Friday, September 10, 2010

Are we running out of coal?

Posted By on Fri, Sep 10, 2010 at 10:56 AM

Usually, when the energy industry talks about coal they speak of it as if it's an endless resource that we're oh-so-lucky to be sitting on. But, there are no endless resources.

National Geographic takes a look at our country's coal supply in this month's issue. Here's a snippet:

No matter how bad coal might be for the planet, the conventional wisdom is that there is so much of it underground that the world’s leading fuel for electricity will continue to dominate the energy scene unless global action is taken on climate change.

But what if conventional wisdom is wrong?

A new study seeks to shake up the assumption that use of coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, is bound to continue its inexorable rise. In fact, the authors predict that world coal production may reach its peak as early as next year, and then begin a permanent decline.

The study, led by Tad Patzek, chairman of the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, and published in the August issue of Energy, predicts that by mid-century, the world's coal mining will supply only half as much energy as today.

The idea that the world will face "peak coal" as soon as 2011 flies in the face of most earlier estimates and analysis.

Read the rest of this article, by Mason Inman, here.

Knowing coal is an finite resource makes you wonder why the federal government continues to dole out hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, looking for a way to make coal clean. Shouldn't our tax dollars be used to find alternatives to coal instead?

The Research Triangle Institute was awarded a $168.8 million stimulus grant from the U.S. Department of Energy on Tuesday to fund research for cleaner burning coal.

The nonprofit institute’s grant for designing, building, and testing a warm gas cleanup system to remove contaminants including sulfur, mercury, arsenic and selenium from coal syngas is 29.3 percent of the total awards announced by U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Read the rest of this Sun Journal article, by Sue Book, here.

Of course, there are plenty of people who claim there is no such thing as "clean coal," especially when you look at the entire production cycle. The folks at go into the "clean coal" debate in great detail on their interactive website. (The video on the site includes photos of the Riverbend coal ash ponds that are located just upstream from Charlotte-Mecklenburg's main drinking water intake.) And, as you know, the waste produce by coal-fired power plants is a huge local issue that's about to come to a head at the EPA's Sept. 14 hearing, which will be held in Charlotte.

The coal burned at the coal plants around Charlotte comes from the Appalachian mountains. You can watch it being delivered on the backs of trains crisscrossing through our city as well as view a giant pile of it behind the Riverbend plant, which is just a few miles from Uptown. (While Google maps claims the plant is closed, it definitely is not. You can zoom in on their map to see Riverbend's plant, the pile of coal and the coal ash ponds.)

Duke Energy, based in Charlotte, claimed earlier this summer that it's reviewing its use of coal derived from mountaintop removal practices. That's nice to hear, but back in reality, the company's going to continue using the cheapest coal they can find so they can maintain low rates and high profits.

“I have very strong suspicions that this is not about a sincere effort to protect mountaintops from coal mining,” said Appalachian Voices program director Matt Wasson, citing PR gains from an ostensible concern over mountaintop removal as a potential motive.

Either way, it might not be entirely Duke’s decision. Certain state regulations prohibit energy companies from producing anything other than the cheapest electricity. If non-mountaintop removal coal is significantly more expensive, state regulators could stop Duke even if they wanted to go through with the move.

Read more from

Find out where the coal that powers your home comes from here, all you have to do is enter your zip code. When I entered my zip code, I discovered there are six locations in Appalachia where coal is excavated for delivery to the Riverbend plant. That means every time I turn on my lights I'm effectively burning a piece of our mountains. And you are, too.

Mountaintop removal doesn't only lead to the uglification of our mountains, which are huge tourists draws, but it also leads to horrible pollution problems. In this video, actor Woody Harrelson says, "It's so deeply wrong that we have to do something about it." The video offers pictures of one of the other coal ash spills, this one in Kentucky in 2000, that didn't get nearly the media coverage as the one in Tennessee in 2008. See for yourself:

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