Fly ash, mercury and black lung in an era of 3,000 quads

Coal plants are cleaner than they used to be–up to 77% cleaner, depending on how it’s measured–and the EPA in the U.S. is fighting to get them to be even cleaner. Coal mining is safer than it used to be–and we’re fighting to make it even safer.

But coal mining still produces mercury, which is really a poison. It still produces fly ash, which is not only unhealthy in the air, but gets stacked up in dumps that are not stable–too many of them end up sliding into rivers and streams. It is still dangerous. Too many miners are killed or injured at work, and too many suffer the aftereffects long after they’ve left the mines.

We use a lot of coal in the United States. It is burnt as the fuel providing about 45% of our electricity. Our environmental standards, while not the best in the world, are good at trying to limit the damage caused by our need for coal. But these environmental standards carry their own cost, and that cost is borne by both government and industry.

In developing countries the need for fuel is growing so quickly that they haven’t had the time to develop standards to protect their citizenry from the effects of pollution and lax safety rules. Coal is a big part of their fuel mix and that’s only going to grow. China, which is looking everywhere for energy solutions, is serious about going green, building wind and solar and nuclear as quickly as it feasibly can. But their dependence on coal will be ongoing throughout the century.

Old King Coal supplies about 21% of America’s energy needs overall. It supplies about 69% of China’s. And whereas America’s future energy growth will be moderate, China’s will be explosive. I have calculated here that their energy consumption will grow from 100 quads to 247 quads by 2030. And their use of coal will grow from 69% to 70% over that time. The same is likely to hold true throughout Asia, as quickly developing countries latch on to the fuel that has the least expensive sticker price.

But even to the extent that they are aware of the hidden costs of coal, they are for the moment willing to bear the pain associated with mining deaths, mercury in the air and water, etc., etc., as life without adequate energy just isn’t worth living.

So as we move to a future (in 2075) where we are likely to consume six times as much energy as we do today, and most of it will be in developing countries reliant on coal and without the mechanisms to make coal as safe as it is here, I guess the only silver lining is that the U.S. is focusing on an industry sector that will be hugely relevant to the people undergoing this dramatic transformation:



9 responses to “Fly ash, mercury and black lung in an era of 3,000 quads

  1. Hi Tom, As someone who has lived most of his life in western PA, eastern KY, and WV, I have to bring up Mountain Top Removal mining whenever someone mentions coal. It only represents a few percent of coal mined, and it is extremely lucrative. Unfortunately, attempts to ban it have been linked to CO2 phobia. It is time to ban MTR just because of the damage it does locally.

    • Hi Marty and Heading Out

      I pretty much agree with Marty across the board. The idea of having an impact on even a small part of the planet that will last for geologic periods of time strikes me as pretty short-sighted, especially when there are so many places to get coal and even alternative methods of getting coal from the same spot.

  2. I think that you do a disservice to the Chinese and others. We have been working with them, as have others, to bring their safety standards etc up to Western levels for at least a decade, and for the larger mines this has already happened. As in the US and elsewhere, however, it is the smaller mines that can’t afford the training and supervision levels needed that are giving the greatest problems.

    And to those who decry MTR – would you rather we mine the coal underground, at greater financial and humanitarian cost?

    • Whose cost? MTR has greater costs in the long run, but they aren’t paid by the mining companies. Whose humanity? Not the people who have lived there for generations.

  3. Grin, not to be cantankerous, but there are parts of Illinois that they strip mined, and left (pre-restoration rule days) as rows of spoil banks. Some 50-years or more later they are considered great places to own homes, since they lie on the lake that filled the fingers, and which now provides home to fish.

    And I have written about Eglingham in the UK where the hills were once mined for coal by my ancestors in around 1700 – 1800 and which are now claimed to be “pristine England” by those fighting against the installation of wind turbines.

    • I grew up near strip mines. Yes there are pools of water there. We went swimming in them. Our skin peeled. Fish? You got to be kidding. We didn’t have fish anywhere until the federal government came in and cleaned it up at great cost.

  4. It is worthwhile remembering that much of China’s coal consumption is in very small and inefficient plant. As a thumbsuck, i would say there energy production could more than double for the same coal consumption if all their generation was in 700MW supercritical boilered plant. With the big plant, it is also a lot easier to collect the flyash and the like, so that would clean up their environment as well.
    China also uses massive amounts of coal for steelmaking. That is one of the reasons the west has decarbonised. They shifting the dirty (and large, high paid workforce that went with it) to Asia. The West then imports all the steel it needs and feels smug about the clean environment it has. This used to be called hypocricy in simpler times.
    It isn’t only coal that produces mecury (there is uranium as well for the paranoid) Volcanoes and geothermal have a lot of mercury coming out. Metallic mercury isn’t that big a risk. Those mad hatters had 20 years or more of direct exposure. The real demon is methyl mercury. That is where the environmental efforts should be directed as a matter of high priority.

  5. Couple of things–First, I hope China does move to larger scale plants (and some of their bigger plants do have modern scrubbing installed). The smaller stuff is really, really ragged.

    As for cogeneration, in a lot of Chinese home/small businesses, cogeneration consists of using a portable generator to get power and leaving it in the home for the heat. And people are often asphyxiated by the exhaust.

    Finally, the outcomes of mountaintop removal are pretty definitive, as the tops of the mountains are gone. That doesn’t mean that the land is unusable. It certainly does mean it’s different. And that difference I think is something that we should consider as a group.

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