Tag Archives: coal plants

Beautiful Coal and Other Maladies

President Trump hasn’t been able to bring back “beautiful, clean coal” as he promised four years ago. As mines and power plants continue to close, the question many are asking in the diminishing American coal industry is—what now?

The use of coal to generate electricity in the U.S. is expected to fall more than a third during Mr. Trump’s first term, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show, as a glut of cheap natural gas unlocked due to fracking and increasingly competitive wind and solar sources gained market share. More than half of that drop happened before the new coronavirus outbreak. That compares with a decline of about 35% in coal consumed for power generation during Mr. Obama’s eight years in office.

In 2019, the U.S. consumed more renewable energy than coal for the first time since the 1880s, federal data show…“Coal isn’t coming back. You can’t legislate it,” said Karla Kimrey , previously a vice president at Wyoming-based coal producer Cloud Peak Energy Inc., which filed for bankruptcy protection last year. Domestic demand has continued to drop as utilities retire coal power plants and turn to cheap natural gas and renewables to make electricity, trends that have only accelerated as economies have slowed due to the pandemic. With less demand for power, many utilities have cut back on coal generation first, as it is generally more expensive

Meanwhile the rise of “ESG” or environmental, social and governance investing is constricting the industry’s ability to obtain capital, current and former executives say.  As major investors such as JPMorgan Chase & Co. and BlackRock Inc., the world’s largest asset manager, turn away from coal over concerns about climate change, coal companies are struggling to secure the insurance they need to operate. That hurts not only companies that mine the thermal coal used to generate electricity, but also those that mine metallurgical coal to make steel.

Excerpts from Rebecca Elliott and Jonathan Randles, Trump’s Promise to Revive Coal Thwarted by Falling Demand, Cheaper Alternatives, WSJ, Sept. 17, 2020

Praying for Renewable Energy

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, Fukushima prefecture itself pledged to get all its power from renewable sources by 2040.  The hoped-for transformation, however, has been “slow and almost invisible.”…Renewable generation has grown from 10% of the power supply in 2010 to 17% in 2018, almost half of which comes from old hydropower schemes. Most nuclear plants, which provided more than a quarter of the country’s power before the 2011 disaster, have been shut down… But for the most part they have been replaced not by wind turbines and solar panels but by power stations that burn coal and natural gas. The current government wants nuclear plants to provide at least 20% of electricity by 2030. It also wants coal’s share of generation to grow, and has approved plans to build 22 new coal-fired plants over the next five years. The target for renewables, by contrast, is 22-24%, below the current global average, and far lower than in many European countries.

Geography and geology provide part of the answer. Japan is densely populated and mountainous. That makes solar and onshore wind farms costlier to build than in places with lots of flat, empty land. The sea floor drops away more steeply off Japan’s coasts than it does in places where offshore wind has boomed, such as the North Sea. And although geothermal power holds promise, the most suitable sites tend to be in national parks or near privately owned hot springs.

Government policies also help stifle the growth of renewable energy. Since the end of the second world war, privately owned, vertically integrated regional utilities have dominated the electricity market. These ten behemoths provide stable power within their regions, but do little to co-ordinate supply and demand across their borders…The limited transmission between regions makes it even harder than usual to cope with intermittent generation from wind turbines and solar panels. It also reduces competition, which suits the incumbent utilities just fine…Recent reforms have attempted to promote renewables both directly and indirectly…The “feed-in tariff”, obliging utilities to pay a generous fixed price for certain forms of renewable energy—a policy that has prompted investors to pile into solar and wind in other countries. In 2016, the government fully liberalised the retail electricity market. It has also set up new regulatory bodies to promote transmission between regions and to police energy markets. In April 2020 a law came into force that requires utilities to run their generation, transmission and distribution units as separate businesses. These reforms constitute a policy of “radical incrementalism”.

Critics say the steps have been too incremental and not radical enough. Utilities continue to make it time-consuming and costly for new entrants to get access to the grid, imposing rules that are “not fair for newcomers”, according to Takahashi Hiroshi of Tsuru University. Existing power plants are favoured over new facilities, and the share of renewables is limited, on the ground that their intermittency threatens the grid’s stability.

