Coal Tattoo

Drop in coal use drives U.S. greenhouse reductions

Here’s the latest from Lester Brown and the Earth Policy Institute:

Between 2007 and 2011, carbon emissions from coal use in the United States dropped 10 percent. During the same period, emissions from oil use dropped 11 percent. In contrast, carbon emissions from natural gas use increased by 6 percent. The net effect of these trends was that U.S. carbon emissions dropped 7 percent in four years. And this is only the beginning.

The initial fall in coal and oil use was triggered by the economic downturn, but now powerful new forces are reducing the use of both. For coal, the dominant force is the Beyond Coal campaign, an impressive national effort coordinated by the Sierra Club involving hundreds of local groups that oppose coal because of its effects on human health.

And here’s more:

In August, the American Economic Review—the country’s most prestigious economics journal—published an article that can only be described as an epitaph for the coal industry. The authors conclude that the economic damage caused by air pollutants from coal burning exceeds the value of the electricity produced by coal-fired power plants. Coal fails the cost-benefit analysis even before the costs of climate change are tallied.

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Reinventing fire: Amory Lovins on coal’s costs

Folks who follow the work of Rocky Mountain Institute co-founder Amory Lovins certainly are well aware that he’s got a new book out.  Called “Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era,” the volume is being promoted as a blueprint to the new energy era:

Business can become more competitive, profitable and resilient by leading the transformation from fossil fuel to efficiency and renewables. This transition will build a stronger economy, a more secure nation and a healthier environment.

I wanted to share a few things Lovins has to say in the book about coal:

Coal fires the power stations that generate 45 percent of U.S. and 41 percent of world electricity … Burning coal emits sulfur and nitrogen oxides (causing acid rain), particulates, mercury and other toxic metals … Coal ash from power plants pollutes streams. Mining coal injures and kills workers and inverts landscapes. Such hidden costs of U.S. coal-fired electricity total $180 to $530 billion per year. Properly charging that on our electric bills, rather than to our health and our kids, would double or triple the price of coal-fired electricity.

… Coal depletion, long assumed to be centuries off, may arrive unexpectedly soon. Coal resources had long been assessed with little or no attention to their exploitation cost. Recent reassessments of coal’s economic geology are more sobering, suggesting that ‘peak coal’ will occur within decades even in such coal-rich countries as the U.S. and China. Physical depletion could take much longer, but the cheap coal is going fast.

Lovins explains:

… Business, motivated by enduring advantage, supported by civil society, sped by effective policy — can advantageously achieve the ambitious transition beyond oil and coal by 2050, and later beyond natural gas, too … New technologies, and new ways of combining them, can wring several-fold more work from the same amount of energy. Those efficiency gains then allow renewable energy sources, equally enabled by modern information technology, to by deployed faster. The transition will create new industries with vast potential for jobs, profits, and better, cheaper, more robust services.

Check it out …

Earlier this week, my buddy Ted Boettner over at the West Virginia Center and Budget and Policy passed on a nifty new report from the firm DBL Investors that provides an interesting look at an always popular topic here on Coal Tattoo: Energy subsidies (see previous posts here, here and here).

I gave it a read yesterday, and was planning to blog about it … but Ted beat me to it, writing on his organization’s blog:

A new study by Nancy Pfund of DBL Investors and Ben Healey of Yale University shows us that federal subsidies have played a large role in guiding America’s energy economy over the last 200 years. In particular, Pfund and Healey quantify and compare how federal subsidies for earlier energy transitions in coal, oil, gas, and nuclear compare to our current commitment to renewables.

Ted quoted from the report:

Our findings suggest that current renewable energy subsidies do not constitute an over-subsidized outlier when com- pared to the historical norm for emerging sources of energy. For example:

– As a percentage of inflation-adjusted federal spending, nuclear subsidies accounted for more than 1% of the federal budget over their first 15 years, and oil and gas subsidies made up half a percent of the total budget, while renewa- bles have constituted only about a tenth of a percent. That is to say, the federal commitment to O&G was five times greater than the federal commitment to renewables during the first 15 years of each subsidies’ life, and it was more than 10 times greater for nuclear.

– In inflation-adjusted dollars, nuclear spending averaged $3.3 billion over the first 15 years of subsidy life, and O&G subsidies averaged $1.8 billion, while renewables averaged less than $0.4 billion.

