Today’s article comes from guest editor Tsvi Bisk. From his perch at the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking, Tsvi has a great long-term outlook on the future of global energy. His piece today draws an uncommon link between the world’s large coal reserves and the green energy movement.
The United States has the largest recoverable reserves of coal in the world – equal to the entire world’s proven oil reserves.
An energy/environment program that includes coal would generate local jobs and augment local tax bases, garnering support amongst large segments of the working and middle class presently alienated from environmental concerns because of their own economic interests.
The cavalier attitude of ivory tower environmentalists towards the millions of working and middle class people who make their livings (directly and indirectly) from coal creates enemies of the environmental movement amongst the very people who should be the most avid allies of environmentalism. After all who suffers more from the health and property damage consequences of irresponsible mining and use of coal?
If we do not help coal become a friend of the environment we are in trouble. It is the fastest growing fuel source in the world and the most democratic – found on every continent and in almost every country. About 40% of the world’s electricity comes from coal and approximately 50% of the electricity in the United States comes from coal. Millions of people depend on it for their living. Glib declamations about banning coal are not doable and are dysfunctional to a rational energy and environmental strategy.
But in order to help coal become a friend of the environment, we must create a linkage between the use of coal and the promotion of alternative energy. How might this be done?
"Linking" Coal to Clean Energy through Coal Liquification
First of all, the present system of burning coal for electricity should and can be replaced by a new system of liquefying coal for transportation. If all the coal used for electrical production today in the United States was liquefied (using current liquefaction techniques) this would result in about 3 million barrels of synthetic oil production a day – an amount of liquid fuel equal to that envisaged by the Pickens Plan.
Together, both plans could be producing 6 million barrels of liquid fuel a day for the next 50-100 years. This is equal to the daily amount of petroleum now being pumped from the lower 48 States. Since a metric ton of hard coal is approximately equivalent to 5 barrels oil and a metric ton of lignite coal is approximately equivalent to 2.5 barrels oil there is room for technological innovation to increase the level of extraction from the present 1.25 barrels of oil per metric ton. Prudent policy making, however, dictates that we draw on the most conservative quantitative assumptions.
How would the linkage work?
Hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric cars should be advantaged for licensing and other taxes. All non-emergency vehicles purchased by governments (Federal, State and Local in the United States) should be hybrids, plug-in-hybrids or electric by 2010. Purchasers, whether private or governmental, would earn greenhouse emission credits they could sell to the coal liquefaction program thus providing an additional economic incentive advantaging these technologies.
Incandescent bulbs should and can be banned by 2010. Replacing a single incandescent bulb with a Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) will keep a half-ton of CO2 out of the atmosphere over the life of the bulb. It is estimated that if everyone in the U.S. used energy-efficient lighting, 80 average-size coal powered plants (500 megawatts each) could close. World over, up to 270 500-megawatt plants could close. There are about 600 such plants in the United States. Just this one step would release over 13% of the coal presently used for electric production. Since about 900 million tons of coal is used annually in the United States to produce electricity, this savings would be in the range of 117 million tons which could be converted into a little over 400,000 barrels of daily synthetic oil production. Most coal fired plants in the United States are 30-40 years old and will be retired over the next decade to be replaced by one of two options:
New ultra-critical coal-fired plants which have 48% energy efficiency (and are much more environmentally friendly) as opposed to the 36% energy efficiency of today’s sub-critical coal-fired plants. This 12% savings would release an amount of coal for liquefaction which would yield another 320,000 barrels of synthetic oil a day.
Alternative wind, solar, geothermal and waste-to-energy plants.
Greenhouse emission credits thus earned could be sold to the coal liquefaction program. Alternative energy companies could sell their products/services to homes and businesses as "loss leaders" or "at cost" in order to accumulate greenhouse emission credits which they could then sell for their profit. Such a gambit would make the price of alternative energy technologies more attractive. Consequent increased volume of sales would generate economies of scale and further lower the cost of alternative technologies. In other words coal liquefaction could become a major driver in the dissemination of alternative energy technologies and in this way become a major benefactor of the environment.
The Road to Liquified Coal
The technologies for coal liquefaction have been available since before WWII and can produce a barrel of oil for about $30. Opposition derives from the fact that these technologies release more CO2 in the conversion process than the extraction and refinement of liquid fuel from petroleum.
To assuage environmentalist opposition, liquefaction installations would be permitted to become operational on condition that they produce a half a ton of CO2 for every ton of greenhouse gases eliminated by other methods of producing energy. Trading a half a ton of CO2 for a ton of CO2, the environment would get a 2X1 benefit. Trading a half a ton of CO2 for a ton of methane the environment would get a 20X1 benefit. The ability to sell greenhouse emission credits would make waste-to-energy technologies much more competitive, especially sewage and garbage to bio-fuels (the largest generators of free methane are garbage and sewage). In this way Coal liquefaction as a major driver in the dissemination of alternative energy technologies becomes even more significant.
Coal liquefaction installations could be manufactured serially, much as Liberty Ships were manufactured in WWII or F16 fighter planes are manufactured today, using the underutilized manufacturing and human resources of America’s industrial heartland in the upper Midwest. Operating licenses would be contingent on the coal companies purchasing greenhouse emission credits to offset liquefaction emissions and would be cancelled when this condition is not observed.
Within five years the United States could be producing a million barrels of liquefied coal daily; within ten years this could increase to 2-3 million barrels a day. The upper amount would be limited only by the availability of greenhouse emission credits and new, cleaner, liquefaction technologies such as microwave technology.
Can there be clean coal? Of course there can. But to be implemented in practice rather than only in public relations puff pieces it must be economically viable. The linkage called for here makes clean coal more than possible – it makes it economically desirable.
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Tsvi Bisk is an American-Israeli futurist, social researcher and strategy planning consultant. He is Director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking (www.futurist-thinking.co.il). His most recent book is The Optimistic Jew: a Positive Vision for the Jewish People in the 21st Century (Maxanna Press, 2007). His previous book was Futurizing the Jews: Alternative Futures for Meaningful Jewish Existence in the 21st Century (Praeger Press, 2003). Both are available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. He has also published over 100 articles and essays and is a popular lecturer in both Hebrew and English.