But even if the government is timid, investors can still make a difference…. Several of Japan’s big multinationals have pledged to switch to clean power on a scale and schedule that put the government’s targets to shame. Environmental activism has made banks and businesses wary of investments in coal. Even big utilities have come to see business opportunities in renewables, especially in the government’s imminent auction of sites for offshore wind plants. Two of them, Tohoku Electric Power and Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), have announced plans this year to issue “green bonds” to finance renewables projects. In March 2020, TEPCO established a joint venture with Orsted, a Danish oil firm that has become a pioneer in offshore wind. 

Exceprts from Renewable Energy in Japan: No Mill Will, Economist, June 13, 2020

Boycotting Coal

Chinese coal  consumption dipped by 1.6% in 2014, despite economic growth of 7.3%. The country’s voracious appetite for steel is peaking, damping demand for coking coal. Worries about pollution mean that demand for thermal coal, as used in power stations, is slackening too. Water conservation is another concern for policymakers—on current trends coal could account for a quarter of China’s water use by 2020 and coal reserves are mainly in the most parched regions. Its coal-fired plants are running at only 54% of capacity, a 35-year low. In Beijing two big coal-fired plants closed this week; the capital’s last one will shut down next year.

Another prop to demand has been power generation in rich countries. But in America coal now struggles to compete with natural gas, which has fallen by 80% in price since 2008. Domestic coal use there peaked in 2007. European consumption soared after Germany’s hasty decision to close its nuclear-power plants. But gas and renewables are eating into that.

Coalswarm, an environmental think-tank, says in a new report that two-thirds of coal-fired power plants proposed worldwide since 2010 have been stalled or cancelled…. Overall, Europe and America have already cut coal-fired generation capacity by over a fifth in a decade. The output of American coal mines dropped to 1993 levels in 2013.

Political pressure is growing against the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. Coal provides 40% of the world’s electricity. But of 1,617GW of global capacity, 75% is of the dirtiest kind…. The chimneys of all but the most modern coal plants also emit plenty of other nasties. Mercury emissions stunt young brains. Sulphur and nitrous oxides scald lungs. Overall, coal kills around 800,000 people a year, most of them poor. In China it is responsible for up to a sixth of the particulates most dangerous for human health.

In America the coal and electric-utility industries are fighting the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempts to curb emissions of CO2, mercury and other toxins contained in coal. On March 25th, 2015 the Supreme Court heard arguments by some state governments, backed by the miners and utilities, that the agency has failed duly to consider the cost of its measures against mercury (see article).

Campaigners reckon 80% of the world’s coal reserves must stay in the ground if the planet is to stand a chance of keeping global warming under 2ºC by 2050. A divestment movement akin to the apartheid-era campaign to boycott South Africa is under way in many universities. Stanford may dump its coal investments and Oxford University is under pressure to do likewise. The World Bank no longer invests in coal-fired plants. Last year Norway’s sovereign-wealth fund dumped its holdings in more than 50 coal companies worldwide. South Korea recently introduced a carbon cap-and-trade scheme which punishes coal….

Furthermore, in some emerging markets, India especially, demand for coal is set to continue rising—so overall global demand may not peak until at least the 2030s. This week India’s government predicted a 19% rise in the country’s coal imports in this fiscal year. But thereafter the plan is to bring in private contractors to develop India’s untapped coalfields, and then to phase out all thermal-coal imports. If so, that will be grim news for the Indonesian, Australian and South African mining firms that are supplying India at the moment.

Even though some other developing nations’ coal imports will grow in future, coal companies are having to face up to a crisis now. Some are cutting costs and getting ready for a wave of consolidation. Others are litigating and lobbying against change.

Excerpts from Coal Mining: In the Depths, Economist, Mar. 28, 2015, at 65

Un-addicted to Coal – United States

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released on June 2, 2014 the Clean Power Plan proposal, which for the first time cuts carbon pollution from existing power plants, the single largest source of carbon pollution in the United States…

Power plants account for roughly one-third of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. While there are limits in place for the level of arsenic, mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particle pollution that power plants can emit, there are currently no national limits on carbon pollution levels.

[Goals to be achieved by 2030]

· Cut carbon emission from the power sector by 30 percent nationwide below 2005 levels, which is equal to the emissions from powering more than half the homes in the United States for one year;

· Cut particle pollution, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide by more than 25 percent as a co-benefit;

· Avoid up to 6,600 premature deaths, up to 150,000 asthma attacks in children, and up to 490,000 missed work or school days—providing up to $93 billion in climate and public health benefits; and

· Shrink electricity bills roughly 8 percent by increasing energy efficiency and reducing demand in the electricity system.