Nancy Pfund, Managing Partner, DBL Investors and co-author of the report, said:

All new energy industries – timber, coal, oil and gas, nuclear – have received substantial government support at a pivotal time in their early growth, creating millions of jobs and significant economic growth. Subsidies for these ‘traditional’ energy sources were many, many times what we are spending today on renewables.

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Counting up the costs of coal

We had a little story in today’s Gazette about a new study that’s making the rounds of the environmental press. It’s by three economists (two from Yale and one from Middlebury College) and was published in the most recent edition of the respected journal American Economic Review. As we reported:

Air pollution from coal-fired power plants costs the U.S. more in health damage than those plants contribute to the American economy, according to a new study in a respected economics journal.

Coal plants produce the largest “gross external damages” — $53 billion annually — of any of the industries examined in the new study published in the latest issue of The American Economic Review.

The story continued:

According to the study, the gross external damages (GED) of coal-fired power plants cost about twice the annual value added to the economy by those facilities.

“Coal plants are responsible for more than one-fourth of the GED from the entire U.S. economy,” says the study. “The damages attributed to this industry are larger than the combined GED due to the three next most polluting industries: Crop production, $15 billion/year, livestock production, $15 billion/year, and construction of roadways and bridges, $13 billion/year.”

And:

If the potential costs of carbon dioxide pollution were included “the damages caused by oil- and coal-fired power plants are between 30 and 40 percent higher,” the study said.

“Although the damages from CO2 are large, they are not as large as GED,” the study said. “For the case of coal-fired power plants, CO2 causes an additional $15 billion in damages, which is relatively small compared to the GED of $53 billion.”

The study has gotten coverage from Treehugger.com, as well from Grist here and from Think Progress.  There’s also an interesting mention of it here from The Heritage Foundation.

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DOE: Renewables expected to lead energy growth

Greg Bosscawen, manager of renewable energy for Pacific Gas and Electric Co., walks past solar panels at PG&;E’s Vaca-Dixon solar energy site near Vacaville, Calif., Tuesday, April 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Here’s the latest from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration:

Renewable energy is projected to be the fastest growing source of primary energy over the next 25 years, but fossil fuels remain the dominant source of energy.

Fossil fuels, however, continue to supply much of the energy used worldwide throughout the projection, and still account for 78 percent of world energy use in 2035.

Regarding coal, the EIA’s new International Energy Outlook 2011 says:

World coal consumption increases from 139 quadrillion Btu in 2008 to 209 quadrillion Btu in 2035, at an average annual rate of 1.5 percent in the IEO2011 Reference case. In the absence of policies or legislation that would limit the growth of coal use, China and, to a lesser extent, India and the other nations of non-OECD Asia consume coal in place of more expensive fuels. China alone accounts for 76 percent of the projected net increase in world coal use, and India and the rest of non-OECD Asia account for another 19 percent of the increase.

Study: Switch to gas won’t cure global warming

A natural gas well operated by Northeast Natural Energy on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011.  (AP Photo/David Smith)

We had an interesting story in today’s Gazette reporting:

Switching power plants from coal to natural gas will not help to significantly slow down global warming, according to the latest in a series of studies to examine the much promoted role for gas as a “bridge fuel” to cleaner energy production.

The study, published late last week in the peer-reviewed journal Climate Change Letters, found that substitution of gas for coal would result in increased — rather than decreased — global warming for many decades.

We first reported on this study in our watchdog blog, Sustained Outrage, on Friday, and the study has received a fair amount of other media coverage here, here, here and here.

This is an issue we’ve covered before over in Sustained Outrage, with posts here, here and here.

There is much more research needed on this issue, especially given some great uncertainties about the levels of methane leakage from gas drilling operations. But so far, the take-home message, really, was in our Gazette story today:

Robert Howarth, a Cornell University ecologist who authored a widely cited paper on the subject earlier this year, cautions that switching from coal to natural gas shouldn’t divert the country from bringing on more renewable energy sources.

“It’s not saying we should keep burning coal,” Howarth said in an interview. “It’s that we should do more to move to what we need to do in the longer term anyway.”

We’ve previously gone over here on Coal Tattoo the Congressional Research Service report that debunked the notion that EPA’s series of air pollution regulatory actions amount to some sort of  “train wreck” for the nation’s energy system.

Now, there’s an interesting report out from PJM Interconnection — the folks who manage the regional power grid — that examines the potential impact of EPA’s proposals on their operations.

