we will find technological manna. Maybe we will find a way to build solar power stations in space that will safely transmit their power to earth. Maybe we will anchor zeppelins in the jet stream to harvest inexhaustible wind energy. But, I think that we will discover that every energy source has costs as well as benefits.

My friend, the former utility consultant, wonders why I am interested in energy issues. While I do have a certain boyish fascination with technology, the real appeal to me is the inexhaustible human comedy that the subject seems to engender. Environmentalist Kennedy's sabotaging projects advocated by Greenpeace. Hollywood princesses explaining that the real solution is for you peasants to give up your automobiles, your central heat and your toilet paper, but that they have purchased indulgences from Al Gore.

The real problem is that our political and legal systems are now set up to make sure that anyone can block anything. Therefore we do nothing but bloviate.

IMHO, this is not a really bad thing as I think there is a lot smaller problem than many others do. I am skeptical about global warming, and I think that if it is really happening, it is more likely to be good than bad. I tend to believe that oil prices have gone up because of the decline of the dollar as a currency, and that even if there is a real production peak looming, increased prices will eventually create solutions. I also believe that we have the ability to create all of the energy we need, and that eventually some crisis will break the logjam at the heart of our political system and restore our ability to act.

To me, all of these arguments have an Alice in Wonderland quality to them.

Alice carefully released the brush, and did her best to get the hair into order. "Come, you look rather better now!" she said, after altering most of the pins. "But really you should have a lady's maid!"

"I'm sure I'll take you with pleasure!" the [White] Queen said. "Twopence a week, and jam every other day."

Alice couldn't help laughing, as she said, "I don't want you to hire ME--and I don't care for jam."

"It's very good jam," said the Queen.

"Well, I don't want any TO-DAY, at any rate."

"You couldn't have it if you DID want it," the Queen said. "The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday--but never jam to-day."

"It MUST come sometimes to 'jam to-day,'" Alice objected.

"No, it can't," said the Queen. "It's jam every OTHER day: to-day isn't any OTHER day, you know."


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