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Big Coal Plants Begin to Close (scientificamerican.com)
289 points by artsandsci 36 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 164 comments

From the UK... "A decade ago, coal plants generated almost a third of the UK’s electricity, but in the first half of this year they have provided only 3%."



Meanwhile in Poland it's been 78.2% in 2018, "down" from 78.4% in 2017. And the Polish government has made it clear that coal will remain the basis of energy production here.

I'm frustrated as I'm writing this on a train from Berlin to Warsaw. One of the reasons why I chose to travel by train rather than fly was the carbon footprint journey, and I'm cutting it down much less than I should be.

Different places change at different rates. One thing that will happen, however, is that as some of the big coal customers switch, the economies of scale for coal production change, and it becomes even more expensive. So, coal will eventually become too pricey even for places like Poland, even though "Poland" does not bring to mind "summer skies where solar would be competitive" (I may be biased as I've only ever visited Poland around Christmastime).

I think this economic argument is what is going to kill Australia's economy in about 6 - 10 years time.

We are so dead set on maintaining our resource sector, in particular coal, that there seems to be no acknowledge that a crash is coming.

Yes, the price is high right now, which is great as a producer. But at some point there will be an inflection: the high price of coal, vs decreasing renewables and improvements to grids will mean coal plants become less and less untenable.

The price will crash, we'll be left with a massive oversupply of both the resource and the infrastructure. The communities that pushed for coal mines because they provide employment are going to be left with nothing.

In the end, mines like the Adani's Carmichael mine will fail with only a small amount of the resources extracted.

This is a great result for the climate, more coal left in the ground, it's just an ass about way of doing it that's going to wreak havoc with our economy.

This crash hit hard small Estonia right now, the market is open and every technology has become cheaper. The only argument right now keeping it alive is security aspect and not having either good climate nor gas around there. Or money to build my nuclear

From the outside this seems obvious and perplexing why it is being done anyway.

Poland's only local energy source is coal, which is why they're so set on using it. Natural gas comes mainly from Russia, and they don't have the capital for nuclear. Solar isn't a good option in Poland due to the long winter nights, and it's not a particularly windy country for wind generation.

They definitely have enough capital for nuclear. Their neighbours, Slovakia and Czechia, both have quite significant nuclear installations. Czechia generates 34% [1] of electricity from nuclear and Slovakia 52% [2]. Slovakia is finishing expansion of one of their nuclear power plants (Mochovce), which will add 2 more reactors - each with ability to deliver 13% of total country consumption [3].

Both Slovakia and Czechia are bit more "richer" than Poland (if you look at GDP (PPP) per capita), however Poland is much bigger economy - 5x size of Slovakia.

My guess is that because so far they had so much coal (largest reserves in Europe [4]), it was no brainer for them. However they are now in the process of commissioning nuclear power plant and plan to generate power from nuclear by 2033 [4]

[1] https://cs.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energetika_v_Česku#Výroba_elek... (second row - Jadro - is nuclear)

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_energy_in_Slovakia

[3] https://www.seas.sk/mochovce-3-4-npp

[4] https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-pr...

Nuclear may have some of the same issues as coal, in that if its use declines worldwide it becomes more expensive for you to keep using it. Not to mention the historical baggage associated with it.

They have wind and sun just like Germany.

>they don't have the capital for nuclear

I find that kind of hard to believe.

I grew up in rural Poland, and still visit frequently. Trust me, it's really poor. It does a great job of presenting itself as richer than it is, but leave one of the metro areas like Warsaw, Kraków, Gdańsk, whatever, and you see people living in what would be considered abject poverty in the US. It can barely keep its existing infrastructure working well.

You find it hard to believe that one of Europe's poorer countries has trouble finding the €20bn over 10 years it will cost? The UK is having trouble affording that for Hinckley C.

Poland isn't "one of Europe's poorer countries" and many countries that operate nuclear power plants are poorer than Poland (such as: Argentina, Armenia, Bangladesh, Belarus, Brazil, Bulgaria, India, Iran, Mexico, Pakistan, Romania, South Africa, Turkey, Ukraine)

I wouldn't throw Brazil in there, Brazil has barely 2 functioning reactors (Angra I and Angra II) with the third one being stalled since 1984, restarted in 2007 and so far has no hope of being finished in time (announced for 2020 but now waiting investments to continue development).

We don't have trouble affording it in the UK, we have trouble with the morons in charge wanting to do it arse about face.

The smart way would be to commission half a dozen state of the art designs (the 2nd is cheaper easier than the first and so on) over a decade, the French did 15 reactors in about a decade and economies of scale and expertise make each successor simpler.

