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Will the U.S. Ever Build Another Big Coal Plant? (scientificamerican.com)
49 points by artsandsci on Aug 21, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 47 comments



What really struck me from the article:

>"To me, the biggest impediment for a company going out today and building a coal-fired power plant is regulatory uncertainty," Begger said. "Until you can find some sort of carbon agreement, if that's legislation or regulatory, technology, whatever, until there is some way to take that off the table, you're not going to have a lot of interest from utilities."

The US government's plan of inaction on carbon regulation is clearly hurting industry here.

Many (most?) energy companies are including the cost of a carbon tax in their future projections and planning, and in their investor communications.

The energy industry is willing to impose a carbon tax in the US in exchange for immunity from lawsuits from emissions up until now:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/20/science/exxon-carbon-tax....

That's how certain everybody is about the need for legislation, that an industry would invite a tax that amounts to $0.36/gallon of gas.

The lack of political leadership, led by the desire to deny widely accepted science, is hurting business and planning.

This uncertainty probably helps in the deployment of less-risky resources like wind, solar, and storage. But I think that clear carbon taxes, at $40-$120/ton, would help both the environment and the proper structuring of our economy.

Uncertainty about regulation can be worse than the regulation itself.


The regulatory uncertainty is built in.

There's no amount of clarity on regulation that can save coal in its current form.

These projects have a 50 year outlook. Even if we impose a carbon tax right now there will be tremendous uncertainty whrther that wkll be raised significantly higher 10 years from now. And the best bet is it will be raised until coal isn't viable anymore because if the price is low enough that coal burning is not dropping we will continue to be screwed.

The only thing that can save coal is technology. Unfortunately new coal is already as if not more expensive than new renewable. New technologies wkll only make it more expensive.

The other part is that the natural gas industry suffers from the same uncertainties. Yet it's destroying coal. The uncertainty is likely a very small factor at best.


You've convinced me. Complaints about regulations and coal are a distraction and a dodge. There's no future in which newly-constructed coal generators are profitable, except for niche applications. I think that complaining about coal regulations is just a way to avoid facing reality. The large coal companies have already gone bankrupt recently; they will continue to go through restructuring for years as the sector shrinks massively.

For natural gas, and for oil (transportation), we will see similar death throes as the carbon-free alternatives become cheaper than natural gas and oil. That's probably 15 years out, but the time will come, with or without the carbon tax.


Sweden implemented a carbon tax in the early 90's at $150/T that seems to have worked pretty well. The goal was a bit different and our attitude towards taxes are different then yours but if you're interested..

https://www.carbontax.org/where-carbon-is-taxed/#Sweden


On the list of problems, CO2 is actually not the biggest damaging aspect of coal, not by far.


Maybe not in the short term but over the long term it could be globally catastrophic. We’re only starting to see the effects from global warming now.


Then what is?


Sulfur ->acid rain, radioactive elements in the smoke plume, mining deaths to name some others that can have just as big an impact. Not sure which, if any, GP was thinking of.


The death toll from coal due to worsening air quality can be measured in multiples of Chernobyls each year (using the worst-case estimates of deaths from Chernobyl) for starters.


Reducing coal usage is a goal of environmentalists. Government inaction, creating uncertainty, is achieving that goal. Why do we need to tax the industry and raise rates on consumers when coal usage is falling and renewables are on the rise without it?


Because coal isn't the only problem, carbon in general is one of coal's problems. Coal also causes tons of premature deaths from other non-CO2 emissions as well, but the long term problem is the CO2.

An economic system is more efficient and overall wealth increases if externalities are priced closer to their costs.


Because a tax is more efficient than wild, emotional guess-work.


>Why do we need to tax the industry and raise rates on consumers when coal usage is falling and renewables are on the rise without it?

The cost to the consumer is higher with uncertainty. Uncertainty means lower overall investment and therefore a higher cost of electricity. Investors face risk on both sides: if they invest in renewables, they might lose money to coal. If they invest in coal, they might lose money to renewables. That causes them to invest in other industries and opportunities.

A tax gives a quantifiable return and makes the industry as a whole a better investment. Pigovian tax is best tax


It should be everone's goal. Pollution from coal plans is simply deadly.


> The energy industry is willing to impose a carbon tax in the US in exchange for immunity from lawsuits from emissions up until now:

Of course they would agree to a carbon tax in exchange for immunity. They would be getting immunity and their customers would be paying the carbon tax. They'd be getting immunity for free.

> That's how certain everybody is about the need for legislation, that an industry would invite a tax that amounts to $0.36/gallon of gas.

But they aren't inviting it. They are demanding immunity for it.

> But I think that clear carbon taxes, at $40-$120/ton, would help both the environment and the proper structuring of our economy.

Clear to whom? How is a carbon tax going to help the environment?

