Saturday, May 16, 2009

Coal Plants and U.S. Electricity

You may wish they'd go away, but it won't be anytime soon.

There are a lot of worries about coal-fired power plants, since they pollute the air and are a significant cause of greenhouse-gas emissions. However, I did not realize just how powerful these plants are. In fact, The Energy Information Administration "reports that more than 600 coal-fired plants still produce about half of America’s power and will still produce 47% of it in 2030."[1] A full HALF of our energy is produced from but 600 or so coal plants! So they are not going anywhere soon.

It turns out that nine coal plants were canceled this year alone in the U.S. These plants "would have provided about 6,650mw of power, or enough to heat almost 5 mil. homes."[1] It appears that coal-plant technology is very efficient, and I can see the attraction of energy planners wanting to use them.

A typical coal power plant yields 500 megawatts, and produces 3.5 billion kilowatts over the course of a year, taking 1.43 million tons of coal to maintain this amount of electricity. It's difficult to imagine what these quantities mean, but here's something easier to wrap your mind around: 1 light bulb.

If you left your 100 watt front-porch light on 24 hrs a day, all year long, then you'd need to burn 714 pounds of coal to provide its energy. And, or course, there's the side effects of 5 lbs. of Sulfur Dioxide, and 5.1 lbs. of Nitrogen Oxide, both of which are the main causes of smog and acid rain. Also Carbon Dioxide is a cause of global warming, and your bulb would place 1,852 lbs. of that into the air as well.[2] Even if you just turned it on, or had it on an automatic timer for an eight-hour night that's still 238 pounds of coal over the year. Electricity is renewable, but the light bulb scenario shows that the by-products of electricity by means of coal usage are not something one wants to renew.

Many people worry about what I believe is the best solution to the energy crisis, nuclear power, thinking that it is somewhat more dangerous to the environment, but such is not the case: "a coal-burning power plant emits more radiation than a (properly functioning) nuclear power plant."[2] This is because a coal plant produces small amounts "of just about every other chemical element on the periodic table."[2] Therefore, the cumulative effect of those radioactive elements is one more problem for coal plants and one more advantage for nuclear plants.

click map to expand



[image] "Utah Coal Plant" All American Patriots Website (Accessed 5/16/09)

[image] "Map of Coal-fired Power Plants in the United States" Power Magazine Oct. 15, 2008(Accessed 5/16/09)

[1] "Coal-fired power plants: the writing on the wall" The Economist (May 7, 2009)

[2] "How much coal is required to run a 100-watt light bulb 24 hours a day for a year?" HowStuffWorks (Accessed 5/9/09)

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At 8:53 PM, Blogger ~ Marty Alan Michelson said...

You wrote: "Many people worry about what I believe is the best solution to the energy crisis, nuclear power, thinking that it is somewhat more dangerous to the environment, but such is not the case . . . ."

The scenario you trace may have truth, but the deleterious long term effects of nuclear energy (namely, the radioactive "waste" and the half-life periods involved in their emissions) will poison the environments where they are "deposited" for generation after generation after generation after generation after . . . . to nearly infinity! "Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years." And, I know I don't need to explain the math to you on the half-life! That's a long, long, long time for our short term energy consumption - in what is, I think we have to admit, our period of sickness, our Affluenza.

At 10:25 AM, Blogger Brint Montgomery said...


I do NOT agree with you that the radioactive waste will poison our environment. I offer three reasons for why the fear of such matter in relation to nuclear energy is unreasonable:

First, we already have a well-studied, scientifically established safe site for the foreseeable future. The chemical and thermal characteristics of Yucca Mountain in Nevada make it a suitable material to entomb radioactive waste for the HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of years. That's more than enough time as required for the waste to become safe through radioactive decay. That the people of Nevada are not scientifically literate enough to recognize there is not a saftey problem is a political failure, not a failure of safe storage technology.

Second, we won't have to wait that long, i.e. 24,000 years, since, as perhaps the leading physicist in the world today, Stephen Hawking, has noted--in 500 years we'll be all over this solar system. After all, just because we've evolved on a planet does not necessitate that we continue to live on one. Thus, the storage problem is only a temporary measure anyway, at least as regards the limited real-estate on this planet, one which we will eventually leave when transportation technology becomes more energy efficient. With such efficiency also will come the ability to dispose of such waste directly into sun.