We desperately need more baseload supply to supplement on the ongoing renewables switch, the grid is is operating on the slimmest safety factor I can recall.

Long winter nights are usually offset by long summer days.

...and your peak demand for energy is heating in the winter. Not convenient if you have to somehow store all that energy from summer for use in winter.

Though I guess Poland is still heated by NG, even if it’s coming from Russia. Heating with electricity is pretty inefficient.

Heating with electricity is plenty efficient if using heat pumps. In fact, a very high efficiency natural gas advanced combined cycle plant providing electricity to heat pump heaters with a COP of 2.5 or better (often 3 or more) is actually more energy efficient than burning the natural gas for heat directly, as crazy as that seems.

But yeah, finding clean sources of electricity in winter is a challenge for a place like Poland. Poor hydroelectric resource. Only modest geothermal potential. Modest solar (not good for winter load). But wind potential isn't too bad in the north of the country and in the Baltic Sea. Nuclear power should be considered, however, as it is in Finland.

I’ve never heard of heat pumps being used in say an apartment building that tend to dominate these sorts of locales, but perhaps that’s just because the technology is new and the buildings are old?

Nuclear has super high capital costs that usually must be subsidized by the state (and insurance definitely needs to be subsidized). Not to mention corruption has to be low enough that a disaster doesn’t occur. I can see less developed countries not being able to take this route.

While this is correct, it doesn't factor in that most of Poland/eastern Europe's coal electricity generation is sourced from often nearby lignite mines separate from the global commodity system (lignite = brown coal, the dirtiest least, efficient coal type). So the real economic force that will likely have an effect here is the decreasing costs of solar and wind, rather than global commodity price changes as certain markets migrate.

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

You're assuming Polish government approaches this as an economic problem.

Wind would be more likely I'd think?

And don't forget that there's still a huge number of private homes which use coal fired boilers. Even if all coal power plants closed tomorrow, Polish towns would still be consuming huge amounts of coal just to stay warm in winter(and there's practically no regulations about emissions from those, it just goes straight up your chimney).

There is a lot of funding available for replacing those - one of the largest chunks of cash provided by eu do far.

Sure, but there's still a lot of people who don't want to, simply because coal is cheaper than both eco-pellets and gas. My grandparents only changed theirs from coal to gas last year, and only because grandpa was getting too old to go and add coal to the boiler every few hours - but they've been complaining about the fortune that the gas is costing them ever since.

A carbon tax would fix that.

And one won't be implemented for the same reason why coal boilers haven't been banned yet - "think of the poor people - if they cannot afford their coal for winter how will they stay warm?".

Any serious carbon tax scheme proposed is income neutral; a tax-and-dividend system.

Can you explain how it would work in this case please?

You tax carbon at say, $40 a ton. You then distribute any revenue from the tax as a dividend to every adult in the country.

It results in a net increase in purchasing power for your most vulnerable citizens.

Here in Australia, our current Prime Minister proudly brought in a lump of coal into the Parliament to show how not scary it is.


And this week blew off the representatives of the Pacific islands that will first to go due to sea level rise, yesterday your deputy PM said that that wasn't a problem because "they come here to pick our fruit" (forgetting that as Oz goes crispy around the edges there wont be any fruit).

Frankly you Aussies are a bit embarrassing at the moment, time to get your act together

It's also quite stupid considering how vulnerable climate change his country is. Think how badly major heat waves already effect Australian cities and how close to sea level most of Australia is, especially northern parts of Australia.

From what I read the PM seems to think he is some how immune to the effects and only smaller island nations will be effected, while simultaneously forgetting that he also lives on something which resembles an island, even if it is a big one.

It seems the Australian PM is certainly not the sharpest tool in the shed.

At the moment? We have had seven Prime Ministers in the last ten years. I'm starting to believe we may be well beyond all hope politically speaking. Feels like we are beached as, bro.

There was a mini "scandal" in Germany not long ago during a meeting between the Australian PM and Angela Merkel, when a handout for Merkel had some info about said PM, including his name. Some German newspapers saw that as an embarrassing slight to the Australians but some Aussies on the net said sth along the lines of "well, I think it's understandable with so much turnover during the past few years..."

Coal is cheap and available in Poland why not use it? It is a bit hypocritical for Western European countries to move their industrial base to Poland first and then push for green energy as a mean to decrease competitiveness of Polish economy.

On the good side Poland is big time afforesting for the last 70 years from 20,8% in 1946 to 30% in 2020. Show me another country in Europe who did so much to sequester CO2 over last 70 years.

