America could save $78 billion by shutting down coal power plants


#1

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/12/04/america-could-save-78-billion.html


#2

About 200 F-35 jets, give or take.


#3

Yeah, that’s great, but I think we’re past the point of expecting rational decisions. It’s all about feels now.


#4

But 78 Million of those dollars went to the Trump campaign, so it won’t happen until 2020. Politicians go so cheap these days.


#5

Alexandria starts after a minute or so.


#6

I’m no fan of coal, but it’s a bit silly to argue that we should close coal plants because carbon taxes are making them uneconomical, since there’s an obvious response that we should just remove the carbon taxes!


#7

You’re right, we should close coal plants so we maybe don’t choke ourselves out of existence!

Here’s the /s tag you forgot.


#8

hijacked*


#9

Or to subsidize any other industry that the politicians have a vested interest in.


#10

The hell you say! Remember when conservatives, at least those in my family and I am sure others were saying alternative fuels were too expensive. When they are as cheap to run as fossil fuels then the markets would self correct and alternative energy would be viable. Well, that time is now and it has been for years. What say you now Uncle Right Wing? That’s what I figure, stick your head further up trumps’ ass.


#11


#12

There’d be a huge displacement of jobs throughout the industry. Sure we could allocate some of our savings to job training etc but that’s only been partly successful when tried. The big issue is geographic displacement: any new jobs just aren’t going to be in rural WVa, PA etc. So you have the prospect of a lot of (republican-voting) families being ‘sacrificed’ on an altar of economic efficiency. That turns it from an economic issue to a political one (which of course it always was).


#13

This is an anti-coal think tank releasing a study that says coal is bad. It should be taken about as seriously on its own as a Cato study suggesting that socialism is bad.

What it found is that about about half of coal-fired electricity producers operate at a loss. This is pretty much exactly what we would expect if electricity generation was treated as a utility (as it usually is) and therefore profit margins were intended to be very close to 0%. We should also take into account that fossil fuel prices are pretty volatile, and since electricity producers operate on thin margins, that volatility means frequent turns about and below profitability. I bet you could get different results from essentially the same methodology depending on exactly when you performed the study.

It doesn’t mention that more than 40% of solar and wind producers would operate at a loss if it weren’t for direct subsidies for wind and solar producers. It doesn’t mention that coal production is heavily taxed, which is an anti-subsidy (in b4 “fossil fuels are heavily subsidized!” The taxes on fossil fuels more than outweigh the indirect subsidies given to fossil fuel companies).

It also doesn’t mention that many unprofitable coal-fired facilities are subsidized by the governments of countries that have invested heavily in solar and wind generation. That is because these are intermittent electricity generation technologies, and when there is not sufficient sun and wind for several months to provide adequate power, they need to fire up the coal-powered plants to generate electricity regardless of how unprofitable it is to do so.

Another way of looking at the last paragraph: it makes no sense to talk about the unprofitability of coal without taking into account the effects of subsidies and other policies favoring wind and solar, because the latter are an important cause of the former.

As far as why we’re paying the extra $78 billion? Because Americans are willing to pay $210 bucks each ($78 billion/370 million) to have the lights turn on when we flick the switch instead of waiting for an especially windy day.


#14

Profit margins in regulated utilities are limited but not normally “intended to be 0%”. Most other electricity producers make money. Also, while retail electricity is a completely captive market in most places, production is less so, with various producers competing for contracts with the “utility”. Still regulated, but not so regulated that different production forms can’t coexist.

What is driving coal unprofitability is actually the combination of cheap renewable energy and (completely unmentioned in the excerpt) cheap natural gas.

Well, non-hydro renewable energy isn’t close to 100% of typical generation much of anywhere, so of course we still need conventional generators regardless of whether it is windy or not. Wind output exceeds demand in some places at night when there is both peak production and minimum demand, but that is the exception. But in many places with heavy wind + solar installation the surplus is largely handled by natural gas. The reason is that natural gas generators are much more able to follow demand. In fact, even when coal was king they still needed natural gas peakers because while coal is reliable in the sense that it produces steady output, it can’t be ramped up and down as quickly to follow demand. Natural gas is far from ideal, but it is way cleaner than coal in every way – soot, smog compounds, acid rain, global warming potential, and waste heat discharged into the cooling water, as well as the environmental damage from extraction – even counting the worst problems with fracking.