The Clean Power Plan will be implemented through a state-federal partnership under which states identify a path forward using either current or new electricity production and pollution control policies to meet the goals of the proposed program. The proposal provides guidelines for states to develop plans to meet state-specific goals to reduce carbon pollution and gives them the flexibility to design a program that makes the most sense for their unique situation. States can choose the right mix of generation using diverse fuels, energy efficiency and demand-side management to meet the goals and their own needs. It allows them to work alone to develop individual plans or to work together with other states to develop multi-state plans.

Also included in today’s proposal is a flexible timeline for states to follow for submitting plans to the agency—with plans due in June 2016, with the option to use a two-step process for submitting final plans if more time is needed. States that have already invested in energy efficiency programs will be able to build on these programs during the compliance period to help make progress toward meeting their goal.

Excerpt, EPA Proposes First Guidelines to Cut Carbon Pollution from Existing Power Plants/Clean Power Plan is flexible proposal to ensure a healthier environment, spur innovation and strengthen the economy, US EPA Press Release, June 2, 2014

The Fatal Attraction to Coal: World

Coal is cheap and simple to extract, ship and burn. It is abundant: proven reserves amount to 109 years of current consumption… Just as this wonder-fuel once powered the industrial revolution, it now offers the best chance for poor countries wanting to get rich.  Such arguments are the basis of a new PR campaign launched by Peabody, the world’s largest private coal company (which unlike some rivals is profitable, thanks to its low-cost Australian mines). And coal would indeed be a boon, were it not for one small problem: it is devastatingly dirty. Mining, transport, storage and burning are fraught with mess, as well as danger. Deep mines put workers in intolerably filthy and dangerous conditions. But opencast mining, now the source of much of the world’s coal, rips away topsoil and gobbles water. Transporting coal brings a host of environmental problems.

The increased emissions of carbon dioxide from soaring coal consumption threaten to fry the planet…he CO2 makes the oceans acid; burning coal also produces sulphur dioxide, which makes buildings crumble and lungs sting, and other toxic chemicals. By some counts, coal-fired power stations emit more radioactivity than nuclear ones. They release tiny, lethal particulates. Per unit generated, coal-fired stations cause far more deaths than nuclear ones, and more even than oil-fired ones.

But poverty kills people too, and slow growth can cost politicians their jobs. Two decades of environmental worries are proving only a marginal constraint on the global coal industry. The International Energy Agency has even predicted that, barring policy changes, coal may rival oil in importance by 2017… As countries get richer they tend to look for alternatives—China is scrambling to curb its rising consumption. But others, such as India and Africa, are set to take up the slack

America’s gas boom has prompted its coal miners to seek new export markets, sending prices plunging on world markets. So long as consumers do not pay for coal’s horrible side-effects, that makes it irresistibly cheap. In Germany power from coal now costs half the price of watts from a gas-fired power station. … Its production of power from cheap, dirty brown coal (lignite) is now at 162 billion kilowatt hours, the highest since the days of the decrepit East Germany.  Japan, too, is turning to coal in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. On April 11th the government approved a new energy plan entrenching its role as a long-term electricity source.

International coal companies face two worries. One is that governments may eventually impose punitive levies, tariffs and restrictions on their mucky product. The other is the global glut. Prices for thermal coal (the kind used for power and heating) are at $80-85 a tonne, which barely covers the cost of capital. Some Australian producers are even mining at a loss, having signed freight contracts with railways and ports that make them pay for capacity whether they use it or not….

Perhaps the biggest hope for all involved in the coal industry is technology. Mining and transporting coal will always be messy, but this could be overlooked were it burned cheaply and cleanly. Promising technologies abound: pulverising coal, extracting gas from it, scrubbing emissions and capturing the CO2. But none of these seems scalable in the way needed to dent the colossal damage done by coal. And all require large subsidies—from consumers, shareholders or taxpayers.

A $5.2 billion taxpayer-supported clean-coal plant in Mississippi incorporates all the latest technology. But at $6,800 per kilowatt, it will be the costliest power plant yet built (a gas-fired power station in America costs $1,000 per kW). At those prices, coal is going to stay dirty.