Also Poland and Czech Republic had decreased its CO2 production by 50% since 1990s - most in the world. Sure, EU money helped a lot but it was Polish jobs and life choices that paid for closing factories and reforming its post-communist dirty heavy industry, sewage treatment plants, agriculture etc.



So not all bad.

PS. Plans for Polish nuclear power plant in Żarnowiec had been abolished post Chernobyl. You never know..

And I wish Poland got rid of coal and better yet cars. But be realistic.

To be fair Poland started with that number being over 98% when communism fell.

It's estimated Poland would have to spend >5% of GDP for 20+ years to replace it with nuclear or renewables and it's not a popular idea when you have a populist, global-warming skeptic government and close to 100k people working in coal mining (not that far from 1% of all employed in Poland)

tl;dr; unless there is external pressure & funding it's not changing.

I wonder how many other countries are in Poland's boat? That's some tremendous political resistance to overcome.

In American politics, the fate of coal miners is ridiculously overrated. The coal industry employs fewer people than a mid-sized national fast food chain.

Go further east and it's the same. There's also no sun and the gas is expensive or from Russia. Pro west countries don't want to depend on Russian gas. The whole world is complex and energy sector just mirrors it. Hence the change is difficult to overcome and many people don't see or understand why. Everyone would love to be green and carbon free, that's not the question.

Any yet average person in Poland has a similar carbon footprint.

As a Brit I could point out many idiotic brain dead things that the political class of this country does. But the switch from coal is quite frankly astonishing, and then you take a look at the biggest offshore wind farms [1] and you see what's replacing it, and then you look at the size of the planned wind farms [also 1] and you start to believe maybe our carbon reduction targets can be met.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_offshore_wind_farms

Auctioning off Contracts for Difference seems like a really smart way to make government subsidy stretch further too.

The auction allows them to attract low bids by a simple and understandable competition. If you bid higher than other entrants you won't get a contract, but if you bid lower than your operating costs you'll lose money (or more realistically, you won't pay back investors for the capital on the construction fast enough to make sense).

The CfD setup means the government's subsidy only manages the uncertainty. If prices collapse, the government picks up a big difference, but if prices sky-rocket the wind farm operator ends up paying the government instead of receiving a subsidy at all.

One thing I'm told, and hope to see, is that the taller the wind turbine the more often it runs. At high altitudes it's basically permanently windy, the winds we experience as so variable are a low phenomenon, so in principle as the turbines get taller some of the intermittent production problem goes away by itself. That would be almost bigger than just offshore wind power being cheap enough to justify building it on purely economic grounds with no subsidy and no additional carbon taxes.

We don't produce enough coal to run coal plants anymore, that's why we've dumped coal power. Almost all of the remaining handful of coal mines in the UK are 100% allotted to our (also near gone now) steel industry.

I thought the cause was the other way round? That we dumped coal power so that we could stop producing coal, which we wanted to do because the coal miners’ strike demonstrated they/their unions were dangerous to the government?

Timing is wrong. The big wave of mine closures was the 80s. The plants ran on imported coal from e.g. Poland. In the 90s the "dash for gas" switched fuel. Then finally the renewable buildout got going and the EU directive killed the remaining coal plants. Drax has mostly switched to imported wood pellets.

It's weird though, if you look back at this week, yesterday for a few hours it was sunny _and_ windy in the middle of the day. That ought to depress the hell out of prices, most of the gas plants were idled. But for some reason a cold plant was fired up.

Did they lose money running that plant? Is there some setup where running the plant a certain amount (maybe on windy days when pollution effects in the vicinity are smallest) is just treated as a good thing even though we really ought to be burning less fossil fuels not more?

I don't understand the economics of coal versus gas in this space in a market like the UK. It seems as though with gas being cheaper it would just never make economic sense to burn coal when gas plants aren't 100% flat out. But clearly I am wrong somehow.

Gas is quicker to start up and meet demand usually as well.

It could well have been a maintenance thing. Maybe it was a test fire of some new equipment or configuration. It could also have been a contractual thing. A minimum supply they agreed upon with the organisation who manages the grid.

This was Cottam Coal Power Station burning its remaining coal at a loss (so you are correct, not profitable when renewables doing well) in time for its impending closure in September.

Source: Final paragraph of https://limejump.com/the-week-in-flexibility-mid-week-intrig...

I wonder if that's related, directly or indirectly to the grid trip: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-49302996

In the US it's approximately 30%.

