James Fallows' new Atlantic cover story on the need for clean coal technologies deserves to be read in full. The basics:
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 EnergyWithout 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.