Stop burning coal


There are many ways to go green, though as I have identified, the vast bulk of the problem is in just a few areas -- personal transportation, electrical generation, building design/heating/cooling and agriculture.

While those who focus on CO2 work from the fact that both Natural Gas and Coal, which produce 70% of the USA's electricity, emit CO2, coal is a much bigger villain.

  • Coal is 50% of the US electricity supply, gas is only 20%.
  • Coal produces all sorts of nasty pollution in addition to CO2, including sulfur products for acid rain, radioactive elements and worst of all, fine particulates, which are major killers of the elderly.
  • Coal mining is highly destructive, and lives are regularly lost.
  • Coal power plants are not as efficient as gas ones. This is both due to the simplicity of gas plants, and the fact that many coal plants are older. The worst coal plants are almost twice as inefficient, and emit more than twice the greenhouse gasses, as gas plants. Some modern coal plants are a bit better, but the gap is still large.
  • Coal plants are slower to turn off and on than gas plants. They are better than nuclear plants.
  • There are lists of more at other web sites.

The problem is that coal is cheaper. Particularly once you have the coal plant. I've seen estimates all over the map but many suggest that the fuel cost of coal electricity is in the range of just 2-3 cents per kwh, and 1-2 cents more for gas fired. Hydro doesn't really have a fuel cost, and while nuclear does, it's a much harder cost to measure.

That cheaper price has given us a 50% coal electric infrastructure. With hydro, the amount of water that is going to flow through your plant is fixed by the weather. You want to use all of it (ideally at peak times) and keep your reservoirs at the same level each year. Nuclear is hard to start and stop, so you use it for base load. It's expensive to build, but you want to use the plants you have to their capacity.

So my understanding is that if demand on the grid goes down (say, because somebody puts solar panels on their roof or conserves energy) the first reaction of the power companies is to burn less natural gas, because it's a bit more expensive, and the easiest thing to cut back on. However, the power grids (there are 3 main ones in the USA and various sub-grids) are not superconductors, so due to line losses, it is cheaper to reduce output on the plants closest to the reduced demand. So the situation varies a lot.

All the power sources have their downsides. Nuclear's are well known and controversial. Hyrdo is clean but destroys river systems and habitats. Gas emits CO2 but is clean as far as fossil fuels go. (Leaks of it also emit methane.) Oil is barely used. Coal's only upside is its price, and the existing base of coal plants and mines.

So while it is good to look at reducing all energy production that has problems, right now if you want to do something green, it's a fair, if broad statement to say that the best way to do it is to stop the burning of coal.

What that means for people who don't run power companies is that reducing electrical demand in a sub-grid that is heavy with coal (such as Chicago or West Virginia) is a fair bit better than doing it in a coal-light sub-grid like California. And doing it in a place like China would be even better.

There is an irony here. Californians tend, on average, to be more eco-conscious than others. This is the birthplace of the Sierra Club after all. And because it is natural for people to focus on where they live, you see lots of effort to conserve energy or use alternative energy in California. But the same efforts would get 65% more bang for the buck if they took place in the midwest or southwest. This calculator claims to report the CO2 cost of electrical production in each zip code. It uses numbers from the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) for different sub-grids:

NERC region acronym

NERC region name

Average emissions
CO2 (lb/MWh)


Alaska Systems Coordinating Council



Electric Reliability Council of Texas



Florida Reliability Coordinating Council



Hawaiian Islands Coordinating Council



Midwest Reliability Organization



Northeast Power Coordinating Council



Reliability First Corporation



SERC Reliability Corporation



Southwest Power Pool



Western Electricity Coordinating Council



Combined National Average


This conclusion will be disturbing for some. If you're considering putting a solar panel on your roof in California, you would do 65% better at reducing pollution if you put the panel up on a roof in Arizona. (Actually a little better as Arizona has better sun.) If you are considering putting a solar panel up in Vermont, you would do almost 3 times better to put it in the southwest, since not only is their power twice as dirty, but they get a lot more sun.