That was true a few years ago. In 2018 it was down to 28%. Now it's about 24%:

"Short Term Energy Outlook -- 2019-08-06"

EIA forecasts that the share of U.S. generation from coal will average 24% in 2019 and in 2020, down from 28% in 2018.

EIA expects electric power sector demand for coal to fall by 2% in 2020, compared with an expected decline of 15% in 2019. However, planned coal plant retirements will continue to put downward pressure on overall electricity demand for the fuel. Almost 13 gigawatts of coal-fired electricity generation capacity has retired this year or is scheduled to retire by the end of 2020, accounting for 5% of the capacity existing at the end of 2018.


In California, it's 3.3% and that's all imported power that's on existing contracts. We will be free of this very soon https://ww2.energy.ca.gov/almanac/electricity_data/total_sys...

California is an outlier, having the advantage of being a low-demand (per capita) state with access to abundant hydro power from the NW area. As well as some of the highest power costs in the US.

Wow really? I would not have guessed anywhere near that high.

Coal has been the majority or near the majority of power generation until very recently. And it's only as low as it is now because natural gas got cheaper. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_power_in_the_United_State...

I have no idea how many facilities this is, but coal plants can also be retooled for gas: https://www.transalta.com/about-us/coal-to-gas/

One of my favorite graphics -- although it also includes petroleum: https://flowcharts.llnl.gov/content/assets/docs/2018_United-...

Here in Ontario all coal plants were shut down over a decade ago. The difference in air quality seems to have been forgotten by many people, but it was a drastic and obvious improvement.

The power mix here is now 90% nuclear & hydro, so not emitting CO2 (directly), with the remainder being a mix of natural gas, wind, and solar.

I am happy these changes were pushed forward before a politician like Doug Ford got into power as I think we know these would have been reversed as we saw with the carbon tax.

Probably these changes are what ultimately caused the liberal gov't to collapse as the closing of the coal plants (along with a myriad other factors, including some the previous conservative gov't are at fault for) at least indirectly led to higher electricity costs and the stupid gas plant scandal, and those things were used as a battering ram by the opposition in the last 2-3 provincial elections, until they finally won.

If only you could charge the government for giving your kid asthma, to give a sound comparison.

The public perception of the carbon tax in Canada is just saddening. In a poll, 80% of Canadians responded that Canada's carbon tax had increased their cost of living. The poll took place two weeks before Canada's carbon tax was introduced.


And a federal leader uses it to campaign in provinces where the carbon tax doesn't even apply. Quite frustrating.

A carbon tax to me seems like something designed to generate political blowback. The problem is a carbon tax punishes people for decisions they made previously where they didn't have a choice. With the hope that they'll suck it up and find a way out somehow. It's stupid to assume that 'somehow' isn't going to be toss those dicks out on their ear.

Ontario never had a carbon tax, it had cap&trade in the same market as California and Quebec. Most consumers never noticed its introduction. But the new idiots in power certainly made political hay about how they were going to drop gas prices by removing it. Turns out it had almost no effect on gas and utility prices but a huge effect on the province's budget, along with axing dozens of environmental initiatives in the province.

And the federal gov't has now imposed a carbon tax to replace it.

In fact I saw a big drop for a few months, since then the price keeps creeping up. Before DF, I saw $1.25 a liter, after he got in it fell to $0.98 a liter and since then it has slowly increased. Right now it is $1.19 where I am I expect it will be back to $1.25 before winter.

The drop was due to other factors, price of oil fell, again.

It might be politically unpopular, but it's the only really holistic way I've seen to get the market to prioritize carbon emissions and make the best tradeoffs there.

On the plus side, politically, a large carbon tax would make it more competitive to manufacture locally, since it would become much more expensive to ship things via container ship/air. Globalism is largely a result of the cost of running a global logistics network plummeting.

While true, its also the case that any other way of doing it is economically worse.

The best way to do it is to start the price off low but telegraph that the price is going to go up in the future. Then people know when they need to get a new car/water heater/fridge to get the more efficient model. Probably even more important is industry and investors, they'll know not to invest in subdivisions from bulldozed farmland but instead build denser apartment buildings close to public transportation or to give more money to R&D to make their next model of car/water heater/fridge more efficient.

Great to see coal phasing out but I feel like the risks of natural gas have not been well publicized, data regarding methane leaks from natural gas is sketchy at best and fracking has almost certainly caused more frequent earthquakes (albeit small on the Richter scale) at sites.

Big oil pushes natural gas as a bridge energy, and despite lots of skepticism towards them I think they're correct. The window where natural gas is a plurality of global energy consumption has to be as small as possible.

