Last Lunge for Black Lungs – Coal Running Out of Oxygen

December 4, 2014

The Coal industry, thankfully, is starting to feel a little of what it might be like to be a black lung victim.
Not dead yet, but gasping, smothering, and flailing.  Note the contrasts linked below.
Above, what amounts to an absolutely astounding, nauseating info-mercial for coal on MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough show – complete with “God put these resources here for us to use”, a soaring eagle, cute kids, and “we like to give back to the community”.

I’ll understand if you have to pause and throw up.

The Coal Industry waves to fans in a recent television appearance.

The Coal Industry waves to fans in a recent television appearance.

Below, a series of reality checks on what is really happening out there.

Carbon Brief:

German energy company E.ON yesterday announced it was splitting the company in two, “spinning off” its fossil fuel assets. The reason for the move? The European energy market’s trend towards low carbon energy sources and services, and the ever decreasing profitability of fossil fuels, it says.

The move is being hailed as a “watershed moment” for Germany’s ambitious efforts to decarbonise its energy sector.

But why does E.ON think its new model is more profitable? And why aren’t all energy companies doing the same?

Energy transformation

E.ON’s decision to restructure has more to do with a need to do something about its bottom line than environmental concerns. E.ON’s profits fell by 20 per cent over the last 12 months, continuing a long term decline.

That was partly as a consequence of Germany’s ambitious climate and energy policies, known as the Energiewende. Germany aims to get 80 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050. Currently, it gets about 30 per cent, up from about 15 per cent when the Energiewende was announced in 2010.

Renewables’ rapid expansion has made the wholesale cost of electricity plummet, and put many of Germany’s big utility companies with large stakes in fossil fuels under severe financial pressure.

The German government is also pressing ahead with a plan to phase out nuclear power by 2022. That’s bad news for E.ON, which has a stake in 11 of the country’s nuclear plants.

So E.ON decided to split in two. One part of the company, which will keep the name and branding, will focus on renewables, distributing power, and providing energy efficiency services. The other part will keep E.ON’s non-renewable power plants, and will make new investments in exploring and producing fossil fuels.


How about making utility consumers pay to subsidize costly aging coal plants? Check! That’s precisely what three big Ohio utility companies want to do. Columbus-based American Electric Power (AEP), Cincinnati-based Duke Energy and Akron-based FirstEnergy have asked the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) to let them raise rates to cover the cost of keeping these obsolete, polluting facilities in use. In essence, they want customers to guarantee a continuing flow of income for old, inefficient coal-fired plants. This despite the fact that a Public Policy Polling survey in August found  that 56 percent of those polled felt Ohio should be investing in renewable energy sources vs. 36 percent who felt the investment should be in traditional energy sources.

“These monopoly utilities are trying to ditch free market principles and make Ohio electricity customers pay for outdated, polluting, dead-end coal plants,” said Allison Fisher of consumer organization Public Citizen. “Coal is becoming less and less competitive, and it’s unfair to force Ohioans to pay for something they don’t want.”

Luckily, the Sierra Club has just relaunched its “No Coal Bailouts” campaign in the state, throwing some muscle behind the thousands of petitions and letters PUCO has already received, including a letter from 12 big businesses such as Lowe’s, Costco, Macy’s and Staples, calling the proposal “unfair to shopping customers and harmful to competitive markets.”

To prod consumer awareness of what they could be asked to pay for, Sierra Club is launching a new fusillade of ads exposing the big utilities state utilities for trying to offload the cost of the old coal-fired plants onto customers’ bills. The campaign includes statewide radio ads, direct mail pieces, online ads and animated web gifs, along with curbside kiosk ads in downtown Columbus. The advertising will continue throughout the holiday season to help assure that consumers don’t get coal in their stockings while the big utility companies make off with the gold.

The New Yorker:

These are the clarions of an industry that has been declining for decades and is now under siege from the glut of cheap natural gas, which has transformed the nation’s energy economy. Kentucky produces less than half as much coal as it did in 1990. Thirty years ago, the state had forty-eight thousand coal miners; today, it has twelve thousand. Wyoming, which accounts for forty per cent of U.S. coal production, is in healthier shape, but, with the nation’s power plants in decline, the state’s coal producers desperately need new markets. To that end, a couple of years ago, they began looking for ways to ship tens of millions of tons of coal to Asia. They were especially eager to get their product to India, because Wyoming coal, which is strip-mined from the Powder River Basin, is low in sulfur, and India’s own coal, which is being dug up as fast as the new government of Narendra Modi can manage, is notoriously dirty.

Even if they don’t fully accept or understand the science on climate change, G.O.P. leaders do grasp the logic of the market. In places like Kentucky, coal is a risky long-term proposition, which brings us back to Mitch McConnell. McConnell is many things, but he understands how to limit political risk. Despite his own “war on coal” rhetoric, a look at his campaign contributors suggests that he knows where the future of energy lies. Prior to the midterms, McConnell was deluged with cash from half a dozen major natural-gas producers. They’re the ones—much more than Obama and the E.P.A.—who are engaged in a war on coal. And they’re winning.


