Friday, January 15, 2010

Coal and Nuclear

A blog about coal? Why am I posting about coal? Various reasons. One reason is that I gave a class about coal yesterday, so I'm still thinking about coal. A better reason is that I see the energy rivalry as coal versus nuclear, while most people who are anti-nuclear see the rivalry as nuclear versus renewables.

At the anti-VY walkers press conference in Montpelier, I talked for a long time with one of the people opposed to Vermont Yankee. We got along famously when we discussed Improv classes that we had taken, but we disagreed about coal. I said that the Walkers, by trying to take nuclear off-line, were simply encouraging coal. He objected, saying that taking nuclear off-line meant more renewables, not more fossil.

This is the crux of so many arguments between nuclear supporters and those who feel nuclear isn't right. If not nuclear, then we will have...what?

The grid is a big, robust system which includes many, many power plants. The grid is not something where you can say: take this plant off-line and therefore, renewables will happen. It just doesn't work that way.

A couple of charts about the nationwide growth of coal usage. A coal industry chart showing that the use of coal to generate electricity in the U.S. has grown from 100 to over 1000 million short tons from 1950 to 2005 (more or less) with accelerated growth recently. A rather nice pie chart about today's electricity situation can be found at a site called As you can see, coal generation is 49% percent of U.S. electricity production.

If you like your statistics straight up, without graphs, EIA is definitely the source. If you look at this table, you can see electricity from coal growing from 1,700,000 thousand megawatt hours in 1995 to around 2,000,000 thousand megawatt hours between 2000 and forward. Meanwhile, nuclear grew from 673,00 to 787,000 from 1995 to 2006 as plants were uprated and became better at managing outages. Renewables, not including traditional hydroelectric, grew from 73,000 to 96,000 in the same period.

As you scroll down the table, you can see that electric power use decreased in 2007-2009, but nuclear held pretty steady and renewables grew significantly. My two favorite technologies did well! But coal is still king.

I spent a small portion of my life on pollution control research for fossil fuels. Because of this, I wanted to educate people a little about coal. Therefore, I am giving a course about coal at ILEAD a life-long learning center at Dartmouth.

Yesterday, I led the first class of All Around the (Coal) Boiler. It's a lot of work to teach that class, because, unlike nuclear or renewables, there are very few books about coal. The books focus on the problems created by coal mines. They hardly mention standard pollution control techniques or how well (or badly) they work.

I'll post more about my class soon. I am happy to say that I have arranged a field trip to a local coal plant, the Merrimack plant in Bow New Hampshire. Of course, when I tell this to many people in my hometown, they often answer: "You mean there's a coal plant around here?"

That question is part of the problem.


Kit P said...

To be accurate, to produce base load electricity in the US we can choose from nukes, coal, natural gas, geothermal, and biomass. Regulations require that electricity be produced while protecting the public and workers. The environment must also be protected but to a slightly lower standard. The environmental impact of making electricity is insignificant.

In general, the cost difference between new sources insignificant too. I stopped telling people in certain social settings that I worked in the electricity generating industry because I do not like hearing how expensive electricity when the speaker is holding a $4 cup of coffee or a $8 ethanol beverage.

The three most important considerations when siting a new power plant are location, location, and location.

However, when we get to specifics; maintaining a nuke plant running for an additional 20 years has huge cost and environmental advantages.

Robert Hargraves said...

I learned today that the energy in existing spent nuclear fuel is 10 times that of all US coal reserves.

Meredith Angwin said...

Bob. Thanks for the comment. I always get upset when they call the spent fuel "nuclear waste." Within fifty years, it is going to be a very valuable commodity.

Country Mouse said...

One may be disappointed in the businesses running the nuclear facilities while supporting the technology I guess. BTW while I think all around the (coal) boiler would be a very informative and interesting class - I do confess that "Modern Scottish Poetry" on a Monday afternoon sounds truly delightful! How great that the Dartmouth center has all these interesting courses! Thanks as ever for keeping my ears open to the more technical side of things that I (maybe arts majors in general) do find difficult to absorb.