Yeah, this article celebrates the closure of coal, which is great because coal is super dirty, but it's tallying up all the carbon emissions they put out as if that annual emission has been eliminated. That's super misleading given that much of the demand is taken up by natural gas. I'd rather hear about the net reduction; that'd be a better indicator of progress.

These figures[1] seem to indicate a ~50% decrease in carbon emissions for the same energy generated, but I'm not sure if it carries over directly to power plants.

Also, there's this fairly interesting (supposedly) zero-emissions natural gas power plant [2] but all of the news seem to be from 2018 so it's not getting a lot of attention.

[1] https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=73&t=11

[2] https://www.netpower.com/

Has there been any earthquakes which are actually significant? No matter how bad fracking is, coal is much worse (the goal needs to be to get China and India onto Natural Gas and then renewables)

The Methane leaking is a huge unknown. It isn't regulated, but is known to be quite high for any given site and along pipelines.

As it is a very potent greenhouse gas, the effects could be significant.

To be clear, both are bad and I hope renewables eat their lunch, breakfast, and dinner in short order.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 excluded hydraulic fracturing from both the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exemptions_for_hydraulic_fract...

If it's as safe as we're led to believe, why does it need to be exempted from the laws that protect the environment we all share?

Oklahoma put restrictions in place after earthquakes threatened critical infrastructure.


I believe the Netherlands is phasing out its industry because of concerns. I also recall reading about problems in China as they begin trying to frack.

In the north of the Netherlands (province of Groningen, location of Europe's largest gas field) earthquakes caused by gas extraction have caused widespread damage to homes and infrastructure. The government - pressured by inhabitants - decided to significantly cut back production of the field, and will close the field entirely in 2030.


The Netherlands is phasing out natural gas due to actual earthquakes in the lower magnitudes. Because it's a location where natural earthquakes normally don't take place, there is a risk of collapsing houses with all possible consequences.

> the goal needs to be to get China and India onto Natural Gas

There is plenty of coal in India but not so much natural gas. Economically speaking in the short term it does not make sense for India to go with imported natural gas.

> the goal needs to be to get China and India onto Natural Gas and then renewables

Is there much natural gas in China and India? China can possibly get it from Russia and a few other neighboring countries? What about India?

That wouldn't be my major objection. Its basically rushing through exactly the same steps the west has been through (why?) and locking in a model of the grid based on centralised generators, when they have the opportunity to build out a grid based entirely on renewables.

I'm thinking of more rural areas here, that havent already been hooked up to the grid. If you introduce possibly intermittent renewables villages are probably going to be more accepting if they don't already have access to 24/7 power. They can make it work for them, but that village can join up with other villages and become more reliable as the network expands.

Its analogous to mobile phones and mobile payments in the developing world. You don't have to build the landline and banking infrastructure, you can miss it out completely.

Wat? Both China and India are years ahead of US in terms of renewables. Not only they are already ahead, they also invest more.

No they aren't. Not even close.

China gets 65% of its electricity from coal, the US gets 25% from coal. China emits more co2 than the US and India combined, and their co2 emissions are increasing 10% per year.

The US is pretty lackluster for renewables. But despite all appearances to the contrary, it's not doing nearly as bad as Trump claims to acclaim to. China is the polar opposite: it talks the talk but it's the largest polluter in the world by a huge margin.

China is still way behind the States in per capita. Quoting absolute numbers is just meaningless.

The biosphere only cares about absolute numbers.

Yes, it cares about the combined emissions of each human, not what silly borders we've drawn on a map.

Western countries don't have a moral right to pressure everyone else until we get our own house in order. China isn't the problem. You are, and so am I.

Aren’t these numbers misleading, by implicitly treating gas as clean energy?

The right metric should be %renewables of installed capacity

USA < 15%

India almost 17%

China almost 25%

It is hypothesized that the increased release of methane via fracking is a large driver in recent short term global warming and the amount of methane released has been vastly understated by previous industry and government studies, even though it only lasts a relatively short time in the atmosphere. https://www.biogeosciences.net/16/3033/2019/

Yeah the cows have been getting a bad rap...

Renewables with storage are already starting to compete with natural gas. It seems better to do what we can to tilt that scale even further, rather than investing in more assets that will need to be stranded in 2–10 years.


Fracking also causes significant groundwater pollution which is often handwaved away by politicians. Keeping gas cheap gets you more votes.

Fracking causing leaks of contaminants into groundwater is hugely dependent on the local geology. In locations with lots of natural fractures and nearby sources of drinking water (e.g., Pennsylvania), there's a much higher risk of contamination than in deeper basins with more uniform geology (e.g., North Dakota).

