Coal is Not the Answer to Energy Poverty and Here’s Why

Coal is Not the Answer to Energy Poverty and Here’s Why

by Kevin Grandin

The end of dirty power generation is a certainty, the only variable is the timing. The sooner the better for this planet. – Editor
coal fired power generation
Dirty power generation must soon end if we are to mitigate global warming, lower healthcare costs and increase quality of life for humankind. Image Credit Alfred Palmer

Worldwide, the coal industry is suffering as the demand for its product weakens in the face of a surge in clean, renewable energy options and a world that can no longer afford to continue to consume this dirty fossil fuel. To deal with this decline in revenue, some coal companies like Peabody Energy are spending millions… Continue reading Coal is Not the Answer to Energy Poverty and Here’s Why

Solar & Wind Catch Up With Coal & Gas

Solar And Wind Catch Up With Coal and Natural Gas Across The Globe

In some regions of the U.S., the cost of utility-scale solar electricity rates are *cheaper than the cost of the fuel alone* for natural-gas plants.
In some regions of the U.S., the cost of utility-scale solar electricity rates are cheaper than the cost of the fuel alone for natural-gas plants. Image courtesy of understandsolar.com

As solar panel prices have decreased by more than 80 percent in the past decade and wind turbines have also seen dramatic price falls, both types of renewable energy have become much more competitive.

Meanwhile, fossil fuels received $583 billion in 2014 globally in subsidies — even as renewable energy continues to receive a much lower level of subsidies ($124 billion in 2014).

Harvard Study: Renewable Energy Results in Major Healthcare Savings

The displacement of fossil fueled electricity, especially coal-fired power plants, by renewable energy technologies is just as good for public health as it is for the climate, Harvard researchers say.

Renewable Energy and Human Health - A wind farm in Illinois. Credit: Amit Gupta/flickr
Renewable Energy and Human Health – A wind farm in Illinois. Credit: Amit Gupta/flickr

Building wind and solar farms helps to reduce the human impact on climate change by displacing noxious emissions from coal-fired power plants. A new study says there’s another important benefit to renewables development: cost savings from cleaner air that saves lives.

Researchers from Harvard University, in a bid to show the monetary value of clean energy projects in terms of improved public health, have found that energy efficiency measures and low-carbon energy sources can save a region between $5.7 million and $210 million annually, based on the accepted dollar value of human life. — Climate Central

In a new report published in the journal Nature Climate Change, researchers from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health write that regional health benefits…

Continue reading Harvard Study: Renewable Energy Results in Major Healthcare Savings

Air Pollution Cost Approaches $1 trillion in the West

by John Brian Shannon
(Originally published at JBSnews.com)

Air pollution has a very real cost to our civilization via increased healthcare costs, premature deaths, lowered productivity, environmental degradation with resultant lowered crop yields, increased water consumption and higher taxation.

However, air pollution is only one cost associated with fossil fuel use.

There are three main costs associated with energy

  1. The retail price that you pay at the gas pump or on your utility bill for example
    (which is paid by consumers)
  2. The subsidy cost that governments pay energy producers and utility companies
    (which is ultimately paid by taxpayers)
  3. The externality cost of each type of energy
    (which is paid by taxpayers, by increased prices for consumers, and the impact on, or the ‘cost to’ the environment)

Externality cost in Europe and the U.S.A.

A recent report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) states that high air pollution levels (one type of externality) in the EU cost society €189 billion every year and it’s a number that increases every year. (That’s $235 billion when converted to U.S. dollars)

To put that number in some kind of context, the cost of the air pollution externality in the EU annually, is equal to the GDP of Finland.

Let’s state that even more clearly. The amount of taxation paid by EU taxpayers every year to pay for airborne fossil fuel damage is equal to Finland’s entire annual economic output!

It’s getting worse, not better, notwithstanding recent renewable energy programs and incentives. Even the admirable German Energiewende program is barely making an impact when we look at the overall EU air quality index.

“Of the 30 biggest facilities it identified as causing the most damage, 26 were power plants, mainly fueled by coal in Germany and eastern Europe.” — Barbara Lewis (Reuters)

That’s just Europe. It’s even worse in the U.S., according to a landmark Harvard University report which says coal-fired power generation (externality cost alone) costs the U.S. taxpayer over $500 billion/yr.

“Each stage in the life cycle of coal—extraction, transport, processing, and combustion—generates a waste stream and carries multiple hazards for health and the environment. These costs are external to the coal industry and thus are often considered as “externalities.”