What you would not get is the personal satisfaction of seeing panels on your roof and feeling that you personally are green. But there really is no such thing as solar electrons. Electricity is just electricity. There's a big grid (and not being grid tied is really non-green) and the most you can do is improve how green the grid is. It doesn't make a difference if you put the solar panels up on your house or a house across town. And it makes a positive difference if you put it up where it will have the best effect. It just doesn't feel as good.

Now, can you go put panels on another roof? Not at present. But it certainly could be made to happen. In fact, oddly, the tax breaks are better for corporations who put up panels then they are for individuals, though this may change with new laws. Leaving out rebates and credits, a business could be set up to offer people in high-sun, high-coal areas subsidized solar power on their houses. The money they would have paid their power company could go instead to pay your power company as you continue to buy energy from your cleaner grid, having reduced demand in their dirtier grid. This works best when the power prices are similar -- with PG&E's "tiered" pricing in California this may not pan out.

It would also be possible to set up green power companies that put up green power plants in coal-heavy areas. They sell their power there, and the income would flow to investors on greener grids to pay for their grid power.

However, in a future blog post you're going to learn something even more surprising, if you've been a booster of solar. It's that it is a poor idea to put up solar panels at all, even in the coal-heavy, sunny southwest. In fact, it's one of the worst ways you could use your money to green the planet. Stay tuned.


It seems like everything I read these days is about how to be "green" - whether it's my EE publications or blogs or media or entertainment.

I'm sick of it! I'm especially tired of the emphasis on CO2 as a "pollutant."

With the rapid changes in technology, and a problem that, if it is even significant, will take many decades to be an issue, why do we now, suddenly, have to solve it? To me, it stinks of a religious hysteria abetting an intrusive governmental agenda.

Other than that, like your blog. Always have liked your writings.

I think that whatever you think about CO2 being a pollutant you would still agree with the thesis above about coal. Coal's output is definitely highly polluting, it kills huge numbers of people, and the rest of the process is no good either. A person who has a focus on greenhouse gases would be wary of trading coal for gas, but still thing gas was twice as good. A person who doesn't care about CO2 would think gas, or anything else, was vastly better than coal.

The basic rule of toxicology is "the poison is the dose." Hence salt is toxic if you ingest too much of it.

Today, many toxins seem to be greatly over-rated - I know this is true for ionizing radiation. The linear dose relationship with no threshold is used across many orders of magnitude - incorrectly. I wouldn't be surprised if this was true of many of the other toxins - we live in the age of hysteria.

Perhaps a better use of coal is coal gassification. We have adequate fuel for centuries of nuclear power for fixed usage, but that doesn't solve mobile use. Battery technology may not ever be as good as internal combustion (although personally I'd love an electric car). Coal gassification can be done in a carbon neutral way (for those that believe that AGW is a major problem, which I don't but won't debate here per your wishes).

Is a major producer of acid rain, and also of particulates. Particulates are major killers. They cause inflammation in the lungs and knock people on the edge (such as the elderly, patients in hospitals etc.) over the edge, into death. It also releases tons more metals and radioactive materials than just about anything else (including nuclear power, definitely) and its mining is highly destructive.

Its only advantages are that it is domestic, and cheap, in the USA and a number of other places. Coal gas and other products have merit but then it's no longer cheap.

Western coal, of which we have in vast abundance, is low sulfur and hence much less of an acid rain threat. Because of Robert Byrd and his ilk, plants burning low sulfur coal still have to have scrubbers (to keep dirty eastern coal competitive).

Coal produced acid rain from US plants has been much over-hyped, causing very little actual environmental damage.

Particulates are another issue - which is why diesel vehicles may be a significant danger. However, I would expect it to be relatively easy to remove particulates from coal exhaust using electrostatic separators.

Again, tons more metals has to be taken quantitatively. Is it enough, when dispersed, to be a problem, or is it just a big sounding number. Likewise, the radioactive release (mostly radon, I think) has to be considered at actual concentrations - unless you believe the linear does no threshold theory of radioactive danger.

Are we talking about how bad coal can be, or how bad a new, modern coal power plant would really be?

How about goal gassification? Use the nukes for stationary power and gassified coal to provide mobile power (if it is more cost effective than natural gas).