Carbon tax has nothing to do with the environment. It's a global regulatory control platform for the financial elite to control energy. It's a way to unify and control the global economy and skim off a percentage from the entire world via a tax.

And it wouldn't properly structure our economy. It would distort it by creating arbitrary taxes.

If you want to help the environment, you write environmental laws and enforce them.

> Uncertainty about regulation can be worse than the regulation itself.

And terrible regulation can be worse than uncertainty.


TL;DR version: no.

The only coal plant being built is a tiny one for a university in Alaska. Three more have been in regulatory hell for so long that they're no longer profitable compared to every other energy source, especially natural gas. Coal is dying but no one told Trump.


One of the mentioned cancelled projects was a coke plant with a small electricity co-generation component. Do steel mills still need coke? If so, the decline of coal in America could be due as much to the decline of American steel processing as to emission regulations on power plants.


Only ~15% of coal production, historically and presently, is coking coal. The declines in American coal production/use over the past decade are dominated by declines in thermal coal used as fuel.


Yes, they still need coke, but much if not all of that demand can be met by oil refineries. Even if the steel industry got all its coke from coal that would be a pretty small percentage of the coal market.


A better question might be whether US steel plants have an increasing need for coke beyond current production levels. Also, do current coal-fired power plants also produce adequate coke for future increases in demand?


If coke became particularly more expensive (unlikely despite falling demand for electricity) then US steel (such as it is) would move to direct-reduced iron[1] using natural gas. Almost all steel in India is made this way.

It's also worth mentioning that steel can theoretically be produced electrolytically[2] (like aluminum). It's... essentially vaporware, but who knows. It's one of the Big Dreams: more energy efficient and pure oxygen as a byproduct.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_reduced_iron

[2]: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/cleaner-cheaper-w...


I'm sure he's aware (maybe not), but knew the voters in coalmining towns would vote for him and other conservatives are generally coal neutral.


Trump knows coal is dying.

He also knows that by being the one guy who promises to prop it up with government support, he can gain the support of groups that might otherwise vote Democrat.

The people who care about the environment and efficient running of the economy based on facts weren't going to vote for him anyway.


> no one told Trump

With his track record of not listening and blaming FBI, NSA, and CIA, I think Trump is just too lazy to listen.

Also I think he lives in an alternate reality, his tweets are riddle with lies and also anger.


What else could the coal be used for?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal#Production_of_chemicals

On a hunch from playing a bit too much Factorio, I tried to look in to coal and plastics, which seems to be a relatively recent (or at least recently commercialized) use for coal. The most reliable thing I can find is a press release.

https://www.honeywell.com/newsroom/pressreleases/2016/05/new...


Coal has plenty of uses. It can be used to make precursors for everything from plastics to carbon fiber. In fact in the 19th century it was the original source of chemicals and materials from dyes to aspirin to tarmac.

In the beginning of 20th century it started to be displaced by the cheap and abundant oil.

Coal's major role in electric power generation is relatively recent. Although coal continued to be a major source of important petrochemicals such as benzene into the 60s, the coal industry underwent a major crisis in the beginning of the 20th century and in the US in particular was saved by the country's electrification.

I expect that this pendulum will swing the other way. Coal is posed to become a major source of materials and chemicals once again.

Some helpful links:

https://web.anl.gov/PCS/acsfuel/preprint%20archive/Files/37_...

https://web.anl.gov/PCS/acsfuel/preprint%20archive/Files/39_...

http://www.ogc.co.jp/e/products/carbon-f/

https://eic.rsc.org/section/feature/feture-pain-relief-from-...


I seem to remember gas works in England would convert coal into gas too. No that this is something that would be done today given natural gas being cheaper.


It makes economic sense to produce olefins (building blocks for plastics and many other chemicals) from coal in China, because China's domestic fossil fuel resources are mostly coal. Gaseous and liquid hydrocarbons are better feedstocks to start from if they're affordable/abundant, like in North America. If fracking output stays high, it won't make sense to invest in new American facilities for power-from-coal or chemicals-from-coal.


The initial scenarios IIRC for the known reserves of the USA, Saudi Arabia and Russia were to run out in about 50 years, at that point if we haven't found a better power source our grandkids could use coal to make petroleum like Germany in WW2.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_to_oil

On the otherhand fracking probably changed that timeline for Canada and the USA with the tradeoff of freshwater for oil so we'll have to wait and see how that turns out and moves the end date for our estimated petroleum reserves.


Oil reserve estimates are always wrong because they don't dynamically account for even slightly higher prices spurring innovation and exploration. The world has more oil reserves today than at any time in history. Oil won't be displaced by "running out" but by even faster innovation in renewables. (And by carbon taxes.)