Retiring coal plants as fast as we can install replacement – as much renewable energy as possible and natural gas for the balance – is the sensible thing to do both enviornmentally and economically. This doesn’t really help the people left employed in coal extraction jobs – even if they can be retrained to install wind turbines it won’t be in west virginia.


#15

You could build one hell of a border wall with that kind of cash.


#16

Energy storage technology right now is so poor that usually we’re talking about time scales of hours rather than months. On that scale, coal-fired steam is a pretty poor technology (and nuclear is even worse), because of the immense amounts of time and energy needed to bring boilers up to temperature and pressure before a plant can start producing, and the immense losses cooling them down again once the Sun resumes shining or the wind resumes blowing. Steam generation, fired by whatever means, is a base load technology, pretty much exclusively.

Gas turbine (with possible steam cogeneration) fills that niche a whole lot better. The cogeneration might not do much in the grand scheme of things because it has similar losses, but since it runs off the waste heat from the gas turbine, it’s essentially free (or rather, costs only the capital and maintenance costs of that part of the plant). Gas turbines can also burn very heavy oil that has no other real use except to pave the roads. They frequently need to use steam injection just to get their fuel to flow adequately.

They can also burn anything from that heavy residual oil down to natural gas - and natural gas at the moment is a byproduct of petroleum production - if the peak load capacity of the electrical business didn’t consume so much of the stuff, it would probably be going to waste, flared off at the wellhead or refinery.

You are, of course, quite right that wind and solar are both unreliable technologies, although a massively upgraded grid would mitigate that risk substantially - the wind is always blowing somewhere! What would really drive the nails into the coffin of fossil fuel generation is better energy storage technology than pumping water uphill.

Even discounting the risks to the climate, both coal and oil are both too valuable as chemical feedstock to throw them away by burning them - it’s like burning the furniture to heat the house.


#17

The saddest thing of all (and I believe it’s already been pointed out on this page?) is that instead we will keep those bastards profitable until sustainables can take over without assistance. Otherwise coal and gas will crash, and we don’t yet have enough capacity to bridge the gap. We can’t get it out there fast enough. It will suck worse than it does now, before the new era comes.


#18

Does it help or hurt the cause if the wall is coal powered?


#19

The coal industry employs fewer Americans than Arby’s and is even worse for our collective health. It’s absolutely insane that we are shaping our national energy policy around keeping people in those jobs.

For the money we saved we could easily find a way to employ all those people to do something less destructive, less dangerous and more useful.


#20

But it’s not the carbon taxes that are making them uneconomical. Renewable energy is now cheaper (and it’s getting cheaper every year). Carbon taxes just make coal even more uneconomical than it would otherwise be.

The coal industry had peak employment about 95 years ago - it’s been strongly downhill for the industry since. The displacement already happened - the industry employs less than a tenth of what it once did.
The workers need aid, not artificially propping up the industry and pretending that coal jobs could come back, as the Republicans have done. That does more damage to those communities than facing up to the facts - that coal has no future. And yeah, those regions probably aren’t going to get replacement jobs, and those communities have no long-term future (especially since the coal industry has destroyed environments and poisoned drinking water - what industry would deliberately locate there?). Eliminating government programs and safety nets, as the Republicans have done, isn’t going to help either.

Hell, Trump’s tariffs have already eliminated more manufacturing jobs than there are jobs in the entire coal industry. (Yet no one seems too concerned about that, even though it’s not like there are equivalent replacement jobs for those workers either.)
Although not all Arby’s jobs are located in specific areas, with the rest of the region dependent on those jobs. But that’s what governments should be for - helping people in this situation, when their community gets devastated by the whims of capitalism. It’s not going to be pleasant for the locals, but it beats killing billions with climate change.