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First U.S. Coal Plant in Years Opens Where No Options Exist (bloomberg.com)
43 points by pseudolus 7 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 66 comments

What a strange article.

From my understanding it's an article about a family owned business supplying coal for a newly launched coal power plant in a remote Alaskan college town.

There were 4 quotes from the article: 1- From a representative of the college (good) 2- From an analyst who did not participate in this situation making a report that is totally unrelated to this news piece 3- From an analyst commenting on the news piece 4- From the company's website

There were no interviews with the residents. Nothing about the business supplying the coal. No comments from students. No mention of town halls or different sides.

Am I just becoming an old crabby guy or was this... lacking something?

The focus of the article was on the question of why this particular facility makes economic sense when coal generation as a whole is declining in the US.

Oh I get that.

But it was lacking any depth.

It seemed one sided. But I can't even call it that. It didn't even give a side. It was more like... hearsay with a single interview, probably on the phone, with 1 person on the ground. Even then, they could have published the interview for some depth. But not even that. Hell, probably browsing local facebook groups/reddits or calling their local municipality/college associations you could find more information with a few hours of free time. It's... surreal in terms of how shallow it was.

I mean, don't get me wrong, I'd fully expect a tabloid to publish trash rag stuff, but... I'm seeing it more now in major publications, and even oddly shared on sites like this.

I'm just... I just find it odd.

Feels more like a small-town newspaper writeup.

Could be that an overloaded author, sitting at a Bloomberg desk, was assigned the story ... with no experience in energy, and given nothing to to work with but a couple of local Alaskan newpaper clips. Maybe muttering to himself while he typed.

Those things all cost money and time.

No, those things all used to be considered basic journalism.

"The project, financed with university and state-municipal bonds, replaces a coal plant that went into service in 1964." Does it really count as a new one if it's just replacing an old one?

I think it does when nearly everywhere else coal plants are being replaced by other kinds of power generation.

Not exactly. Newer powerplants are more efficient and have got better at handling emissions. So even if it is replacement it could be a strict improvement on the existing option.

I think the defining features are:

a) does the new build bring any new capacity to the grid

b) what is the CO2 emissions per kWh

c) how does that compare to the old plant

I don’t have time to read the article right now, perhaps it explains?

It's really short, basically some administrator at the university said the math didn't work out for other energy sources, whatever that means

$245 Million for a _17_ megawatt plant seems insane - the Georgia and Kansas plants both are in the neighborhood of $2.5 billion a pop, and are ~50 times as powerful. I get that economies of scale are huge in power and that Fairbanks isn't exactly Georgia, but wow.

Everything is expensive in Alaska as you have to ferry things from mainland USA. More importantly people who will be less willing to work in cold harsh and depressing climate of the winter. Most workers will have 1 month work 1 month paid off. It is not very unusual. (Ditto for Hawaii)

I am under the impression that cost of materials and construction in Alaska will be significantly higher than in Georgia or Kansas. It costs more money both for skilled labor and to get the materials out to a relatively remote location.

If this were Stack Overflow, your comment should be the winner.

Yes a typical nuclear power plant would average 1 GW, so to me, the smallness of the coal plant and its exorbitant price should be the core facts of the article.

Maybe due to the remoteness of the location, they couldn't build an offshore wind farm and send the electricity over the grid (although I'm skeptical that they put enough energy into exploring this option).

Someday we'll probably be drying algae, hemp, switchgrass or peat as feedstock for these legacy fossil fuel plants.

That was my first thought too. At $1/W, 17MW of solar power would be $17mm + supporting infrastructure and that would be very expensive for solar at that scale. I don't know what coal plants typically cost but this seems an order of magnitude too high.

Alaska gets quite a bit less sun than the rest of the US and would need maybe 2x over-provision. And no idea what people will do for electricity the other 20 hours a day where solar panels are either useless or nearly useless. Also, cloudy days.

I wasn't trying to say solar was a good solution in this situation. I was giving a cost comparison to highlight how high this seems to be.

True, although to be fair I imagine it harder to build a power station in Alaska. And solar isn't going to be a great solution either!

Fairbanks is a population of just ~30K, regularly has -50F temperatures during the winter, so it might not be directly comparable to a similar effort in KS or GA.

Everything is expensive in AK.

You can buy a "new surplus" 35 mW diesel generator plant right here:


I didn't RFQ, but I'm guessing below $1M...

They need this and a storage tank.

Here's another: $125K per 1.7 mW..


The story should be about gross tuitions at pubic universities..

The trend is that coal use is declining in the United States. Trends have outliers. This news is not sensational.

Uhhh it's still not running yet[0]. Headline says "Opens", but article says "open in April". It was slated to open last fall.