The bottom line:

Even with almost 7,000 MW less coal capacity clearing for the 2014/2015 Delivery Year, PJM estimates the RTO will carry a reserve margin of 19.6 percent for the Delivery Year, including the demand and capacity commitments of FRR entities. Even with the potential retirement of coal capacity already announced by FRR entities, there are also announced commitments to replace a portion of that capacity with new gas-fired capacity such that the RTO would still carry a reserve margin at or above of the target 15.3 percent installed reserve margin. Add into the mix the potential for new entry from Demand Resources, as has been the trend in recent years, and resource adequacy does not appear to be threatened.

Thanks to Bill Howley at The Power Line blog, who brought this report to my attention and to Keryn Newman, who apparently brought it to Bill’s attention through a piece in the StopPathWV blog.

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Coal’s share of U.S. power at record low

Fascinating new data from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration:

The share of electricity generated by coal during the first three months of this year was at its lowest first-quarter level in more than 30 years. The U.S. electric power sector generated about 440 terawatthours (TWh) using coal during the first quarter of 2011, which is 26.5 TWh less than the amount generated during the first quarter of 2010—despite the fact that the overall total level of generation in the United States increased by less than 1%. The amount of coal-fired generation in the first quarter of 2011 corresponds to a 46% share of total generation, which is 3 percentage points lower than the same period last year and 6 percentage points lower than the first quarter of 2008.

If coal is so good, then why is W.Va. so poor?

A coal truck drives out of downtown Welch, W.Va., Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Jon C. Hancock)

As we wrap up another week of news from the coalfields of West Virginia, it’s worth looking back to see exactly who is asking the tough questions that need to be asked about this industry and its impacts on our state.

First, it takes a couple of members of Congress from California of all places to press Kevin Crutchfield, CEO of Alpha Natural Resources, about exactly how opposing unions fits into his company’s notion of “Running Right.”

West Virginia’s elected officials don’t seem to be interested in finding out what Crutchfield is doing to reform the Massey Energy safety practices that brought us the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. Contrast the grilling of Crutchfield by Reps. George Miller and Lynn Woolsey to the attitude of Rep. Nick Rahall, who this week touted “the new ownership in Southern West Virginia” as the answer to any coal-related problems. Of course, my good friend Congressman Rahall, despite spending more than 30 years in Washington, hasn’t been able to figure out what agency should look into the recent scientific study that found his constituents who live near mountaintop removal mines face a greater risk of birth defects.

Then, we had a Boston native, billionaire business information mogul (and mayor New York City) coughing up $50 million of his personal wealth to help the Sierra Club fight construction of new coal-fired power plants, encourage the closure of polluting older plants and halt new mountaintop removal mining permits.

That move by Michael Bloomberg really touched a nerve with the powers that be in West Virginia’s coal industry and among some of its political allies.

The United Mine Workers issued a statement blasting Bloomberg. So did the National Mining Association. I couldn’t imagine that Sen. Joe Manchin was going to let it slide, and he didn’t disappoint, issuing a press release saying:

Coal not only built this country, but it built the skyscrapers of New York City, and without coal, the lights of that city would be dark and its economy would be devastated.

My buddy Matt Ballard at the Charleston Area Alliance (a local business booster group) must have gotten the memo on this, because I noticed him tweeting about it:

1/2 Really would have liked 2 have seen #Bloomberg donate $ to build CO2 technology to help make coal cleaner & advance the industry.

2/2 tech advances environmental science to help reduce #CO2. But instead he chose to not think about our domestic security. #Bloomberg

That was a general theme from the UMWA, the NMA and Sen. Manchin … that Mayor Bloomberg should have used his money to support development of  “clean coal” technology such as carbon capture and storage, or CCS.

OK, now let’s be clear again on something: American Electric Power dropped its work on one of the largest CCS test projects in history over in Mason County at its Mountaineer Plant. Why? Because federal and state officials have failed to make such technology necessary, by not passing any sort of binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

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U.N.: 80 percent renewable energy by 2050

Greg Bosscawen, manager of renewable energy for Pacific Gas and Electric Co., walks past solar panels at PG&E’s Vaca-Dixon solar energy site near Vacaville, Calif., Tuesday, April 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Interesting new story out from my buddy Mike Casey at The Associated Press:

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Renewable sources such as solar and wind could supply up to 80 percent of the world’s energy needs by 2050 and play a significant role in fighting global warming, a top climate panel concluded Monday.

