Dirty Coal, Clean Future

To environmentalists, “clean coal” is an insulting oxymoron. But for now, the only way to meet the world’s energy needs, and to arrest climate change before it produces irreversible cataclysm, is to use coal—dirty, sooty, toxic coal—in more-sustainable ways. The good news is that new technologies are making this possible. China is now the leader in this area, the Google and Intel of the energy world. If we are serious about global warming, America needs to work with China to build a greener future on a foundation of coal. Otherwise, the clean-energy revolution will leave us behind, with grave costs for the world’s climate and our economy.

The Inevitability of Coal

That’s the big picture. Now come the parts of the background that are somewhat less familiar but bear on the argument that the only real salvation must involve coal.

Recall the 37 billion tons of worldwide annual carbon-dioxide emissions. On a per capita basis, that would mean about six tons for each of the planet’s 6-billion-plus people. But of course it doesn’t work that way. For the United States, emissions are about 25 tons per person. For Europe as a whole, they’re about 11 tons. (The difference is smaller houses, smaller cars, fewer sprawling suburbs, and in the case of France, much heavier reliance on nuclear power to generate electricity. Nuclear plants are expensive and obviously create waste-disposal problems, but they emit practically no greenhouse gases.) Japan’s level is slightly below Europe’s. For China, the emission level is about eight tons per person. Overall, China’s economy is more energy-intensive than America’s or Europe’s—its bias toward construction and heavy manufacturing, plus its on-average shoddy standard of building insulation, mean that it takes more fuel, electricity, and raw energy to produce a dollar’s worth of output in China than in the U.S. But overall living standards are still so much lower in China that per capita emissions there are barely one-third the U.S. level. India’s per capita emission level is about three tons per year, less than half of China’s (because India has so many fewer factories). For Kenya and other barely industrialized countries, it’s about one ton per person per year.

The range of these figures suggests the technical challenges ahead. As one climate scientist put it to me, “To stabilize the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, the whole world on average would need to get down to the Kenya level”—a 96 percent reduction for the United States. The figures also suggest the diplomatic challenges for American negotiators in recommending that other countries, including those with hundreds of millions in poverty, forgo the energy-intensive path toward wealth that the United States has traveled for so many years.

Indeed, in comparisons between the United States and China, the emissions figures probably understate the real gap in per capita energy use. David Mohler is the chief technology officer for Duke Energy Company, which is based in Charlotte and is a leading electricity and natural-gas provider in the Carolinas and parts of the Midwest. He travels frequently to China, and he took me through a comparison of electricity use in the two countries, as a proxy for overall energy use and emissions. At face value, he said, there was about a 5-to-1 difference between U.S. and Chinese per capita electricity-use levels. Each American is on average responsible for about 13.6 megawatt-hours of electricity use per year, counting residential heating and lighting, a pro-rated share of industrial and commercial demand, and so on. For each Chinese, the average is about 2.6. “But around half of that Chinese electricity consumption was for manufactured products for export,” Mohler said. That is, China’s surge in electric capacity has disproportionately gone toward its factory- export boom, rather than toward home air-conditioning and lighting, elevators, TVs and computers, electric cars, or any other in-China use by Chinese people (though to see a blazingly lit Chinese city at night is to recognize that plenty of power is already being used). “So in a sense, their ‘real’ per capita use is only about 1.5 megawatt-hours,” Mohler said, “and ours, counting what went into the products we import, could be 10 times that much.”

Mohler’s point was less about abstract equity than practical reality. People in rural China, in my experience, don’t really care that people somewhere else—Los Angeles or Houston, even Shanghai or Tianjin—are using more electricity and gasoline than they are. They just want to use more themselves! I assume the same to be true of their counterparts from Nigeria to India to North Korea. “You go in the countryside in China, and people don’t have any power to pump their water,” Mohler said. “Of course they’re going to want those powered pumps. Anyone would.” And hot water for their baths, and refrigerators for their kitchens, and air-conditioners for their bedrooms—and cars.

Thus the bind. The atmosphere needs to absorb dramatically less carbon dioxide, while people around the world are certain to want dramatically more of the products and comforts whose creation and operation send carbon dioxide and other gases into the sky.

Isn’t “clean energy” the answer? Of course—because everything is the answer. The people I spoke with and reports I read differed in emphasis, sometimes significantly. Some urged greater stress on efficiency and conservation; some, a faster move toward nuclear power or natural gas; some, an all-out push for solar power and other renewable sources; others, immediate preparation for “geo-engineering” or “abatement” projects to offset the effects of climate disruption once they occur. But in a sense they were all in harmony, because everything on all the lists works toward the same end.