Meanwhile,  even Exxon clearly has been reading the polls about rising public concern on CO2 pollution.

Check out this new ad that include this “Energy Quiz” –
“Here’s a question for you. When electricity is generated with Natural Gas, instead of today’s most used source, how much are CO2 emissions reduced?”
Catch that?  Coal has become “The fuel that must not be named.” Even by Exxon.




18 Responses to “Last Lunge for Black Lungs – Coal Running Out of Oxygen”

  1. Paying to subsidized outdated coal plants is becoming one of the consequences of a reliance on dirty, outdated, coal. There is no way out of coals demise. In Australia, the utilities managed to dump the cost increase on consumers. Result. Rural customers going off grid. The price of solar plus storage is low enough. Another result? One of the highest rates of residential solar in the world, 20%, of which 14% is PV. That pace is accelerating.

  2. North Dakota wind? Iowa and Minnesota have developed their wind potential much more. MISO has about 12G of total wind. 5G is in Iowa, almost all in the northwest corner of the state. Minnesota has about 3G, almost all in the southwest corner of the
    state. While growing rapidly, ND wind is only 1.4G. The wind power potential is 770G.
    Iowas wind power potential is 550G. South Dakota has even more potential, 882G, but has only developed a meager .8G of it. Texas alone has developed 12.7G of wind and a potential of 1,900G.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      First, if you meant by “G” to say gigawatts, shouldn’t you be talking MW instead?

      Second, you have thrown some numbers out there because they seem to show almost unlimited “potential” for wind. As I’ve said to you many times in the past, you might want to really read this stuff and do some math before you get too “bright-sided” with projecting, extrapolating, predicting, crystal ball-gazing
      or whatever it is you do when you see numbers you like.

      Texas has developed ONLY 12.7 MW out of a potential of 1900 MW? That’s only .668%!!!! We have 99.332% yet to go! Let’s look a bit beyond just “looking crap up” and instead crunch some of Arcus’s numbers. That yields some interesting hidden “reality”.

      1) Texas presently generates those 12.7 MW with ~8,000 wind turbines
      2) Texas is about 270,000 square miles in area and has about 26,000,000 inhabitants (~100 per square mile).
      3) If Texas were to install enough wind turbines to utilize all of it’s “potential”, the total would be close to 1,200,000 machines.
      4) That works out to ~1 turbine for every 25 Texans and ~4.5 turbines on each square mile of the state.
      5) Since they won’t build them in downtown Dallas or on the runways of airports or other “inappropriate” places, the density is likely to be a LOT higher than 4.5 per square mile.

      As far as North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa go, there’s another “potential” 2200 MW there, which translates into ~1,380,000 turbines, and that’s one turbine for every THREE inhabitants of those states and a density of SEVEN per square mile.

      It’s nice that wind is “growing rapidly” somewhere, and that SOME of that growth is displacing fossil fuels. All that “potential” is just that right now, and it’s quite unclear as to how much will ever be developed and how rapidly.

      We don’t need renewables “cheerleaders” chanting “We’re Going To Be Number ONE” without looking at the scoreboard and seeing that the other team is ahead 94 to 6 and it’s the fourth quarter.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        I see that two fools have given this comment thumbs down rather than attempt to refute it in any way. I guess that’s the childish response we get from those who have no facts and no arguments to present.

        To briefly restate my basic premise, renewables account for ~6% of all electricity generation in the U.S., and it is beyond bright-sidedness to be throwing around “potential” wind generation figures as if they meant anything. I await anyone who wants to actually discuss the numbers, particularly if they think we might see 2,600,000 wind turbines in TX, ND, SD, and Iowa anytime soon.

        • Gingerbaker Says:

          Somebody’s maths are wrong. New wind turbines put out ~ 5 MW each.

          And nobody is advocating tapping anything like 100% of the absolute potential of any renewable energy resource.

          And we will need a lot of them nonetheless. Jacobson & Delucci (Can we call them J&D? ) say we are going to need almost 4 million 5 MW towers to power the whole world – so, what’s that, about 750,000 of them for the U.S.?

          It’s worth repeating often – this is the best available evidence there is on the topic, is it not? This is what they say we need to power the world (and I am guestimating the U.S. will represent about 1/6th of these numbers?):

          “We estimate that 3,800,000 5 MW wind turbines, 49,000 300 MW concentrated solar plants, 40,000 300 MW solar PV power plants, 1.7 billion 3 kW rooftop PV systems, 5350 100 MW geothermal power plants, 270
          new 1300 MW hydroelectric power plants, 720,000 0.75 MW wave devices, and 490,000 1 MW tidal turbines can power a 2030 WWS world that uses electricity and electrolytic hydrogen for all purposes.

          Such a WWS infrastructure reduces world power demand by 30% and requires only 0.41% and 0.59% more of the world’s land for footprint and spacing, respectively. We suggest producing all new energy
          with WWS by 2030 and replacing the pre-existing energy by 2050. “

          • dumboldguy Says:

            “Somebody’s maths are wrong” is certainly true. New wind turbines do NOT put out ~ 5 MW each—-the very latest types hover around 3 MW, and not many of that size have been built yet. Those built in the U.S. in 2013 averaged ~2 MW.