More details on the "cleanliness" of this new plant[1]:

3% less CO2 than the old plant

"very low" PM2.5 emissions



I had an interesting meeting with some politically connected tribal elders from Alaska. Right now they use a lot of diesel generators, so bringing a coal plant online is probably a better option than that.

There is a few areas in super remote locations within Alaska where the ground is literally on fire. Building geothermal plants would be a clean way of capturing and producing power for the entire state. The problem is that the areas are so remote that running transmission lines would cost ~$1M/mile and go across some pretty inhospitable land.

I had the idea of building the plant and then housing cryptocurrency mines, on site in containers, to literally generate the revenue to build the transmission lines. The problem being of course that in order to that, it would require quite a bit of capex based on a pretty volatile market. Not really an ideal investment.

Anyway, just thought it would be a fun story to share here. Cheers.

>The university’s new plant is a combined heat and power generator...

At least it's efficient.

Under "bio-mass" did they consider burning local wood? At least it would be carbon neutral...

I bet they did, but when I lived up there the EPA was threatening to crack down on the area because so many people burn wood to keep warm. Everybody wants cleaner air, but when it's -50 outside and all you have is wood, and a government office over 4,000 miles away in a completely different environment is looking at charts and handing down sanctions while you're freezing your ass off trying to keep warm to survive, it becomes a sore spot. I'm sure wood was not really an option given federal regulations.

How is that carbon neutral? Aren't you taking carbon that was otherwise sequestered and burning it?

New trees happen quickly, and remove carbon in the process. New coal not so much.

"Carbon neutrality" isn't about preserving known reserves of fossil fuels. It's about net-zero emissions by balancing new carbon emissions with carbon reductions or sequestrations.

Regardless, burning a tree is only carbon neutral if you actually plant more trees, and probably a LOT more trees, since the tree you burnt was presumably more mature and it still takes a long time for trees to grow. Moreso, you can achieve carbon neutrality with fossil fuels through the exact same mechanism - burn coal, then plant trees.

And lots of tree farms do plant new trees, making it neutral. Coal is more carbon-dense, so you need to plant more new trees than already exist and there probably isn't room for them unless you clear a forest first, and then what are you going to do with that wood?

Obviously other sources of energy are better than burning wood, but efficiently burning wood is better than burning coal or oil.

they said "nothing penciled out" but I would be curious to see an actual explanation of the costs of various energy sources... I can't imagine natural gas would have been that much more expensive, and in terms of indirect financial costs would likely have been a better choice (creating much less localized pollution)

My understanding is that natural gas has to be trucked in from the south, as the North Slope doesn't export it overland. I could easily imagine the local coal mine being cheaper, especially accounting for winter supply mitigations.


Did you read the article? It's entirely dedicated to explaining how they reluctantly arrived at this conclusion.

From the article it’s not clear that they considered geothermal [0] (though perhaps they did and it was discounted; the article doesn’t say either way). I’d also suggest that this could have been the posterboy for modern nuclear.

[0] https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/green-tech/a2540/42...

It's a combined heat and power plant, meaning that they use the waste heat from the electrical generation cycle to provide localized heating. The Chena site mentioned in your linked article is 56 miles from Fairbanks itself, so they'd only be able to get electricity (via wire) from geothermal; there's no way to transport waste heat over that distance. It certainly could be more environmentally beneficial to use electrical heating with geothermal electricity instead of a coal CHP plant. When they say in the article that the numbers didn't pencil out for alternatives, I presume they mean financial numbers.

This sort of application is where one of the smallest Small Modular Reactor designs would theoretically be great, but nobody is offering a commercial SMR yet. All SMR designs are still in the R&D phase. The smallest commercially available power reactor designs start at hundreds of megawatts, which is far larger than the 17 MW the campus needed.

They could upscale a research design.

They could also buy the aft section of an old Russian sub, couple the propeller to a generator and plumb the cooling system to the campus HVAC.

They both sound simple on paper but in reality they'd probably cost more than the natural gas pipeline Fairbanks wishes it had.

When public institutions engage in infrastructure projects they need to do a massive amount of work to ensure their ass is completely and totally covered from every angle. Trying to do something off the beaten path, like go nuclear, is a recipe for lengthy court battles and cost overruns. Blazing that trail is best left to the wealthy universities. Modern micro scale nuclear reactors and power stations built out of surplus hardware would be cool but there's a massive cost disadvantage for the first mover.

If you upscale a research design to make a small power reactor, you're designing another SMR.

Do you really think it is that simple?

TRIGA thermal power goes up to the area they are thinking about.

Was closing the university explored? (the article doesn’t mention it) Would we have as much compassion for a school opening on a pacific island where everything needed to be transported in...when you could instead move people to civilization instead?

Total enrollment is 10k students. We’re firing up a replacement coal plant, which is not paying for its CO2, mercury, and uranium emission externalities, for 10k students.