That's not to say handwaving is good, but that all geology is local and risk assessment has to be done at that scale.

Earthquakes related to oil and gas are almost entirely because of wastewater injection, not the fracking process itself. One could argue that the increased wastewater production from the development and production of fracked wells is therefore responsible, but the connection that "fracking = earthquakes" isn't direct.

Seems a little pedantic unless there are alternative ways to do fracking.

Unfortunately it's not as big a win as it sounds like. Per the article much of the economic force can be attributed to natural gas, which is better but not much, and most of the really huge coal plants have just adapted to regulation and don't show signs of imminent closure.

I was under the impression that natural gas was twice as good as coal[1]? 50-60% less CO2. not perfect but far from "not much better" in my opinion

[1] https://www.ucsusa.org/clean-energy/coal-and-other-fossil-fu...

Don't forget the heavy metals (lead, arsenic, mercury), radiation (coal ash is literally more radioactive than some nuclear waste) and particulate matter releases that come from burning coal. Natural gas isn't optimal but it is FAR better than coal.

> coal ash is literally more radioactive than some nuclear waste

Please do not repeat this nonsense. It either compares non-power-plant waste (lab gloves used in isotope labelling, for instance), or is so wrong as to be ludicrous.

Used nuclear fuel is billions of times more radioactive than coal ash.

Yes, but that nuclear waste is in storage pools. The waste from the coal plants is in the air we breath and the ash-spills effect the water we drink.

Or better yet, walk around an operating nuke plant with a radiation detector and then do the same walk around an operating coal plant. I am willing to bet the coal plant will spike higher.

If that's what you mean, then say "coal ash ponds emit more radiation than can be measured outside spent fuel cooling pools".

"Coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear (power) waste" is a completely difference factual statement and is untrue by many orders of magnitude.

Including poisoning our fish. Coal is where the mercury in fish comes from.

Also all the dead coal miners and dead people from coal ash spills.

True, but climate change is the true catastrophe at hand; I'd say it takes precedent over those other (still important) things.

It's not just the CO2 picture for emissions, keep in mind methane is a far more potent GHG and there is going to be some amount of leakage in the workflow of getting gas from fracking to the turbine. Colorado has the gold standard regulation for methane emissions, check it out:


It also has some potential for being gradually replaced, like mixing in renewable hydrogen, using methane captured from closed coal mines that would otherwise leak, methane from food and farm waste etc. and those then transition into being carbon neutral or negative ways to store energy for rarely used peaker plants to support the grid.

Coal is really, really bad from an environmental standpoint, even compared to natural gas, even with the methane issue factored in. Coal is really bad.

The good thing about natural gas plants is that they complement renewables well

They can start up in around a minute to provide base-load at times when renewables are not able to provide enough energy

In other news, Australia just sank a climate treaty meeting by refusing give up coal mining: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-49365918

And also on the BBC today, on a lighter note: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-49165336

Why is Australia part of a Pacific Islands Forum? Did they include other Asian Island Nations? Was Hawaii included?

I think New Zealand also refused. NZ exports about two small trainloads a day from Christchurch I think.

Why is Australia part of a Pacific Islands Forum?

Some small Pacific Islands are part of Australia and Australia also provides aid to some of the Pacific island nations.

Much of this is due to the fracking tech revolution of the early 2000s, which dropped the price of energy from natural gas below coal in the US.

Shale gas has been replacing coal: https://images.app.goo.gl/zb2bBfkBuAvWePVU6

A friends dad who is a retired nuclear engineering professor said said as much, coal can't compete with natural gas on price. He said his former department and others were heavily dependent on grants from coal, oil, and the nuclear industry and those have all but disappeared. Quote: I got out at the right time.

On the topic of coal, as a more worrying counterpoint, the NY Times just published an article about the actions of the Adani Group in Australia under the clickbaity yet accurate title “How One Billionaire Could Keep Three Countries Hooked on Coal for Decades”:


Keeping the coal plants online is just another way of paying welfare to the workers and the firms that own them. Taking money from everyone else and giving it to the outdated machines and workers with outdated skills.

Note that I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with being on welfare. But as a society I think we should decouple our determination of who deserves to be on welfare from our decision about how rapidly we want to destroy our environment.

In other words, let's just pay them normal food stamps or welfare checks, not keep the polluting plants open for decades longer than necessary.

For some reason many American workers feel totally proud being the indirect recipients of corporate welfare, yet would feel ashamed simply getting food stamps every month. There is zero difference between the two, except that in this case the food stamps are a LOT better for the environment.