            “And nobody is advocating tapping anything like 100% of the absolute potential of any renewable energy resource”?. My point exactly. We need to stop looking at “potential” and start making reasonable assessments of what is likely to happen. What IS that percentage that we will “tap” for each renewable energy resource, and how far out can we project?

  3. Dr. Steve Hansen Says:

    TITLE TYPO–change to either “for breath” or “to breathE” Cheers,SH

  4. As is often the case on this blog, the truth is a little different from what the solar/wind cheerleaders want it to be.

    I did a little googling, and it didn’t take long to see what is really happening to coal-based power generation:

    In short, the shale-gas “boom” is impacting coal prices. With natural gas prices so low, old-style coal burners are becoming uncompetitive. There is also the switch to coal gasification:

    And yes, the coal companies want subsidies to make the switch to coal gasification. Whether or not it’s worth the investment for the dubious benefits (in terms of CO2) emissions, that’s a question I won’t try to answer. It does help to remove sulfur from the coal, thus reducing sulfur-dioxide emissions which cause acid rain. Ironically, the geo-engineers are talking about deliberately putting more sulfur into the atmosphere in order to increase the reflectivity of clouds, thus cooling the earth. It looks like a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing.

    As we’ve discussed a few times here on CC, natural gas as a “green fuel” has some big problems, like methane leaking into the atmosphere. The problem with water pollution by caused by fracking shale to produce natural gas cannot be dismissed lightly. Whether or not fracking has much of a long-term future has still very much undecided, since depletion rates are known to be rapid.

    Anyway, point is that the imminent death of coal as a fuel source doesn’t seem to have much to do with solar and wind.

  5. andrewfez Says:

    Exxon’s energy quiz has been around a few years. They had a Youtube Google ad-sense campaign pushing it back then.

    • andrew – its rich. An energy quiz from Exxon. LOL.

      • andrewfez Says:

        Yeah, one of those companies – Shell or Exxon – used to also make long commercials about the ‘miracle’ of horizontal drilling, where they had an actor pose as an engineer who noticed his son’s bendy-straw in his drink during dinner; the straw giving him the idea for horizontal drilling – ha, ha!

  6. Ron Voisin Says:

    It’s pretty cool that coal is sustainable in the end.

  7. Talk about sychronicity. Here it is again.

    “Forget the annual war on Christmas, things are really cooking up over the war on wind energy. The fight over wind energy has become something of a new American holiday ritual around this time of year, and now the stakes are higher than ever.

    In the latest twist, a coalition of US Governors has waded into the fray with a letter to House leadership, citing a drop — yes, a drop — in electricity prices over the past five years, in states that have been producing more wind energy.”

    Some folks in a community in Ohio wish politicians would quit restraining wind energy growth. As Peter has shown repeatedly, communities benefit from wind. The technology works with communities. Contrast with the degradation of the oil boom in the Dakotas which is destroying communities. The Potters Field scene from Its a Wonderful Life.

  8. More on the Potters Filed scene from its a wonderful life and FF in the Dakotas.
    From Peter.
    The contrast with the Ohio town and wind energy is stark.

  9. For US. Here is natural gas relative to coal and the rest up to 2013. This is production.
    Natural gas electric production is down relative to the previous year. Wind is up.

    And here is EIA on capacity statistics for gas and others.

    This year, 2014, capacity additions.

    Wind stagnated in 2014 due the PTC expiration introducing doubt in the market.

    Solar grew significantly, taking up some slack.

    Natural gas was down significantly, still beating solar and wind, but not by as much.

    California solar and wind additions were about equal to Floridas natural gas addition,
    the states with the largest capacity additions.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      This is turning out to be quite a day. The evening news programs were all bright-sided over the launch of the Orion—-NASA, aerospace contractors, and politicians are all salivating over the make-jobs program and pork that they see ahead, and idiots are making speeches about how “man was meant to explore space”. Mars, here we come!

      The icing on the fruitcake tonight is yet another “Arcus Graph”. I like graphic representations of data—-it’s a lot easier to analyze graphical data than to look at tables and try to parse trends and relationships. Looking at this one, I AGAIN ask “why bother”? Where the lines will go in the next ten years is pure conjecture, and this graph doesn’t show us much.

      Will coal go down and natural gas go up? You might think so, but (OOPS) what happened in 2013? Will renewables go from 6% to 10% and match their growth over the last 10 years from 2% to 6%. We had better hope they do much better than that.

      What I found interesting is that the combined coal and natural gas percentage varied so little over the 10 year span. Adding them gives this sequence:

      (%) 68-67-68-70-70-68-69-67-67-66

      Can you say “almost a flat line”? Actually, it’s showing a slight hopeful trend near the end, but a hockey stick it ain’t.

  10. How much does wind affect coal? Well here is the midwest. Depends on where you look.

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