Coal is used to make synthetic graphite and that's about it- coal is basically used to make more coal. And that's only extremely high quality coal that isn't far off from natural graphite already. Even carbon fiber is made from propene and ammonia instead of coal.

Hell, (char)coal can be made from regular organic material, with the bonus that the process of driving off non-carbon atoms produces flammable energy-containing gases.


Coal as a dense carbon source may be useful for plastics or other high-carbon production, but producers may also be looking at whether they can get incentives by sourcing carbon in ways that may qualify as sequestration.


Steelmaking. That is one of the largest commercial uses after electricity.


There's a chance (like there is with every technology that isn't actively developed for a long time) that just when you think coal's dying someone's gonna come along and figure out how to apply an innovation from some other field that makes it so much cheaper/cleaner/whatever that it sticks around for a long time.


There's a chance of that, but up until now all such attempts have been stupendous failures. The Kemper plant in the article was a $7.5B failure.

Much more likely is an innovation in the battery sector. Utilities are finally waking up to the huge value proposition of batteries on the grid. They can be used instead of upgrading transmission and distribution infrastructure. They can be somewhat easily relocated to new sites if projections of electricity demand were wrong.

There are a ton of flow technologies that are on the cusp of being really useful. Lithium ion tailored for the grid is already the cost winner for several applications.

I do hope that we come up with some carbon sequestration innovations, but I doubt that they'll be tied to coal in any way. Possible, but extremely unlikely. If there was any horse to back in the race, there's more than enough money for horse to get out of the gate. There are a lot of people with assets that are close to getting stranded.


>Much more likely is an innovation in the battery sector. Utilities are finally waking up to the huge value proposition of batteries on the grid. They can be used instead of upgrading transmission and distribution infrastructure.

Back of the envelope math: the electric grid would cost ~5 trillion to replace[1]. At $200/kWh that's 25,000,000,000 kWh. The US uses 11,152,000,000 kWh per day- that's 2.24 days of storage. Doubling the effective power of the grid using a day's worth of storage is trivial AND cost effective (at $200/kWh). Add in renewables and that storage gets several times more valuable, too.

[1]: http://www.businessinsider.com/replacing-us-electrical-grid-...


The flip side of storage directly connected to the grid is demand response: consuming electricity at times lower than peak. This serves nearly an identical function to storage that's permanently fixed to the grid, as long as it's truly dispatchable.

The numbers you posted there are remarkably similar in the amount of storage in passenger cars as we shift to an EV fleet. 260 million vehicles in the US with 50 kWh batteries on average is 13,150,000,000 kWh.

With smart charging at the cheap times, passenger vehicles can serve as fantastic time-shifters as demand increases on the grid. Just some of those pesky logistics and coordination tasks to solve...


The average residential consumer uses 29.6 kWh per day so 2.24 days of storage is 66.3 kWh- pretty close to 50 kWh! Also worth noting that the average daily power consumption for electric cars would only be ~8.5 kWh per person.

>With smart charging at the cheap times, passenger vehicles can serve as fantastic time-shifters as demand increases on the grid. Just some of those pesky logistics and coordination tasks to solve...

Yeah... and being actively fought against, annoyingly. Variable rates aren't even available to most people.


There's plenty of time for that to change -- there aren't that many electric cars yet.


You're talking about variable rates? Hawaii is a good example of what the future might look like, unfortunately. The power companies there are fighting very hard against variable rates because it would make solar way, way more feasible. It's kind of an extreme example because solar power could virtually eliminate Hawaiian power companies at a very substantial cost savings and a very short timescale, but the same principal elements are present everywhere in the mainland US too.

Australia has a lot of variable rates though, so that's nice for them.


Yes, I was talking about variable rates. Australia is a slam-dunk for solar because of the great weather/insolation plus the high cost of electricity.

Hawaii's economics are midway between Australia and the mainland US, they won't be able to resist for very long. At the least, the utility companies there can't resist buying solar for themselves! http://fortune.com/tesla-solarcity-battery-solar-farm/


In 2008 DARPA kickstarted a major research effort into cleaner, cheaper ways to make transportation fuels from coal[1]. There was at least one transformational technology opening up large chemical and materials markets that came out of that effort.[2]

[1] https://www.wired.com/2008/09/darpas-coal-to/

[2] https://www.usea.org/event/coals-bright-future-unlocking-new...


The article talks about the gasification projects and the high costs.

So how would any new tech not end up like the coal gasification attempts?

Seems we bette off putting money into research at university levels for across the board energy projects then transfer to commercial sector after.


I don't really know about our natural gas reserves - is cheap natural gas looking like a thing for the next several decades?


The world has more than enough coal and natural gas for centuries, even petroleum won’t be running out any time soon. This is actually an unfortunate fact.


No.


Could you please not post unsubstantive comments to HN?




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