We estimate that the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually.

Many of these so-called externalities are, moreover, cumulative.

Accounting for the damages conservatively doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh generated, making wind, solar, and other forms of non fossil fuel power generation, along with investments in efficiency and electricity conservation methods, economically competitive.

We focus on Appalachia, though coal is mined in other regions of the United States and is burned throughout the world.” — Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal by Dr. Paul Epstein, the Director of Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment, and eleven other co-authors

The report also notes that electricity costs would need to rise by another .09 to .27 cents per kilowatt hour in the U.S. to cover the externality cost of American coal-fired electricity production.

The externality cost for solar or wind power plants is zero, just for the record

Dr. Epstein and his team notes: “Coal burning produces one and a half times the CO2 emissions of oil combustion and twice that from burning natural gas (for an equal amount of energy produced).”

There’s the argument to switch from coal to natural gas right there

Also in the Harvard report in regards to the intrinsic inefficiency of coal: “Energy specialist Amory Lovins estimates that after mining, processing, transporting and burning coal, and transmitting the electricity, only about 3% of the energy in the coal is used in incandescent light bulbs.”

“…In the United States in 2005, coal produced 50% of the nation’s electricity but 81% of the CO2 emissions.

For 2030, coal is projected to produce 53% of U.S. power and 85% of the U.S. CO2 emissions from electricity generation.

None of these figures includes the additional life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from coal, including methane from coal mines, emissions from coal transport, other GHG emissions (e.g., particulates or black carbon), and carbon and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from land transformation in the case of MTR coal mining.” — Harvard University’s Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal report

It’s not like this information is secret. All European, American, and Asian policymakers now know about the externality costs of coal vs. renewable energy. It’s just that until recently everyone thought that the cost of switching to renewable energy, was higher than the cost of fossil externalities.

It’s not only an economic problem, it’s also a health problem

“Air pollution impacts human health, resulting in extra healthcare costs, lost productivity, and fewer work days. Other impacts are reduced crop yields and building damage.

Particulate matter and ground-level ozone are two of the main pollutants that come from coal.

90% or more of Europeans living in cities are exposed to harmful air pollution. Bulgaria and Poland have some of the worst pollution of the European countries.

An estimated 400,000 premature deaths in European cities were linked to air pollution in 2011.” — CleanTechnica

Externality cost in China

Remember the Beijing Olympics where the city’s industry and commercial business were shut down to allow visitors and athletes to breathe clean air during their stay (and Wow!) look at their clear blue sky for the first time in decades. Great for tourists! Bad for Beijing business and industry, with the exception of the tourism industry (for one month) of course.

The Common Language Project reported in 2008 that premature deaths in China resulting from fossil fuel air pollution were surpassing 400,000 per year.

“China faces a number of serious environmental issues caused by overpopulation and rapid industrial growth. Water pollution and a resulting shortage of drinking water is one such issue, as is air pollution caused by an over-reliance on coal as fuel. It has been estimated that 410,000 Chinese die as a result of pollution each year.” clpmag.org

The die is cast since it is becoming common knowledge that renewable energy merely requires a small subsidy to assist with power plant construction and grid harmonization — while fossil fuels continue to require truly massive and ongoing subsidies to continue operations.

Subsidy cost of fossil fuels

Already there is talk of ending fossil fuel producer subsidies, which in 2014 will top $600 billion worldwide

Want to add up the total costs (direct economic subsidy and externality cost subsidy) of fossil fuels?

Add the $600 billion global fossil fuel subsidy to the to the $2 trillion dollars of global externality cost and you arrive at (approx) $2.5 trillion dollars per year. Then there is the more than 1 million premature deaths globally caused by air pollution. All of that is subsidized by the world’s taxpayers.

Compare that to the total costs of renewable energy. Well, for starters, the economic subsidy dollar amount for renewable energy is much less (about $100 billion per year globally) and there are no externality costs.

No deaths. No illness. No direct or related productivity loss due to a host of fossil fuel related issues (oil spills, coal car derailment, river contamination, explosions in pipelines or factories) for just a very few examples.

The fossil fuel industry is a very mature industry, it has found ways to do more with ever-fewer employees, and it gets more subsidy dollars than any other economic segment on the planet.

By comparison, the renewable energy industry is a new segment, one that requires many thousands of workers and it gets only relative handfuls of subsidy dollars. And, no externalities.