Oh, and it's only advantage is a huge advantage.

100 tons of mercury per year in the US sounds like a lot.

Let's assume it all stays in the air, and is distributed only over the lowest kilometer of the atmosphere.

The total annual release would then give 10*10^-6 milligrams/cu meter concentration, or .0004 times a conservative air upper limit.

Looked at numerically, that doesn't sound so bad. Of course, it won't be evenly distributed. So let's multiply it by a factor of 100.

Now it is .04 a conservative concentration.

I don't see a big problem here.

Also, I'm old enough to remember when a broken thermometer was an occasion to play with liquid mercury, and folks kept bottles of it around for that purpose. Now, a broken thermometer (if you can find an old mercury one) will cause a school to be evacuated and a horde of HazMat dressed folks to arrive. I had occasion to clean up a mercury spill a few years ago using modern standards and techniques. Those fun little balls of mercury suddenly looked like kryptonite, and I had to wear my mask and keep checking my hand held mercury vapor meters. Scary... real scary.

The ability to detect nanoscopic concentrations of things, and to do wide scale retrospective (and hence very poor) epidemiological studies has led to a Toxiphobic society.

Though they are not as clean as natural gas plants, or other newer technologies like solar-thermal and geothermal. The problem is we have a lot of dirty coal plants online. If we're going to build new plants or do major retrofits of coal plants, the question is not "cleaner coal vs. dirty coal" it's "cleaner coal vs. other new plant alternatives." My understanding is that seriously scrubbing coal plants are no longer much cheaper than other alternatives. And while coal is domestic, right now almost all electricity is domestic (or from Canada.) And the cleaner coal plants still require the mining. And the shipping of western coal to the east, though I have not calculated the numbers on that.

However, my challenge remains the same. If you take a megawatt-hour of demand off the grid, either by adding renewable power to it, or reducing waste, which type of existing plant would we want to see scaled back by that mwh? Not nuclear -- if it's there already it might as well generate, no matter what you think of it. Hydro? The water's going to flow no matter what you do, though there are arguments to increase spill at certain times for fish. So is it gas, or coal you would shut down? None of the arguments about improving coal I see here make the case it is gas, not coal, you would scale back.

Right now, though, I suspect it is gas they scale back, because it's easier to turn down, and the fuel is more expensive. (Though coal went up in price quite a bit in recent times, and is settling back again.)

How much would it raise our power rates if the law mandated that power companies reduce coal sourcing first? (Or if the externalities of coal were taxed which would have the same effect.)

CO2 is not a pollutant in the sense that it is poisonous, but it is in
the sense that it has bad effects (causes global warming). However, it
is ALREADY AN ISSUE. The arctic ice is melting NOW. Due to the momentum
of the climate system (long response times), if we wait until we are literally
up to our necks in water, then we can't stop it in time. We have to start
attacking the problem now.

Yes, you can find sources on the internet who claim it's a hoax, just like
you can find sources which say the Holocaust didn't happen, aliens abduct
people regularly, the messias is alive and well and has come again and is
living in California, whatever. And yes, many millions of people believe
that the Earth was created 6000 years ago. The point is that no serious
scientist debates the fact that CO2 causes global warming and that this
will cause significant problems for us if the trend is not reversed. The
only bone of contention is whether this helps humanity more than, say,
malaria medication or vaccinations or clean water for the third world.

Another important point: it's not a problem for the planet, it's a problem
for us. The Earth used to be much warmer (back in the dinosaur times, the
carbon now in fossil fuels was in the atmosphere) and the Earth and even
life will survive. Even humanity might survive global warming, but at
enormous costs, while we can get by with small costs now if we act soon.

Government agenda? I would say the government agenda of the 8 years of
George W. Bush was to deny that there is even a problem. (Of course,
Bush also believes the Earth is 6000 years old and that evolution is
"just a theory".)

I like Brad's blog as well. I'm a regular reader, sometimes commentator
and appreciate the man's intellect. I am still grappling with the fact
that he finds mandatory ID cards almost as big a problem as global warming.

