Fighting the global coal war (Part 2)
Renewable Energy Sources
New energy technologies are being funded and developed to counter the reliance on coal and coal-fired power stations.
Solar panels, geothermal wells, wind farms and tidal turbines are being installed to produce electricity. While these solutions are often portrayed as reliant green energy, geothermal and tidal turbines are only considered transient and cannot yet be used for base-load service which is driven mainly by coal; a key factor for a stable power to a city, town or industrial centre.
Solar produces no power at night and windmills only work when there is sufficient wind, while shutting down when the wind speed is too high. Thus, storage and re-distribution of extra power has become the key challenge. Only an advanced storage solution that can be applied on a global scale and is affordable, will allow for large- scale economic use of solar and wind power. Coal fuelled power is steady, still relatively cheap and runs continuously 24 hours a day. Therefore, there might not be a way around coal fuels for many decades to come.
Key Forces Affecting Climate
The question we need to ask is, are we sure that this costly and drastic move away from coal just to reduce CO2 is urgently needed? What are the key forces that affect the Earth’s climate? Do higher CO2 levels not benefit plant growth and therefore are beneficial to our environment? To answer this question, let us have a look at the Earth’s climate history over the past 400,000 years and the role of CO2. This contrasts with the typical 150-year time span depicted in global media and which is a major misdirect to garner public support.
The Fallacies of a Carbon Tax
To more rapidly reduce the use of fossil fuels, coal in particular; a $40/ton carbon tax was proposed and given serious consideration in Washington and similarly in other developed nations. This would affect mainly the use of coal and natural gas, oil, which make up 80% of the energy used in those countries.
Based on the data available, this could be a big mistake which would force energy companies to close down otherwise productive coal fired power plants too early and increase the cost of power beyond what is economically viable.
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has also been proposed to remove CO2 from coal power plant exhaust, transport it by pipeline and inject and store it in state approved deep underground sites. It is estimated that CCS could double the base cost of electricity production from coal and other fossil fuels. This would be highly prohibitive, and the costs were to fall first on the public who depend on stable energy sources and as explained above, it serves no useful purpose for controlling climate change.
NB: Another key point about CO2 is that all plant life thrives in high CO2 environments and farmers routinely pump CO2 into greenhouses to 1.500 ppm CO2, which greatly increases growth rate. It is the key nutrient for all plant life and when it drops below 150 ppm, very few plants and animals can survive.
Plants also handle drought conditions better as CO2 rises as they expire less water in the process of absorbing CO2, their principal food source. If CO2 in the air were to double, their water needs would drop by 50%. This will be an enormous boon for agriculture everywhere especially in arid regions around the world and would support feeding our growing population.
The CO2 content in the air in our homes is also much higher than outside and is safe to breathe. CO2 is not a pollutant but a vital basic building block of all life on Earth, on land and in the oceans.
l Reviewing the available data makes clear that no significant global warming from re- radiated solar energy can be created by an increase in CO2 above current levels for which coal gets most of the blame.
l CO2 is beneficial for our environment and is not a pollutant. It benefits plant life by increasing biomass and thus improves the basis for all human life on Earth. So, producing and burning coal using state of the art technology can still be a sustainable development solution.
l The present warm period has lasted over 8,000 years longer than any of the three prior ones, giving the oceans a much longer time to warm up and release more CO2 into the atmosphere, which would also contribute to the current level of 400 ppm. This means that coal does not carry all the blame as is stated by socio-environmentalist groups and politicians.
l According to IEA Climatologists and Oceanographers tripling the present value of CO2 to 1.200 ppm will not result in ocean acidification, as has been proposed by the socio-environmental political movement (most notably Al Gore), and the pH would be about 7,8 which is still a satisfactory alkaline level in which ocean life can flourish – as it did over most of geological history when CO2 levels were several times higher than those today and when no coal was being mined or burned.
Proposed Future Energy Development Plan
Of course, coal and fossil fuel sources have a limited useful time span and technological advancement will ensure that we will no longer rely on coal, possibly latest by 2200, 180 years away. We need to develop a well-planned economic, environmental and social introduction of viable and affordable new energy sources. We need to gradually change our social infrastructures and improve the lives of people and futures of whole towns, cities and regions in every country around the world.
And the reason for this is not the CO2 that coal used as a fuel emits, but because there will be more efficient and fewer polluting ways of producing energy developed in the next two centuries.
It is recognised that there are real issues related to coal and other fossil fuels that need to be addressed such as groundwater contamination and smog from release of smoke particles, and corrosive gases containing sulphur, as well as safer storage of fly ash from coal combustion. That’s where our resources should be spent, and our ingenuity used to improve existing conditions.
The billions of dollars to be spent or better wasted on CO2 mitigation could – if employed elsewhere - truly make a difference to provide cheap clean coal technology driven energy sources of base load magnitude and thus improve the health of our planet and our populations economic development.
*Clegg is a non-executive chairman and co-founder of Shumba Energy, a fast-growing energy development firm focussed on Botswana’s eastern coalfields. The second part of his debate piece will be published next week