And instead of either keeping dying industries alive or giving out food stamps, why not employ the people to do something about ,e.g., US infrastructure. It’s not there’s a lack of work if you have the money to pay someone.

Even better, to the extent that the government can identity useful things that need to be done (it has a very poor track record so far)

Yes, government sometimes do stupid shit. But so do large corporations, and governments aren't particularly worse.

> governments aren't particularly worse

or particularly better.

I've said it before and I'll say it again... market forces are accomplishing what regulation and public awareness never accomplished, in terms of reducing greenhouse emissions.

I am so glad the market is on our side for once.

We wouldn't be at this point (this early) without large public investments, regulation, and advocacy. Simply saying "oh the market's got it, we cool" is misguided thinking.

Public awareness and advocacy matter more, I think. We're not regulating coal out of existence, or they'd be closing from regulation, not cost. And the public investment isn't what's driving the radical drop in wind/solar manufacturing and installation costs. That's regular economy of scale stuff.

Not at all.

It's been government regulations promoting renewables around the world which have helped drive demand. This in turn has led to Chinese factories ramping up and the overall cost dropping.

Same thing with electric cars. The current explosion in new models is being driven by EU regulations not consumer demand.

They are closing because alternatives are cheaper, which has multiple reasons, some of which are policy (subsidies/penalties, publicly funded research in alternatives, stricter mining regulation driving resource prices up, stricter emissions regulations requiring expensive plant upgrades or more expensive new construction etc.)

I did a little googling, and new coal plants in the US are no more expensive - price/mwh held steady at $95-100 from 2010-1015 (after which no one built any more). Meanwhile, in 2010-1019, natural gas plants dropped in cost/mwh by about 50%, from around $80 to $40. And onshore wind dropped 71%, from $149 to around $43. Solar dropped even more (88%), from $396 to $49!

As an aside, new nuclear dropped from $119 to $90, and there are no new plants planned - small wonder, considering the massive cost and long time frame to build nuclear when wind and solar cost half as much and prices are still dropping like rocks.

But you are forgetting the huge amount of subsidized R&D (via universities) and subsidized investment costs that has already been spent. Without that, it is very hard to believe that the wind power industry would have bootstrapped itself.

The same can of course be said for the nuclear industry. Without massive R&D spending and cheap capital costs, nuclear energy would never have been viable. Today, wind and solar is beating both nuclear and coal, which is great. But perhaps The Market shouldn't get all the credit.

Isn't it pollution regulations that make coal uneconomical? Coal is still a cheap option in China, for example. Have we simply used up our supply of cheap coal?

No, it's that alternatives (mostly natural gas) have become much less expensive than they were, to the point where they're cheaper than coal to operate. Fracking completely changed the game, giving us access to a great deal of previously unrecoverable natural gas. (Oh, and speaking of government investment and subsidy...)

The really interesting thing is that solar/wind are becoming cheaper than coal, and will soon be cheaper than natural gas.

One of the easiest ways for companies to claim huge carbon emission reductions is for them to buy old coal plants and shut them down.

It can be done, Ontario shut down Nanticoke (largest coal genrator in North AMerica) and repalced it with solar.. But something seems off with the capacity??

The Nanticoke Generating Station is a 44 MW solar power station which started operation in April 2019.[2] Previously from 1972 to 2013, it was the largest coal-fired power plant in North America. At full capacity, it could provide 3,964 MW of power into the southern Ontario power grid from its base in Nanticoke, Ontario, Canada,[3] and provided as much as 15% of Ontario's electricity.

The coal industry is, over the next decade, going to go the way of Venezuela, and the parts of America still dependent on it economically will go with it. We are not ready.

Arby's already employs more then the coal industry. Coal is already dead, and they are already dealing with it (poorly).

It feels like it's already mostly gone this way; the vast majority of the coal-associated jobs (those involved in mining) are already gone. Automation plus large closures already gutted the industry.


There are only ~80,000 coal miners in the US now, which is 0.06% of the full-time employee population.

According to wikipedia [1], the figure is 50,000. The peak headcount was 883,000, but due to mechanization, those 50,000 way out-produce those 883,000. Looking at the graph on that page, coal production is down but is still higher than what it was 50 years ago.

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

> the parts of America still dependent on it economically will go with it. We are not ready.

And you'll never be. You didn't learn from the lessons in the UK of the 60s through 80s when output dropped dramatically. It's taken decades of EU investment for places like the Welsh valleys to begin to recover.