But I deliberately want to avoid a debate on CO2 in this particular thread. I think even if you are a complete opponent of the human-caused global warming view, you can still look at the numbers and decide coal is a very bad idea.

There is a good point to the going green has become nothing more than a marketing scheme argument. Shows like Top Gear have even proven that a BMW M1 (absolutely not green) has better fuel economy over time than a Hybrid Prius. There are studies that have shown that the supposed green light bulbs are better for one pollutant, but add so much mercury to the environment that the trade off probably isn't worth it. My favorite though is the electric car. Everyone wants the electric car, yet any expert will tell you that just to make the electric car, with our technology today, is worse for the environment than giving people diesel big rigs to drive.

Like everything else in this stupid world, once it touches capitalism it turns to shit.

According to figures I have read, burning coal releases the majority of the 100 tonnes of mercury the U.S. puts into the atmosphere. If every CFL sold last year were broken open, tht would release 0.16 tonnes. So that one's a read herring.

What about the study done by WWF that shows, just like a Hybrid car, or an electric car, the resources to fabricate the damn things in the first place leave a bigger carbon footprint than just doing what we are doing and work toward perfecting the fabrication technology of the green products, rather than firing them off for profit before it is ready.

I am totally dedicated to fixing the mess we have gotten ourselves into. I just want to truly fix it and the bull---- we are being served, pardon my french, is absolutely unacceptable. We are putting profit over the value of life on this planet. It is disgusting.

Everything on the WWF website that I see is pro-CFL. They do push that they be properly recycled to reprocess the mercury but recommend them strongly.

They must be referring to this, but they missed the point.

However, the example of the hybrid and electric cars is true. We don't have the technology to actually fabricate the fuel cells used without being worse for the environment in the long run than the vehicles we have. However, the US automakers have done almost nothing in R and D compared with other markets and that has to hurt the green car industry as a whole.

I get its point, but the truth is that global shipping is rather low in energy cost. I think ocean ships are about 300 BTUs/ton-mile, slightly better than rail. So a 10,000 mile journey for a 4oz light bulb is about 375 BTUs, or 36 watt-hours at the coal plant.

Thus the 23 watt CTL, saving 77 watts per hour, has saved the energy of its transportation after it has been turned on for half an hour. The numbers are back of envelope, but it's close to this.

They are barking up the wrong tree with this one. All hail globalization in the name of increased energy efficiency should be their cry.

Actually the spot may be stupid, but the science is not. WWF Canada has received a ton of recognition because of the findings from this study. Al Gore even mentioned it as one of the most important studies he had read in recent years while speaking at the University of Toronto.

And my main message here is that people don't do the math a lot of the time when they make environmental decisions. People need to learn where the real bang for buck is when it comes to trying to be efficient and non-polluting. And CFLs are actually one of the best bangs per buck out there.

Of course, if we could figure how to make an enforceable pollution credit trading market tied to the real issues, the market would quickly figure out where the bang per buck is. But this is not trivial to do, and probably impossible to do perfectly. However, some of the imperfect methods are well worth doing.

There are a lot of pros and cons to these alternatives and, given the vast numbers and variety of consumers in the country, it's basically impossible to calculate the best course of action. However, this is what markets are perfect for, so the best answer to all these questions is to tax the externalities - coal pollution, CO2 etc. Is that just taken as read around here?

You will find reference to it in earlier essays. The problem is getting a good working market system that is enforced well and not gamed. Until we have such a system we can discuss intermediate steps that can be implemented today.

There are several billions reason to burn more coal, lots more coal.

If you want to go green try this exercise for a day. First turn off your commuter and stop blogging about ghg. You are not helping.

Gather your dirty cloths and iron cooking pot. Head down to the river gathering wood along the way to heat the water you get out of the river. Wash your cloths by beating them with a rock then rinse them in the hot water. Wring the water out by had and walk back home.

How do you like your sustainable lifestyle now?.

Producing power in the US has insignificant environmental impact. Not say that people NYC or California are not real good at making up problems about while ignoring the cesspool they live in, American doctors do not check for mercury when they do blood test because it is not a real problem.

If you started on list of world's problems, one of the biggest is not having enough power.

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