Politics & Policy

The GOP Platform Is Right: Coal Is Clean

(Carolecastelli/Dreamstime)
Carbon dioxide has none of the characteristics of a real pollutant.

Some in the media are alarmed that the just-approved Republican-party platform takes a positive view of fossil fuels. “The platform tosses aside an environmental regulatory structure built on congressional legislation and judicial rulings over more than four decades,” wrote Steven Mufson of the Washington Post. It’s no surprise that mainstream media and its friends on the political left would feel that way — especially after they have been vilifying oil, gas, and especially coal for more than a generation. It’s on that last fuel that the platform takes perhaps its most remarkable position, declaring coal “an abundant, clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy resource.”

It doesn’t meet with the approval of the environmentalist Left — but it does happen to be true.  

Although this Environmental Protection Agency never acknowledges it, a slew of state-of-the art technologies has led to dramatic reductions in emissions from coal-fired power plants. In this respect, coal is quite clean. Since 1970, emissions of key pollutants per kilowatt hour (electric) have fallen 89 percent. Use of low-NOx boilers, selective catalytic reduction, wet and dry electrostatic precipitators, scrubbers, and sorbent injection, while not popular topics at cocktail parties, have led to huge reductions in genuine pollutants that impact human health under certain concentrations and exposures.

In 2007, during my tenure as chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, I signed the first permit for a lignite-fired coal-power plant in more than two decades. The elaborate emissions controls for this new plant have achieved amazing efficiencies comparable to those of plants powered by natural gas, and they continue to reduce real emissions. Yet EPA’s Clean Power Plan may force closure of this modern plant, trashing the hundreds of millions invested in reducing real pollutants.

Although now viewed by the EPA as dirty carbon pollution, carbon dioxide (CO2) lacks any of the characteristics of a real pollutant. CO2 is an odorless, invisible, and beneficial natural gas and the catalyst for photosynthesis, the most vital energy conversion in our biosphere. How soon we forget eight-grade science! CO2’s life-amplifying potency is why greenhouses pump CO2 to levels over four times that of the natural concentration in the air we breathe.

Officialdom’s constant use of the word “clean” masks the many details about energy that keep the lights on. In most cases, “clean energy” is a general designation for low-to-zero carbon-energy resources, the most prevalent forms being wind and solar power. The public has been led to believe that coal and other fossil fuels are dirty and that wind and solar are clean.

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But just how clean are the steel and concrete used in the fabrication and operation of wind and solar installations? The amount of rebar packed under the ground to anchor the wind turbines is an eye-opener. Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University calculates that a typical wind system uses around 460 metric tons of steel and 870 cubic meters of concrete per megawatt (electric). A natural-gas combined-cycle power plant of the same capacity uses only three metric tons of steel and 27 cubic meters of concrete. “You can make wind turbines with steel, but you can’t make steel with wind turbines,” as Chris Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute put it. Coal remains essential to making steel.

#share#Coal has long been the mainstay of reliable generation. We are so accustomed to electric power delivered at the touch of a finger that most people are unaware of the intricate system of bulk power that provides this marvel: cheap, versatile, and controllable electricity. Unlike other energy carriers, electric generation must exactly, and almost instantaneously, adjust to demand for electricity. This constant balance between generation and demand is critical to keeping the electric grid stable. This is what energy doyen Mark P. Mills of the Manhattan Institute refers to as “the incredibly weird physics of the electric grid.”

In contrast with wind and solar power, coal, as well as natural gas, can ramp generation up and down in split-second response to demand and thereby balance the grid. And the massive transmission and voltage infrastructure of our electric system was designed around the availability of coal and other dispatchable energy sources. In stark contrast, the variability of wind and solar cannot be controlled. In other words, the availability of wind or solar power has no correlation to demand. This is a rarely admitted but huge challenge for renewable energy.  

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The antidote to this inherent limitation is reliable backup power typically provided by coal. When wind speeds fluctuate, coal generation can increase or decrease generation to meet demand. Wind and solar lack this flexibility and therefore reliability. Backup or redundant power, however, is a highly wasteful and expensive way to generate and deliver electricity. Germany has found that a completely redundant supply of flexible power operating in a form of idling is necessary at a certain level of wind energy dispatched on the grid for every megawatt of wind and solar power dispatched. This has forced Germany to increase the use of coal and wood — not exactly a goal of their clean-energy revolution. As a consequence, Germany’s average electric rates are three times higher than the current U.S. rates.

#related#As inherently variable energy sources, wind and solar can also generate power in excess of demand at unpredictable moments. In these instances, grid operators have to intervene within seconds to rebalance power supply and demand. And here arises the incredibly ironic economics of intermittent renewables. As a result of unpredictable surges in wind power in 2015, the German government paid grid operators and wind generators $548 million to abruptly shut down to avert a collapse of the grid.  

The U.S. Congress is addicted to ballooning energy subsidies. But we must ask ourselves what energy breakthrough of enduring, universal value has resulted from the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars devoted to these pipedreams. Just look to the free market for two overlooked energy miracles. The recent shale revolution has given us access to the mother lode of oil and natural gas long thought forever locked in shale, while innovative engineers have developed technologies to reduce genuine pollutants by as much as 90 percent. Now, the plentiful, reliable, and affordable energy source that is coal can be regarded as clean.

— Kathleen Hartnett White is Distinguished Senior Fellow-in-Residence at, and the director of, the Armstrong Center for Energy & the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. She is a coauthor of the new book Fueling Freedom: Exposing the Mad War on Energy.

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