Energy Blog: Let’s Make Evergreen State Coal Free

By Andy Silber

Help Make Washington Coal Free

The Earth’s climate is changing because humans are burning lots of fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. As has been said before, we need to focus on coal for several reasons:

  1. It is the most carbon intensive:
  2. Excluding carbon, it’s the dirtiest fuel around (including nuclear)
  3. It’s the easiest to replace
  4. It is the most plentiful

Below I’m not comparing coal to renewables (which is the direction I believe we can and should go), but with other fossil fuels. When we get to the last point you’ll see why.

Carbon Intensity

This is the most straightforward, it’s just simple chemistry. All fossil fuels contain molecules that release energy during combustion. Coal has more carbon per unit of energy than other fossil fuels, 30% more than oil and 80% more than natural gas. And these numbers assume that the fuel is used in a perfectly efficient plant. The reality is worse; coal plants have a low efficiency (according to one study 31%) compared to 50% at a Combined Cycle Gas Turbine fueled by natural gas. So the electricity generation a typical coal plant (e.g. The TransAlta plant in Centralia) produces creates 3 times the CO2 emission than a state-of-the-art natural gas powered plant produces. We also have a myriad of zero emission options like wind, solar and geothermal.

Coal is the Dirtiest Fuel

Excluding carbon dioxide, coal is still much dirtier than the alternatives. Crude oil comes out of the ground full of muck, but it is refined before we burn it. The mercury and other toxins can be dealt with responsibly. Natural gas comes out of the ground relatively clean (I am comparing it to incredibly toxic stuff, so it’s all relative). It’s also refined before distribution and the results are clean enough to burn in your home with no ill effects.

The scale of the toxins in coal is just much more immense than with other fuels. One example is mercury. Mercury is naturally occurring in coal, which enters the atmosphere when the coal is burnt. Coal powered electric plants are responsible for about 50% of the mercury in the environment. Modern emissions controls can prevent the mercury from going into the air, in which case the mercury ends up in the fly ash, which is OK, unless it isn’t (see below).

Here’s a surprising tidbit, coal plants are more radioactive than nuclear plants.  In addition to the mercury, coal contains uranium and thorium. When the coal is burnt these radioactive elements either go into the air or end up in the fly ash, which sometimes is stored in a haphazard manner, as opposed to the careful containment at nuclear plants. In the best of times the radioactive elements can leach into the ground water. In the worst of times the ash pours into a river after a dike fails.

But wait, there’s more:

And let us not forget the mess we make when we take coal out of the ground. Compare the mess in the Gulf when something went wrong with a normal day in Appalachia.

Coal is the easiest to replace

Currently burning coal generates about half of our electricity, so I’m not saying this is an easy project, but compared to replacing oil, we have lots of alternatives currently available:

  • Efficiency
  • Geothermal
  • Natural Gas
  • Nuclear fission
  • Solar
  • Wind

These are just listed alphabetically and each has their advantages and disadvantages. There are also many technologies on the near horizon (e.g. improved solar, wave and tidal) and distance horizon (e.g. 5th Gen nuclear fission, nuclear fusion) that might help replace coal. One vision on how our region can go coal free is the Bright Future plan, which deals with increasing demand and shutting down all of the regions coal plants mostly through capturing cost-effective efficiency measures. The remainder comes from renewables, predominantly wind, but also biomass, wave/tidal, and geothermal. No significant breakthroughs are assumed, which is a worst-case scenario since vast amounts of R&D money is currently pouring into clean energy technology.

It’s the most plentiful

Though there’s plenty of reason to work to reduce our consumption of oil and natural gas, there isn’t enough of it to really screw-up the atmosphere. This point has been made by others, most notably James Hansen, NASA atmospheric scientist and Columbia University environmental professor. At our current consumption rates we’ll run out of oil in 43 years, natural gas in 167 years, and coal in 417 years.  One can quibble about the exact rates and how big the reserves are, but we’ll start to see a decrease in oil production soon (if we haven’t already) just due to limited supplies (see peak oil). The market will get us off oil, not the climate. Since natural gas has so much lower carbon emissions, it’s less critical that we quickly reduce those emissions. It’s only coal that can cook us.

So it is coal that is King: a horrible despotic, sadistic King that likes to make people suffer. Whether through asthma, mercury poisoning, or climate change, this is one mean King.

So what can we do?

Washington State has one coal plant, the TransAlta plant in Centralia. This plant is the single largest source of pollution in the state. The Coal Free Washington campaign is working to shut this plant down and make Washington “kinda” coal free (PSE is a part owner and customer of the Colstrip Power plant in Montana).

One obvious step is to support the effort to strip the TransAlta plant of millions of dollars of tax breaks. These tax breaks were given to help defray the costs of upgrading the pollution controls on the plant. I’ve never understood these types of tax breaks. If I need to make repairs to my car to meet the emission standards, the state doesn’t pay part of the cost. The plant should stop polluting; either install emission controls or shut it down. The cost of the pollution controls should be included in the cost of the electricity generated, just like it is with wind power (which has no pollution).

The next step is to support the effort to shut down the TransAlta plant. Washington State Representative Marko Liias has submitted a House Bill 1825 to phase out coal by 2015. This is an aggressive timeline, but the recession actually has made it easier by reducing electricity demand. For the short term no replacement is needed.

The most fun step you can take is to join others from West Seattle and elsewhere south of the Alki Bathhouse on Saturday, February 19th from 11 am to 2 pm at the “Washington Paints Past Coal” event. They’ll be music, speakers and even free food (hopefully no mercury contaminated fish). Enjoy the fresh air those downwind of Centralia can’t.

Shutting down Washington’s only coal plant will wipe 10% from our total emissions in one act. That’s what I call a pretty good start.

2 replies
  1. Bill Reiswig
    Bill Reiswig says:

    Several great points, very well written — coal is the dirtiest fuel, its possibly the easiest of the fossil fuels to replace ( technically true , but China’s investment in it’s coal plants is a financial commitment that is hard to unwrite easily ), and that oil represents a very different type of problem. Thanks!

  2. Nicholas
    Nicholas says:

    Have you ever heard of a formula known as Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI)? You will find that coal is, in fact, not easily replaced. Solar, wind and others produce a mere miniscule fraction of the energy contained in fossil fuels.


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