But the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that to achieve that level, governments would have to spend significantly more money and introduce policies that integrate renewables into existing power grids and promote their benefits in terms of reducing air pollution and improving public health.

Authors said the report concluded that the use of renewables is on the rise, their prices are declining and that with the right policies, they will be an important tool both in tackling climate change and helping poor countries use the likes of solar or wind to develop their economies in a sustainable fashion.

“The report shows that it is not the availability of the resource but the public policies that will either expand or constrain renewable energy development over the coming decades,” said Ramon Pichs, who co-chaired the group tasked with producing the report. “Developing countries have an important stake in this future — this is where 1.4 billion people without access to electricity live yet also where some of the best conditions exist for renewable energy deployment.”

As explained in the IPCC press release:

The findings, from over 120 researchers working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), also indicate that the rising penetration of renewable energies could lead to cumulative greenhouse gas savings equivalent to 220 to 560 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtC02eq) between 2010 and 2050.

The upper end of the scenarios assessed, representing a cut of around a third in greenhouse gas emissions from business-as-usual projections, could assist in keeping concentrations of greenhouse gases at 450 parts per million.

This could contribute towards a goal of holding the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius – an aim recognized in the United Nations Climate Convention’s Cancun Agreements.

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Sen. Manchin praises coal-to-liquids project

This just in from Sen. Joe Manchin’s office

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) today highlighted the critical role that coal will play in our nation’s energy future at the groundbreaking of the country’s first coal-to-gasoline plant in Mingo County, which is projected to create hundreds of new jobs and provide additional domestic resources to help bring down the price of gas.

“The price of gas has skyrocketed to more than four dollars a gallon in the last year, and there’s no question that West Virginia families are hurting,” Senator Manchin said. “West Virginia is a state where people have to drive to survive, and I know these high prices are hitting families hard. This country has to get serious about making energy independence a priority, which is why we must develop a national energy policy that harnesses all of our vast domestic resources and push forward with new technology – just like coal-to-gasoline – that will help us achieve energy independence within a generation. All West Virginians can be proud that Mingo County, West Virginia is at the center of a very exciting new frontier in energy technology that will help reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign oil.”

According to Manchin’s office:

This coal-to-gasoline plant – the first of its kind in the United States – is projected to convert 7,500 tons of West Virginia coal into clean gasoline each day, which can be used to run cars, trucks, tanks and jets. It is expected to produce 18,000 barrels (756,000 gallons) of Premium 92 Octane gasoline each day. When it is fully operational, this plant is expected to create 300 full-time jobs. And, over a four-year construction period, its estimated that 3,000 skilled trade workers will be employed.

So, this one plant — if it’s every built — would produce about one-third of the gasoline that West Virginia uses every day, at least according to figures published by the state Division of Energy.

Now, Sen. Manchin doesn’t mention questions about the lack of financing (subscription required) for this project.  He doesn’t mention lingering problems with the company’s state environmental permits — such as the fact that its stormwater permit for its construction not being issued yet.

And Sen. Manchin certainly didn’t mention the biggest question facing the TransGas proposal: The fact that it has no plan for capturing and storing its greenhouse gas emissions, meaning the fuel it produces could end up generating twice as much carbon dioxide as traditional fuels.

Continue reading…

TransGas has announced that it plans to hold a groundbreaking ceremony next week for its proposed coal-to-gas project in Mingo County, W.Va. But the Sierra Club is cautioning the company against actually starting construction of the facility.

In this letter to TransGas lawyer David Yaussy, the Sierra Club reminds the company that it has yet to receive its final air pollution permit from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. The letter says:

Pursuant to West Virginia and federal law, the company cannot construct a major source of air pollution without a Prevention of Significant Deterioration permit … Nor can the company move forward with construction of a minor source without a final minor source permit.

While a mere ‘groundbreaking’ does not meet the definition of  ‘construction’ under the Act … TransGas faces significant risk if it moves forward with constructing the source itself. Doing so without the proper permit could subject your client to both federal and citizen enforcement actions, even if the state permitting authority has condoned the project.

Interestingly, the Sierra Club tells me:

WVDEP is taking the position that TransGas can go ahead and construct while they are fixing their permit.

I’ve tried to ask WVDEP about that, but agency officials have not responded to my questions.