There are going to be big bills to the taxpayer. Pensions, retiree health care, site cleanup, etc. The Black Lung Fund which operates off of a coal tax already has a ballooning deficit, we're going to be paying for those people for decades.

I’m ready to breathe clean air though.

Time to retrain the coal workers to build wind turbines instead. We'll need a lot of those in the next ten to twenty years.

Better yet, nuclear plants.

If you look at how long it takes to build a nuclear plant and compare it to the carbon budget we have left you'll find out that you can't build enough nuclear plants in the remaining time.

Americans are just slow. The Japanese and South Koreans can build nuclear plants in a jiffy: https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/article/2027347/south-korea-s...

Maybe that's why Toshiba thought it was a good idea to buy Westinghouse; that they could better manage American mega projects.

83 plants over twenty years means that we first need to scale up production capabilities for things like pressure vessels (they need gigantic forges to make) because we can even think about building hundreds and hundreds of nuclear power plants in the next twenty years. We also need to train engineers to staff them.

Maybe not full-size plants, but SMRs are a possibility.


Good luck suddenly building thousands of 500MW reactors over the next ten to twenty years when currently zero are operational.

That's assuming we won't get better at building them. Also, wind/solar have terrible energy density and are very bursty, so it sounds like we're screwed.

Given the history of the industry, that's a good assumption.

Solar and wind are cheap and are getting cheaper, which will make up for a lot of intermittency. If you want a career in energy, look into ways to exploit intermittent cheap sources. There's free money waiting to be picked up if you can do that.

Comparing industries to countries is absurd. What do you even mean by that?

Wouldn't it make sense to build a solar farm there instead. I mean the power lines etc are all there already

Just look at the companies who provide maintance...they're leaving the business.

Nice to feel a little hope and see this :)

Yeah, not in Australia though.


It's sad that there are genuinely people that have this kind of reaction to an article about a reduction in coal plants. Taking care of the environment isn't some weird competition, what would anyone be gloating about and to whom....

One of the great ironies of political life in the UK is that we are now celebrating generating electricity for "X days without Coal".

This is of course a positive thing, but it was arrived at by the politically motivated near-total destruction of UK's mining industry in the 1980s (the then right wing Tory government wanted to destroy the heartland support of its left wing Labour opponents).

What was a socially divisive, bitter class struggle for years and years, that nearly brought down the government, is now a strategic masterstroke of climate change planning.

Life is odd.

[#] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UK_miners%27_strike_(1984%E2%8...

The shift from coal in the UK wasn't caused by the miners strike.

Britain kept on using coal post strike and pit closures, it just bought foreign coal (not even necessarily cheaper) instead.

The Dash for Gas is what killed the use of coal for generation.

It's a lot easier to stop using imported foreign coal over the last decade than to stop using unionised voting coal mines in your home country - just ask Mr Trump.

The decline in home coal use was directly correlated to the strike - and the decline in imported coal use is as much old plant and expensive marginal costs as the shift to gas.

At some point replacing the coal fired infrastructure stopped making economic sense - and with no political leverage the whole thing collapsed really quickly.

Something we might be happy to learn when looking at oil and gas generation - once solar prices and volume are there the industry just vanishes.

Not really. The number of people employed in and around the coal industry in the US was pretty small by 2016. Also note, that Trump got a lot less votes that Mitt Romney in 2012, so that despite all the pandering - there wasn't some massive rush to vote for Trump.

Also, the union density in mining in the US is not as high as it used to be (don't know what the exact figures are).

Some industries have political impacts way beyond their numerical size would suggest. Farming is one such. Coal was in the UK and seems to have been for the US - Trump won votes appealing to people who had never even seen a mine let alone been down one. But they will vote to support the miners in the same way Idaho is won by supporting farmers.

Yes Clinton won the popular vote. No unions are ridiculously under represented in the States (you need to fix that BTW)

But in the end seem from this side of the pond this was a political message - coal mining was a proxy for "proper American jobs for proper Americans without all this economics and climate change nonsense"

And that has a fairly sizeable base.

Whether trump will find that same base happy to swallow a similar message now he is the incumbent remains to be seen.

Here in the U.S. the right wing has instead managed to convince the Labor demographic that it's on their side.

Here in the US, the party that corresponds to Labour has abandoned labor.

this is great news -- proud of USA and Americans! Americans truly teach the World when it comes to technology and advancement.

Also, it is great to see more and more usage of coal in products ranging from toothpaste all the way to food products.

Such a cynical take. Things need to start somewhere. It can't be all or nothing.

Are you talking about charcoal?


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