It becomes clearer every day that high carbon fossil electricity power production must be displaced by renewable energy

No longer is it some arcane moral argument that we should switch to renewables for the good of the Earth; Fossil fuel is proving to be a major factor in human illness/premature deaths, it sends our money abroad to purchase energy instead of keeping our money in our own countries, and the wholly-taxpayer-funded subsidy cost of fossil is out of control and getting worse with each passing year.

The time for dithering is past. It’s time to make the switch to renewable energy, and to start, we need to remove the worst polluting power plants from the grid (and at the very least, replace them with natural gas powered plants) or even better, replace them with hybrid wind and solar power plants.

To accomplish this, governments need to begin diverting some of the tens of billions of dollars annually paid to the fossil fuel industry to the renewable energy industry.

Germany’s Energiewende program was (and still is) an admirable first step. Once Germany has completed it’s energy transition away from oil, coal and nuclear — having replaced all of that generation capacity with renewable energy and natural gas, only then can it be hailed a complete success — and German leaders should go down in history as being instrumental in changing the world’s 21st century energy paradigm.

Dank an unsere deutschen Freunde! (With thanks to our German friends!)

If only every nation would sign-on to matching or exceeding the ongoing German example, we wouldn’t have 1 million premature deaths globally due to fossil fuel burning, we wouldn’t have almost 2 trillion dollars of externality cost, we wouldn’t need $600 billion dollars of direct subsidies for fossil fuel producers — and we would all live in a healthier environment, and our plant, animal, and aquatic life would return to their normally thriving state.

Taxes would reflect the global $2.5 trillion drop in combined fossil fuel subsidy and fossil fuel externality costs, employment stats would improve, productivity would increase, the tourism industry would receive a boost, and enjoyment of life for individuals would rebound.

It’s a truism in the energy industry that all energy is subsidized, of that there is no doubt. Even renewable energy receives tiny amounts of subsidy, relative to fossil.

But it is now apparent that over the past 100 years, getting ‘the best (energy) bang for the buck’ has been our nemesis. The energy world that we once knew, is about to change.

The world didn’t come to an end when air travel began to replace rail travel in the 1950’s. Now almost everyone travels by air, and only few travel by train.

And what about the railway investors didn’t they lose their money when the age of rail tapered-off? No, they simply moved their money to the new transportation mode and made as much or more money in the airline business.

Likewise, the world will not come to an end now that renewable energy is beginning to displace coal and oil. Investors will simply reallocate their money and make as much or more money in renewable energy.

Sustainable Energy Policy to save EU €81 bn/year by 2030

by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

Accenture says a sustainable pan-European energy policy could save consumers €27 to €81 billion per year by 2030 and result in a cleaner utility grid model.
Accenture says a sustainable energy policy could save European electricity consumers €27 to €81 billion per year by 2030.

A recent report authoured by Accenture for EURELECTRIC says that if European nations work together towards an integrated and pan-European energy policy it could generate savings for electricity consumers between €27 to €81 billion per year by 2030 and the result would be a cleaner utility grid model.

Accenture is calling on European governments to phase-out renewable energy targets and renewable energy programme spending — replacing both with a carbon trading scheme, one that essentially rewards low carbon energy producers and penalizes high carbon energy producers.

All of this is happening during a time of unprecedented change within the European energy industry.

In the fascinating German example, that country shut down much of its nuclear power generation rather than spend multi-billions to upgrade its aging and oft-troubled nuclear fleet. Consequently, Germany is now burning record amounts of coal and natural gas to replace that lost generation capacity — in addition to the installation of record amounts of wind, solar and biomass capacities to the German grid.

In the decades following WWII, German utility companies operated in a cozy, sheltered environment. But few knew how expensive it was to operate and maintain on account of massive government subsidies and preferential treatment of the utility industry. German consumers never had it so good and likewise for sleepy German energy giants, which have now awoken to find that the energy picture has changed dramatically in little over a decade.

Hence, even more subsidies were employed to counter for the loss of German nuclear power via Feed-in-Tariffs (FiT) for wind, solar and biomass capacity additions to the grid, partially financed by a hefty nuclear decommissioning fee added to every German electricity bill.

At least in Germany, it turns out that while nuclear has practically disappeared, and with no fuel costs to worry about, renewable energy combined to lower German electricity rates during the hours of the day that wind and solar are active, causing downward pressure on electricity rates. At the same time, German utilities burned record amounts of brown coal and expensive Russian natural gas to meet total demand which caused upward spikes in the electricity rate during the hours of the day that coal and natural gas were required to meet total demand.

