Can Wind Compete With Coal?
By Bill Moore
EV World asked Professor Jacobson about the technical and political obstacles facing widespread development of America's wind energy potential. He responded that the principle obstacle is the current installed base of coal and natural gas-fired electric generation. He said there is a lot of electricity "out there." This is due, in part, to there being a lot of cheap coal available, upwards of 600 years worth, by some estimates. By contrast, natural gas reserves are estimated at 60 years. It has also become a more volatile energy source of late.
He pointed out that the recent interest in wind stems from the fact that, unlike its competitors - - coal and natural gas - - it generates no pollution or greenhouse gases. As a result, it is far better for the environment and people's health starting with the people who have to mine coal, much of it from dangerous underground mines.
"There are several effects of coal . . . on health, the environment and global climate that are not accounted for in the price of coal," Jacobson stated. He said that on average in the United States since 1973, 2000 coal miners die every year from "black lung" disease. The federal government has paid out some $35 billion since 1973 in black lung disease benefits to miners and their survivors.
This is, in his view, a hidden subsidy to the coal industry that is not reflected in the current price of coal. "It is an external cost that all the people of the United States are paying for." And coal's negative impact doesn't end at the mine face. Both shaft mining and open pit mining have a profound environmental impact as millions of tons of waste are dumped in giant hills of slag, while entire tops of mountains are stripped away to get at coal seams in surface mining.
(Editor's note: From personal experience, I can attest to rivers in West Virginia often running black after a heavy rain.)
Once coal is pulverized and burned, the pollution continues, Jacobson stated. It generates a host of pollutants including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, organic gases, methane, carbon monoxide and particulate soot.
"The particles particularly cause respiratory, cardiovascular disease, asthma and increased mortality. In the US every year, 50,000 people die prematurely from air pollution. This is from all pollution sources. Coal and natural gas would be responsible for a portion of that . . ."
Then there is the problem of "acid rain" that is formed in the atmosphere downwind of coal-powered electric utility plants. Acid rain is blamed for the acidification of lakes in the northeastern United States, as well as in Europe and Asia. It also has caused serious damage to forests, particularly in Europe.
Urban smog can also be traced, not just to automobile exhausts, but to power plant emissions, Jacobson contends. Much of the smog-forming ozone on the American East Coast can be traced back to precursor compounds generated by Midwestern power plants hundreds of miles to the West.
"In fact that was an issue that went up the US Court of Appeals," he said, "because the EPA wanted to require Midwest power plants to reduce emissions because they were causing some of the ozone problems in the Northeast."
Unfortunately, many of the old, highly polluting power plants are exempt from more stringent environmental regulations due to "grandfather" laws and therefore continue to pollute, while producing cheap electricity.
Coal's drawbacks continued to mount as Jacobson shifted from the Northeast to the American Southwest where power plant generated haze is obscuring the once pristine air in some of the nation's most magnificent natural wonders.
Finally, there is the issue of global warming and the huge amounts of carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases released once we burn coal that is, in itself, a hugely inefficient process where most of the energy is dumped into the atmosphere as unused, waste heat.
(Editor's note: At best, most pulverized coal power plants are about 33% efficient, meaning 67% of the thermal energy found in coal is lost during the power generation process.)
Wind Success in Europe
Where the Bush Administration's proposed energy plan calls for more coal use, in Europe - - and in Germany, in particular - - there is a very visible shift away from coal to other, more benign energy sources including wind power. Most European countries have pledged to supply from 10-30% of their energy from renewable energy sources. Germany is well on its way towards that goal, generating in the year 2000 over 6,000 megawatts of electricity from both onshore and offshore wind farms. This is nearly three times the amount generated by wind farms in the United States in the same year.
In the late 1970s after the OPEC oil embargoes and then the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Russia, the Germans and the Danes got serious about developing wind power. Today, they are the world leaders in large wind turbine manufacturing.
EV World asked Jacobson if there are elements of their wind power policies that the US should start emulating. He responded by suggesting that while there are many people in the US concerned about environmental issues, there seem to be a greater percentage of environmentally-conscious people in Europe. He pointed out that Germany has "eco-taxes".
"They put a tax on fossil fuel emissions on anything that emits CO2 and other pollutants. . ."
He observed that after the reunification of Germany, many of the old, inefficient lignite (brown) coal mines in what was East Germany were shut down, in part for economic reasons, but also because of the extensive environmental damage they had caused in eastern Europe. This offered wind farm developers in Germany the opportunity to replace the energy once generated by old, obsolete, coal-fired generators with clean wind power. This is in contrast to the US where there has been a huge supply of electric energy, especially in the early 1990s, making it difficult for alternative energy to establish more than a niche role in power generation.
Jacobson said that this picture is starting to change, especially in California as energy sources start to tighten. He stated that wind energy is the fastest growing source of new energy in the US.
"Of course, that's kind of misleading because it is only a small percent, point one percent of energy. It is increasing relatively quickly, but the actual amount is still small compared to these other sources. . ."
Federal Wind Farms?
In their paper appearing in the journal, Science, Jacobson and his co-author calculated that if the federal government spent just 3-4% of its annual budget to built wind farms, it could replace 10% of the coal used in the US at no real cost to the government. This is because the government could then sell the power back to its citizens at cost, which he calculates to be about 3-4 cents per kilowatt hour. He added that this is not unprecedented because the US government has been in the retail power business for decades. The Tennessee Valley Authority and the BPA are just two examples.
He said this 3-4% of the federal budget equates to about $70 billion dollars, which itself is approximately what the federal government has spent in black lung disease payments since 1973 when calculated at current dollar values.
How many wind turbines would this buy? Jacobson calculated that if you bought 1.5MW turbines, you'd have to install 35-40,000 wind turbines. If you used it to buy the next generation 5MW units, you only would have to install some 10-12,000 turbines, about the same number currently in operation in the US, although most of these are smaller, older units that were put up twenty years ago or more.
Where would you put them? He suggested that there are two generic places. We could put many of them offshore like they are doing in Europe. And we could place many of them in the Great Plains in a wind belt that stretches from the Dakota's to Texas.
(Editor's note: There are enough class 4 or better wind sites in North Dakota alone to supply all 48 contiguous states with 36% of the nation's electricity needs).
PART THREE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
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