Continue reading…

UPDATED 2: The U.S. Environmental Protection just issued this news release:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced a settlement with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to resolve alleged Clean Air Act violations at 11 of its coal-fired plants in Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The settlement will require TVA to invest a TVA estimated $3 to $5 billion on new and upgraded state-of-the-art pollution controls that will prevent approximately 1,200 to 3,000 premature deaths, 2,000 heart attacks and 21,000 cases of asthma attacks each year, resulting in up to $27 billion in annual health benefits. TVA will also invest $350 million on clean energy projects that will reduce pollution, save energy and protect public health and the environment.

Copies of the settlements are posted here, here and here, and this is what EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson had to say:

This agreement will save lives and prevent billions of dollars in health costs. Modernizing these plants and encouraging clean energy innovation means better health protections and greater economic opportunities for the people living near TVA facilities. Investments in pollution control equipment will keep hundreds of thousands of tons of harmful pollutants out of the air we breathe, and help create green job opportunities that will reduce pollution and improve energy efficiency.

A list of the affected units is posted here and EPA has more information here.

UPDATED 3: Here’s a link to the TVA’s news release.

UPDATED: The Sierra Club just announced

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) board of directors approved a landmark agreement today with three citizen groups, four states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), marking one of the largest pollution reduction agreements in the nation’s history.

This agreement requires TVA to phase out 18 units at dirty, coal-fired power plants and install modern pollution controls on three dozen additional units, thanks to more than 11 years of pressure from environmental groups, Southeastern states and the EPA. The blockbuster agreement – which includes the affected states of Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee – represents the largest ever reduction in air pollution in the Southeastern United States. This agreement permanently retires an unprecedented 2,700 megawatts of dirty coal-fired electricity and will drastically reduce TVA’s emissions of dangerous sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury and carbon pollution. Clean Air Task Force estimates that coal-fired power plants in the region cause more than 1,800 premature deaths and more than 2,400 heart attacks each year in the four-state region, and are a major source of area air pollution woes.

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Could be a big announcement today out of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s annual meeting in Chattanooga. The Knoxville News previewed the story earlier this week:

If TVA’s Integrated Resource Plan gets a stamp of approval from the TVA Board of Directors on Thursday, it will mark the official beginning of a new direction for the agency.

The plan, which has been in the works for about two years, would move the Tennessee Valley Authority away from reliance on coal-produced power and toward greater use of nuclear, natural gas, renewable fuels, energy efficiency and other measures to meet power demand. TVA has already taken steps in that direction. In August it announced the idling of nine coal-fired units, representing about 1,000 megawatts of power capacity. TVA also has contracts to buy power from wind, solar and biomass sources.

Stay tuned …

Industry complains President Obama overlooks coal

President Barack Obama waves as he leaves Georgetown University in Washington, Wednesday, March 30, 2011, after speaking about his plan for America’s energy security. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Obama, in a major energy speech today, made a brief reference to coal:

And just like the fuels we use, we also have to find cleaner, renewable sources of electricity. Today, about two-fifths of our electricity comes from clean energy sources. But I know that we can do better than that. In fact, I think that with the right incentives in place, we can double it. That’s why, in my State of the Union Address, I called for a new Clean Energy Standard for America: by 2035, 80 percent of our electricity will come from an array of clean energy sources, from renewables like wind and solar to efficient natural gas to clean coal and nuclear power.

Not nearly enough praise for coal to please the National Mining Association, which issued this statement in response to the president’s speech:

The president’s goal of reducing oil imports is attainable if we use the enormous potential of our nation’s coal reserves – America’s most abundant energy resource – for creating an array of fuels that can lessen our dependence on foreign oil. The technology exists today that can transform our coal resources into clean, affordable transportation fuels, provide a wide range of industrial fuels and supplement the energy needs of our armed forces. And all while creating thousands of jobs across the country by using an abundant domestic resource.

As a U.S. senator from Illinois, the president rightly acknowledged that more energy resides in American coal than exists in the oil of the Persian Gulf. Indeed, the United States is called the Saudi Arabia of coal for a reason–our coal reserves can supply more than three times the amount of fuel contained in Saudi Arabia’s proven oil reserves. We urge the president and Congress to work with the U.S. coal industry to unlock the full potential of American coal for providing the fuels to make our nation stronger.

Duke Energy CEO talks “clean power”

Time magazine had an interesting piece last week in which they interviewed Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers about the future of energy and the environment.