The best-known illustration of the need for an all-fronts approach is the “carbon wedge” analysis from the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton. Its premise is that to keep the carbon-dioxide level from going into the 500s, or twice its pre-industrial-age level, over the next 50 years, the world collectively will need to reduce its carbon-dioxide emissions by a total of about 26 billion tons per year. (Technically, CMI measures its goals in billions of tons of carbon contained within the carbon dioxide. For clarity, I’ve converted the figures.) To reach that total, CMI proposes seven “stabilization wedges” of a little less than 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide each. A 4-billion-ton “wedge” through efficiency efforts of all kinds; another wedge of that size through renewable power; another through avoiding deforestation and changing agricultural practices. Eventually it adds up. “There are many good options,” Julio Friedmann, a geologist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, told me soon after I first met him in Beijing two years ago. “But there are no unlimited options. Each is limited by cost, limited by scale, limited by physics and chemistry, limited by thermodynamics. For example, there’s nothing wrong with switchgrass as a biofuel”—one of George W. Bush’s novel proposals—“but there’s not a lot of energy in it.”

We’ll hear from Friedmann again. This emphasis on limits is what begins pointing us back to coal.

“Emotionally, we would all like to think that wind, solar, and conservation will solve the problem for us,” David Mohler of Duke Energy told me. “Nothing will change, our comfort and convenience will be the same, and we can avoid that nasty coal. Unfortunately, the math doesn’t work that way.”

The math he has in mind starts with the role that coal now plays around the world, and especially for the two biggest energy consumers, America and China. Overall, coal-burning power plants provide nearly half (about 46 percent this year) of the electricity consumed in the United States. For the record: natural gas supplies another 23 percent, nuclear power about 20 percent, hydroelectric power about 7 percent, and everything else the remaining 4 or 5 percent. The small size of the “everything else” total is worth noting; even if it doubles or triples, the solutions we often hear the most about won’t come close to meeting total demand. In China, coal-fired plants supply an even larger share of much faster-growing total electric demand: at least 70 percent, with the Three Gorges Dam and similar hydroelectric projects providing about 20 percent, and (in order) natural gas, nuclear power, wind, and solar energy making up the small remainder. For the world as a whole, coal-fired plants provide about half the total electric supply. On average, every American uses the electricity produced by 7,500 pounds of coal each year.

Precisely because coal already plays such a major role in world power supplies, basic math means that it will inescapably do so for a very long time. For instance: through the past decade, the United States has talked about, passed regulations in favor of, and made technological breakthroughs in all fields of renewable energy. Between 1995 and 2008, the amount of electricity coming from solar power rose by two-thirds in the United States, and wind-generated electricity went up more than 15-fold. Yet over those same years, the amount of electricity generated by coal went up much faster, in absolute terms, than electricity generated from any other source. The journalist Robert Bryce has drawn on U.S. government figures to show that between 1995 and 2008, “the absolute increase in total electricity produced by coal was about 5.8 times as great as the increase from wind and 823 times as great as the increase from solar”—and this during the dawn of the green-energy era in America. Power generated by the wind and sun increased significantly in America last year; but power generated by coal increased more than seven times as much. As Americans have read many times, Chinese companies are the world’s leaders in manufacturing solar panels, often using technology originally developed in the United States. Many of the panels are used inside China for its own rapidly growing solar-power system; still, solar energy accounts for about 1 percent of its total power supply. In his book PowerHungry, Bryce describes a visit to a single coal mine, the Cardinal Mine in western Kentucky, whose daily output supports three-quarters as much electricity generation as all the solar and wind facilities in the United States combined. David MacKay, of the physics department at Cambridge University in England, has compiled an encyclopedia of such energy-related comparisons, which is available for free download (under the misleadingly lowbrow title Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air). For instance: he calculates that if the windiest 10 percent of the entire British landmass were completely covered with wind turbines, they would produce power roughly equivalent to half of what Britons expend merely by driving each day.