I think environmentalists picking a fight over this, particularly because of the unique circumstances, isn't really worth the trouble, regardless of how well- or ill-advised it was.

Something to ponder, though: how much CO2 would be emitted if you shut down the university, and had to build the infrastructure to house and educate those 10k students elsewhere? Building a campus of that size would likely cost >$1 billion and would itself involve lots of emissions from concrete and power generation. And even once constructed, base power generation would still likely use fossil fuels. Natural gas is a far sight better than coal, but it still emits CO2 when burned.

My gut, given these considerations, is that it's much more environmentally friendly to use existing infrastructure and replace this coal-fueled plant with a more efficient coal-fueled plant, which is exactly what the university is doing.

> "Would we have as much compassion for a school opening on a pacific island where everything needed to be transported in...when you could instead move people to civilization instead?"

Weird example, I would expect more compassion from most people for that scenario. Criticizing coal plants is common but criticizing people for living on Hawaii seems.. unusual.

Hawaii is years ahead of its targets to move to renewables, which is why I didn’t use them as an example.

I meant somewhere like the Marshall Islands, where there’s nothing.

Your example was shipping to Pacific Islands... Have you seen the price of typical consumer goods in Hawaii? Damn near everything is shipped in and that's neither cheap nor environmentally friendly. Particularly due to economic consequences of the Jones Act.

Anyway, criticism for living somewhere like the Marshall Islands, while perhaps rationally warranted, is very rare to actually see compared to criticism for coal plants. So this is still a bizarre example.


Edit: I take no issue with the people of Hawaii, and that was not the example I intended.

It was not my intention to address, much less defend, that. I'm addressing your assertion that people have less sympathy for island dwellers.

Why should they consider closing the university? It's obviously in a place where there is no better alternative for those students, or they wouldn't go there.

10,000 people is a non-trivial number. Constructing a new 10,000-student-sized university somewhere is also going to need some surrounding infrastructure to support it, which Fairbanks already has, and which (presumably) the new place doesn't have.

If you want to just ship them somewhere else, I doubt that there are openings for 10,000 students in all the universities in the western half of the US.

And if you want to just have those 10,000 students not get an education in preference to building a power plant, feel free to get lost.

There are 5300 colleges in the US. Assume a third (~1700) are alternatives for these students, that’s 6 students per college. Assume only 500 are desirable, and it’s still only 20 students per school.

At no point did I say these students shouldn’t receive an education. I’m arguing about the wasteful use of resources to be educated in a specific (edit: clean, renewable) energy resource poor location.

It's not an energy resource poor location. There's coal within 100 miles. It's just poor in energy resources that aren't out of favor.

I'd love to hear more details about why they didn't work out than the article goes into. I'm guessing it's because of the combined heat and electric?

Thanks! It looks like the driving factors are that it's a combined plant, and gas is too expensive on site.

We did examine both the operating and fuel costs of a gas option. It costs less to build a gas plant; however, gas is a more expensive fuel than coal. All our models are just that -- models -- because there is currently not a reliable source of gas. Using today's prices, our fuel costs with the new boiler would be about $5.3 million each year. Fuel costs at current gas prices would be about $20 million a year. Until a low-cost, reliable supply of gas becomes a reality in Fairbanks, a gas option is not viable.

It's a reasonable rationale decision... for some very specific circumstances.

I'd vote myself for something nuclear if the other options are unavailable but the investment required to make it work is outrageous, especially if it'll be servicing such a small population.

A 17MW nuclear plant sounds unrealistic with currently approved technology.

From the article:

Before opting for coal, the school looked into using liquid natural gas, wind and solar, bio-mass and a host of other options. None of them penciled out, said Mike Ruckhaus, a senior project manager at the university.

Especially ironic that it was paid for with money from oil and gas profits.

What was that money expected to be spent on?

This is a perfectly valid thing to spend the money on, I just find it ironic that of all things it's oil and gas money.

Ironic means that it was contrary to expectations.

Not sure if it's a coincidence but I read a report on BBC how most insects will die/vanish in 100 years except for cockroaches and other insects that thrive on human waste; butterflies, bees and other insects being too fragile for human pollution. Sobering

Insects and other arthropods thrived in prior warm high-carbon eras, what you read was a sensationalist pop sci report about pesticides specifically.

Your reply is simplistic

(1) This is not pop sci : https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S00063... - it's a research article resulting from a collaboration between 2 universities

(2) The paper mentions pesticides but also mentions climate change (global warming due to high-carbon), also mention intensive agriculture.

(3) usage of pesticide is highly linked with C02 pollution and climate change. You cannot consider one without not considering the other.

(4) How do insects thrived in warm high-carbon eras? I'd be happy to read papers on this

that seems mostly due to pesticide use which is unrelated

[citation needed]

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