Among other things in the story:

… That effort finally failed in 2010, when the climate bill died in the Senate, and with global-warming-denying Republicans in firm control of the House, there’s little to zero chance of cap and trade being revived in the near term. Certainly Rogers, long its champion, doesn’t think so. “There’s a vacuum of public policy now,” Rogers told me in an interview in New York City on Monday. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in regards to environmental regulation, period.”

Ending that uncertainty is why Rogers — unusual for a coal-heavy utility chief — was in favor of cap and trade in the first place. He sees his industry going through a fundamental transformation as it moves from the 20th century to the 21st century, both for climate reasons and because of concerns over traditional air pollution. “In the 20th century, the goal was universal access to electricity,” he says. “In the 21st century it will be about modernization, and by 2050 all our existing plants but hydro” may be closed down or changed because of environmental regulations.

Yet even if greenhouse-gas regulations are blocked — and they’re not likely to be onerous should they go through — gradual tightening by the EPA of existing rules on pollutants like sulfur and nitrous oxide will force tough choices on utilities. “There’s over 300,000 megawatts of electricity in existing coal plants, about 50% of what the U.S. produces,” says Rogers. “Up to one-third of them are over 40 years old, and depending on how the regulations play out, anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 megawatts could be shut down.”

The question, in the absence of cap and trade, is what kind of power is going to take the place of those old coal plants. And here is where Rogers is notably changing his tune, talking up research and development over regulation and limits. “Just a sliver of our national budget goes to research,” he says. “If we can’t get a consensus on carbon policy, let’s put the money into research and let’s drive down the cost of solar and wind and make them competitive. Think about how much it would change the debate if solar and wind were as cheap as coal?”


AP reports on ‘Solar in the coalfields’

Clay Herzog, of Mountain View Solar and Wind, shows an area on the roof of a doctor’s office for future solar panels Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011 in Williamson, W.Va. A group devoted to creating alternative energy jobs in Central Appalachia is building a first for West Virginia’s southern coalfields region this week: a rooftop solar array, assembled by unemployed and underemployed coal miners and contractors. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Interesting news from AP’s Vicki Smith:

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — A group devoted to creating alternative energy jobs in Central Appalachia is building a first for West Virginia’s southern coalfields region this week — a rooftop solar array, assembled by unemployed and underemployed coal miners and contractors.

The 40- by 15-foot array going up on a doctor’s office in Williamson is significant not for its size but for its location: It signals to an area long reliant on mining that there can be life beyond coal.

People were skeptical when the idea was first floated about a year ago, says Nick Getzen, spokesman for The Jobs Project, which is trying to create renewable energy job opportunities in West Virginia and Kentucky. In the southern coalfields, he says, people have only ever gotten electricity one way — from coal-fired power plants.

“This is the first sign for a lot of folks that this is real, and that it’s real technology, and they can have it in their communities,” Getzen says. “In no way are we against coal or trying to replace coal. There’s still going to be coal mining here. This is just something else to help the economy.”

The Jobs Project teamed up about a year ago with a solar energy company from the Eastern Panhandle, Mountain View Solar & Wind of Berkeley Springs, to develop a privately funded job-training program. The 12 trainees are earning $45 an hour for three days of work, while some local laborers are earning $10 an hour helping out.

Continue reading…

Natural gas vs. Coal: A new wrinkle

Well site during active drilling to the Marcelllus Shale formation in Upshur County, West Virginia, in 2008. Photo copyright West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization.

We’ve talked many times here on Coal Tattoo about the prospects for coal as it tries to compete with the rise of natural gas.  But a new report today from ProPublica’s Abrahm Lustgarten offers an interesting wrinkle:

Advocates for natural gas routinely assert that it produces 50 percent less greenhouse gases than coal and is a significant step toward a greener energy future. But those assumptions are based on emissions from the tailpipe or smokestack and don’t account for the methane and other pollution emitted when gas is extracted and piped to power plants and other customers.

The EPA’s new analysis doubles its previous estimates for the amount of methane gas that leaks from loose pipe fittings and is vented from gas wells, drastically changing the picture of the nation’s emissions that the agency painted as recently as April. Calculations for some gas-field emissions jumped by several hundred percent. Methane levels from the hydraulic fracturing of shale gas were 9,000 times higher than previously reported.