Similar patterns apply even more starkly in China. Other sources of power are growing faster in relative terms, but year by year the most dramatic increase is in China’s use of coal. “Coal simply is going to be with us for decades,” a technical adviser to China’s energy ministry told me this summer in Beijing. “We hope someday to have 15 percent of our power from renewable sources. Even so, the percentage of power generated by coal will not drop by more than a few points, and the absolute amount will quickly grow.” Another government energy expert in Beijing said that the only serious limit on how fast Chinese power companies can increase their use of coal is the capacity of the country’s transportation system. “It’s kind of an existential question, whether they can handle the physical volumes they are planning to consume,” he said. “Right now railroads are at capacity, you have entire highways being blocked with coal trucks, and the problems cascade.” Part of the reason China has committed some $80 billion over the next decade to build light-rail networks across the country is to get human passengers off the main rail lines, opening up more capacity to move coal.

“People without a technical background think, ‘Coal is dirty! It’s bad,’” I was told in Beijing by Ming Sung, a geologist and energy expert who was born in Shanghai, worked for decades in America and became a citizen, and has now returned to China. “But will you turn off your refrigerator for 30 years while we work on renewables? Turn off the computer? Or ask people in China to do that? Unless you will, you can’t get rid of coal for decades. As [U.S. Energy Secretary] Steven Chu has said, we have to face the nightmare of coal for a while.”

Coal will be with us because it is abundant: any projected “peak coal” stage would come many decades after the world reaches “peak oil.” It will be with us because of where it’s located: the top four coal-reserve countries are the United States, Russia, China, and India, which together have about 40 percent of the world’s population and more than 60 percent of its coal. It will be with us because its direct costs are in most circumstances far lower than those of the alternatives—that’s why so much is used. (Prices vary widely from place to place and company to company, but one utility executive said that the lowest-price coal plant might generate electricity for 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, while the same amount of power from a new wind farm in the same area might cost 20 cents.) It will be with us because its indirect costs, in miner deaths, environmental destruction, and carbon burden on the atmosphere are unregulated and “externalized.” Power companies that answer to shareholders or ratepayers have a hard time justifying a more expensive choice. “Coal is so cheap because its dirtiness still doesn’t count against it,” an air-pollution expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council told The Wall Street Journal 10 years ago. In the absence of climate legislation in the United States and international agreements to reduce emissions, the dirtiness still doesn’t count. Coal will be with us because changing a power infrastructure—like building a new transportation system or extending cable or fiber-optic connections through an entire country—is the very opposite of a “virtual” process, and takes many years to complete.

And it will be with us because of a surprising constraint: after a century in which medical diagnosis and treatment, computer and communications systems, aerospace and nanotech industries, and nearly every other form of technology have routinely achieved the magical, energy production is essentially what it was in the time of James Watt. With the main exception of nuclear-power plants and the hoped-for future exception of practical nuclear-fusion systems, we mostly create electricity by burning something that was once underground—coal, oil, natural gas—to boil water and turn turbines with the steam. (Windmills use the wind’s force, and hydropower systems use falling water, to turn turbines directly.) The computer of 10 years from now will be unrecognizably more powerful than today’s, and its predictably increased capability will make medical, navigation, and other systems better, too. If the power plant of 10 years from now is even slightly more efficient than today’s, that will be a major achievement. The most advanced of today’s “ultra-supercritical” coal-fired plants, which operate at very high temperatures and pressures to maximize the efficiency of combustion, convert up to 48 percent of the coal’s potential energy to electric power; the rest is lost as heat. “Subcritical” plants typically have efficiencies in the mid-30s. The costliest and most advanced technology is an improvement—but not a breakthrough. A breakthrough is what it would take to move beyond reliance on coal.

“I know this is a theological issue for some people,” Julio Friedmann of Lawrence Livermore said. “Solar and wind power are going to be important, but it is really hard to get them beyond 10 percent of total power supply.” He pointed out the huge engineering achievement it has taken to raise the efficiency of solar photovoltaic cells from about 25 percent to about 30 percent; whereas “to make them useful, you would need improvements of two- or threefold in cost,” say from about 18 cents per kilowatt-hour to 6 cents. He recited a skeptic’s line used about the Carter administration’s clean-energy programs—“You’re not going to run a steel plant with solar panels”—and then made a point that summarized the outlook of those who have decided they can best wage the climate fight by working on dirty, destructive coal.

“It is very hard to go around the world and think you can make any difference in carbon-loading the atmosphere without some plan for how people can continue to use coal,” Friedmann said. “It is by far the most prevalent and efficient way to generate electricity. People are going to use it. There is no story of climate progress without a story for coal. In particular, U.S.-China progress on coal.”

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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