The fuel of the future, unfortunately: A cheap, ubiquitous and flexible fuel, with just one problem, Economist,  Apr. 19, 2014, at 55

The Battery of Europe – Swiss hydroelectricity is not Green

Swiss energy companies are determined to turn the country into a ‘battery for Europe’. Vast investments are made in big-scale water power projects. But it is not certain they will eventually pay off.  With the decision for a nuclear shutdown, the spotlight in Switzerland and Germany has switched to renewable energy sources. In Germany there’s a massive boost to solar and wind energy production, while Switzerland’s energy companies focus on increasing their storage capacities in the Alps.  About 11 percent of Europe’s electricity flows through Switzerland. The Swiss electricity industry stresses the advantages of the country’s central location in Europe and its topography. On the European energy map, Swiss mountain lakes could function as a huge battery for unsteadily generated renewable energy, and generate high revenues.

Natural and artificial mountain lakes are an essential component of Switzerland’s energy supply. Water power makes up 57 percent of the country’s electricity production. Some of these lakes aren’t just natural water reservoirs though, but serve as basins for pumped-storage hydro power plants (PSPs).  The system is simple and has long been a good business. Throughout the day, cheap, spare electricity is bought on the market and then used to pump water from a lower reservoir to a basin further up the mountain. At times when demand for electricity is high, stored water is released and drives turbines that produce electricity, which can then be sold on the market for a higher price.  Currently, 11 such plants are running in Switzerland with a combined 1400 megawatt capacity. Three other projects are under construction, to increase Swiss pumped-storage capacity to 3500 megawatts by 2017. Two more PSPs are being planned: ‘Grimsel 3′ at the Grimsel Pass in the Bernese Alps and ‘Lago Bianco’ at the Bernina Pass in Grisons.

“The symbiosis between nature and technology has defined the character of this landscape,” writes the Grimsel region’s tourism agency. Ernst Baumberger, press officer at the regional energy company KWO looks at Grimsel through two lenses: while praising the region’s beauty, Baumberger points out that a plenty of precipitation, glaciation, rock as building ground and the immense altitude difference make it ideal for water power use. KWO put its first power plant at Grimsel in operation 80 years ago.  The company recently was licenced to implement its 1.2 billion Swiss francs project ‘KWOplus’, including the construction of a second PSP (‘Grimsel 3′). The plant will have a 660 megawatt capacity, which is about the power of an average Swiss nuclear plant. The plan is controversial, both politically and economically.

“Switzerland doesn’t need any additional PSPs. There’s neither a lack of batteries, nor a grid stability problem,” argues Jürg Buri, managing director of the Swiss Energy Foundation (SES). He says that no country operates as many flexible power stations as Switzerland….Environmental organisations say that mainly cheap electricity from coal and nuclear plants is used for the pumping and that during the process, about a quarter of the energy is lost. Even worse, at windy times, PSPs keep coal and nuclear plants running.  There’s nothing green about pumped-storage hydroelectricity anyway. “If today’s PSPs were supplied with clean energy, that business would be unprofitable,” Buri says. “The revenues of the peak current wouldn’t make up for the purchase price and the energy lost for pumping.”

According to the licence, KWO is obliged to run Grimsel 3 with as much renewable energy as “economically and technically possible.” No fixed share was defined however. KWO’s Baumberger stresses that in the long term, the company’s PSPs should run solely with green electricity. “However, the primary criteria will remain the profitability,” he adds.  While the energy company praises Grimsel 3 as an important contribution to the security of energy supply for the country, Jürg Buri claims that the pumped-storage business further strains transmission lines. “In fact, to run Grimsel 3, even more lines would have to be built, something which people often forget about….

The Swiss Association for Water Management (SWV) views investments in PSPs as risky and their profitability as volatile. At the Bernische Kraftwerke (BKW), which holds half of KWO’s shares and manages electricity trade, the media officer declines to comment on the prospects of pumped-storage hydroelectricity…

In contrast to environmental organisations, KWO’s Baumberger remains optimistic. He stresses that in the light of booming wind and solar energy in Europe, the demand for further storage capacities will grow. “What Switzerland so far offers in terms of energy storage is nothing but a drop in the ocean.”  While opinions on the future of Swiss pumped-storage hydroelectricity differ sharply, one thing seems sure: the industry’s prospects lie in the hands of European, not Swiss politicians and businessmen.

Excerpts from Ray Smith, Swiss Battery May Lose Power, IPS, Dec. 8, 2012