When all these emissions are counted, gas may be as little as 25 percent cleaner than coal, or perhaps even less.


Manchin keeps pushing Mingo liquid coal plant

Just as he enters the final stretch in his race for the U.S. Senate, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin yesterday resumed promoting the TransGas coal-t0-liquid plant he hopes will locate in Mingo County.

The governor’s office sent out this press release, which was certainly gushing over Gov. Manchin:

After four years of continuous effort, Gov. Joe Manchin and TransGas Development Systems President Adam Victor, along with several state and local representatives, today announced that the company has selected its Engineering Procurement Contractor (EPC) and technology provider for its coal to gasoline facility that will be built in Mingo County, West Virginia.

During today’s meeting, [TransGas president Adam] Victor reminded officials that four years ago, he was on the verge of relocating his operations overseas after facing years of challenges while trying to convince officials across the Northeast to make the tough decision to support necessary energy infrastructure development. Only after Mr. Victor met Governor Manchin did he realize that West Virginia could be a place where energy infrastructure could be built and supported by state and local officials.

But the real news for West Virginians was buried in the release:

Victor praised the governor for bringing the construction trades union together with his chosen contractor and technology provider to ensure that this project will be built by skilled West Virginia workers, on time and under budget.

Coal Tattoo readers will remember that the Affiliate Construction Trades Foundation had been concerned that TransGas might not hire local unionized workers to build the plant, a fear that led the ACT Foundation to take a closer look at the company’s air pollution permit.

That permit has been the subject of appeals hearing this week before the state Air Quality Board, in a challenge filed by the Sierra Club.  And of course, serious concerns remain about the fact that — without carbon capture and storage equipment TransGas is not proposing — liquid coal will generate twice the greenhouse gas emissions of regular gasoline.

Stay tuned …

WSJ on “Turning Away from Coal”

Following up on last week’s Coal Tattoo discussion of  the latest study on “Peak Coal,” there’s an important piece in today’s Wall Street Journal about utilities making the switch from coal to natural gas.

The article, “Turning Away from Coal: Utilities are increasingly looking to natural gas to generate electricity,”  begins:

Power companies are increasingly switching to natural gas to fuel their electricity plants, driven by low prices and forecasts of vast supplies for years to come.

While the trend started in the late 1990s, the momentum is accelerating and comes at the expense of coal. Some utilities are closing coal-fired plants; others are converting them to run on gas.

The switch is occurring globally and is getting a push from regulators who want to limit emissions that contribute to climate change, haze and health problems such as respiratory illness. Though efforts in Congress to pass legislation attaching a price to carbon emissions appear stalled for now, utilities still anticipate eventual carbon restrictions. The Tennessee Valley Authority, for example, recently announced a 20-year development plan that emphasizes nuclear and gas, and includes fewer coal units.

It continues:

In China and India, though, no such shift is occurring—yet. Both nations rely on coal—an abundant local resource—for most of their power and lack the sort of integrated gas-pipeline networks that make switching to gas possible in the U.S. China’s government has pledged to roughly double the percentage of electricity the country gets from non-fossil sources, to 15% from 8%, by 2020. But much of that new energy will come from hydropower. India, meanwhile, has agreed to cut its carbon emissions 20% from 2005 levels by 2020. But the country doesn’t have enough domestic gas to support a large-scale shift to that fuel, although government agencies are considering increasing imports of liquefied natural gas to take advantage of a growing global glut.

The falling price of natural gas in the U.S., to about $4 per one million British thermal units, has helped gas capture an ever-increasing share of power generation. Hardly a week goes by without a company announcing changes that push coal to the sidelines, usually in favor of natural gas, renewables or nuclear plants.

It’s worth a read …

Energy Secretary Steven Chu coming to W.Va.

West Virginians will get a great chance early next month to hear about the Obama administration’s coal and energy policies directly from Nobel Prize-winning Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Secretary Chu is scheduled to take part in a forum on the future of coal at the University of Charleston. The Sept. 8 event is part of a series of coal and energy discussions hosted by U.C. and I’m proud to say is co-sponsored by The Charleston Gazette.

We had a brief item on the event in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail, and more details are expected soon via the U.C. Web site.

It should be a great opportunity for folks who want to hear more about the promise — and the great problems — associated with carbon capture and storage technology, and hopefully for Secretary Chu to explain the fact that for CCS to be widely deployed, some sort of national policy to reduce greenhouse emissions is needed.