In simple terms, the removal of nuclear from the German energy mix has resulted in higher electricity rates — not because some of that capacity was replaced by renewable energy — but because significant fossil fuel burning was required to meet demand, combined with nuclear decommissioning costs.

Were German politicians and their voters wrong to shut down the country’s nuclear power plants? Not a bit. Germany’s nuclear power plants were problem-plagued and the costs to bring all 19 reactors up to modern standards were prohibitive. Shutting down the German nuclear fleet was unfortunate perhaps, but necessary.

German consumers continue to yearn for clean energy and low energy costs. Unsurprisingly, the German public has reacted to energy that seems to be getting dirtier and more expensive by the day, and the massive nuclear decommissioning costs which will continue long past 2022, perhaps until 2045.

After the loss of nuclear, the German energy grid initially became cleaner with the addition of wind and solar, but then became dirtier than ever as record amounts of brown coal and natural gas were burned! Es ist zum weinen.

And that’s just the story in Germany. Every European partner country has its own story to tell in an electricity market that is undergoing unprecedented and rapid change — and each country’s electricity market is as different from each other as they are from the German example. Although each story is different, the net result is the same; The energy industry across Europe must adapt to the loss of (some) nuclear and the growing consumer disenchantment with fossil fuels, and to the huge consumer driven additions of renewable energy to the grid. And it must be done in a cost-effective way or utility companies and their respective governments will face consumer backlash.

Utility companies shocked by the unprecedented and rapid changes thrust upon them by nuclear shutdowns and the multiple demands of consumers are hoping that a harmonized set of rules across Europe will allow them to meet rising electricity demand.

If you look at what utilities really want, it is one harmonized set of rules across Europe. Europe is one market; it’s one playing field, and utilities really benefit from a harmonized set of rules.

It is like playing football; if you play football,you don’t want different rules for different parts of the field. — Sander van Ginkel, Managing Director, Accenture Utilities

“European electricity prices are rising fast. As a result, the overall increase in energy expenditure is putting mounting pressure on residential end-users and undermining the competitiveness of European industry. The implementation of the energy transition has so far lacked optimization on a pan-European scale. Without a concerted effort to more effectively manage the costs of the energy transition, expenditure on electricity and gas in 2030 could be 50 percent higher than it is today.

A step-change in the reshaping of the European energy system is needed — by reconfirming the European power sector’s support for Europe’s sustainability agenda through an optimized approach that avoids unnecessary costs. Doing so would put significant benefits within reach: our analysis shows that implementing an integrated set of levers could generate net savings of €27 to €81 billion per year by 2030. Such savings could be achieved by further integrating energy markets and the supporting regulatory framework at a European level and by leveraging flexibility throughout the electricity value chain — provided utilities, governments, regulators and consumers can forge a joint commitment to work together.” — Quoted from the Accenture/EURELECTRIC report

Accenture’s report says that Europe’s utilities must meet customer demands for more energy, but make it cheaper and cleaner and that the existing grid model will fail unless changes are made. Accenture has suggested four main ways to achieve these goals.

  1. Optimizing renewable energy systems
  2. Market integration
  3. Active system management
  4. Demand response and energy saving

“The restructuring of the European electricity system will have to be carried out cost-effectively if we are to gain the support and trust of energy consumers. This study shows that, with the right policies in place, the energy transition could cost each European citizen over € 100 less a year than if we continue with business as usual.” Hans ten BERGE Secretary General. Union of the Electricity Industry – EURELECTRIC

It seems reasonable that all of Europe’s utility companies acting together could arrive at a better solution. Complementary and overlapping energy capabilities may prove to be the model that works for Europe, as opposed to the direct competition model favoured in the U.S.

A carbon tax which reflects the true societal costs of fossil fuels could be a just solution to Europe’s present grid malaise. However, it is doubtful that a carbon tax will ever reflect the true cost to society of fossil fuels — which have been estimated to cost €30 per tonne of CO2 — but a carbon mechanism may well provide the impetus to foster a new and better European energy paradigm.

No matter the how the equation looks, it is sometimes only the answer that matters. A cleaner energy mix and reasonable electricity rates within a stable electricity grid is something that all sides can cheer for. How very European!

See the Accenture video (click here)