Third, the pressing issue of global warming over the next 100 years easily trumps the (solvable) storage problem, and that even w/o the use of Yucca Mountain. As in my related post linked to from this article, the storage casks can remain on site for the immediate future, thus mitigating the scientific ignorance of those populations which won't heed evidence-based energy policy, a policy in their favor as well as the nations.

In sum, the continuing expansion of our energy requirements is not a sickness, as you seem to imply, but a manageable by-product of an efficient society using resources in a system of commerce. It will always take planning, however, both politically and scientifically to make the decisions necessary to work in our long term interests, which will take courage from our leaders (if not prudence) and education--two things that are hard to acquire, but always worth the discipline to instill.

At 2:21 PM, Anonymous Blue Hair man said...

I'll start by saying I agree that nuclear is the answer.

Unfortunately Yucca hasn't started (and probably never will)[1] and most plants cooling towers are full. That leaves waste in dry casks waiting for a permanent home.

Since the government promised Yucca would be ready they are footing the bill for the dry casks, $1 million for maintenance of each cask per year. With thousands of these casks stacking up and more being added every year this is and is going to be a large tax payer burden.

Re-enriching and reprocessing is expensive, not very energy efficient and leaves a waste product much more suitable to weapons than the current waste product. In fact countries that have been reprocessing for decades are stopping, such as France.

Our current reactors can't actually produce enough energy to offset their cost of maintenance, causing tax payers to subsidize their operations. This is largely due to inefficient designs and incredible overhead from outdated regulations.

New reactors that are more efficient and safer (such as pebble bed reactors)[2] need to be built, and there are several nuclear plants on the way, assuming the funding doesn't get nixed.[3]




At 2:23 PM, Anonymous Blue Hair Man said...


At 7:30 PM, Blogger Brint Montgomery said...

Blue Hair Man notes that, "This is largely due to inefficient designs and incredible overhead from outdated regulations." I really think this is the crux of the issue. France has nice designs, and china is using the new pebble variety. Hopefully, the U.S. can learn from their research.

At 11:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also worth noting for Prof. Michelson that coal plants actually release more radioactive waste into the environment than nuclear plants. Don't be misled, the actual waste from nuclear is far more radioactive (and therefore has to be stored somewhere for quite some time) but the fly ash from coal plants that makes it into the environment has radioactive properties that affect anything/anyone that consumes it.

At 1:37 AM, Anonymous jittu said...

I agree that nuclear is the answer.

At 1:41 AM, Anonymous michel antony said...

nice article

At 4:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

"Don't be misled, the actual waste from nuclear is far more radioactive (and therefore has to be stored somewhere for quite some time)..."

Fission power is so clean that ALL of its wastes can be isolated from the biosphere.
Coal on the other hand:

A single 1,000 mega-watt coal power plant releases ~600 lb of CO2 & 30 lb of Sulfur Dioxide in to the atmosphere per second, and as much nitrogen oxides as 200,000 automobiles, all of which is estimated to produce 25 premature fatalities and 60,000 cases of respiratory complaints per year per plant. In addition it has to get rid of 30,000 truckloads of ash annually – enough to cover a square mile 60 feet deep – full of carcinogens, highly acidic or highly alkaline depending on the kind of coal, and, ironically, emitting more radiation from trace uranium than a nuclear power plant is permitted to.

It also produces toxic metals into the environment including lead, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, selenium, mercury, uranium and thorium. Note that mercury & other heavy metals are absorbed by life in the food chain and is concentrated by fish and the like, causing birth defects, mutations and cancers.

Yes: Nuclear waste is more concentrated than coal ash. That is its primary virtue. It is far easier to turn 1.8 cubic meters of waste (the output of a year's fission plant) into glass and isolate it from the environment than try to do something about the millions of tonnes of waste coal plant produces each year.

Warm regards, Rick.

At 12:52 PM, Anonymous francis said...

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At 10:29 PM, Anonymous Thermal Coal said...

The use of sophisticated software systems for coal mining (thermal coal, steam coal and metallurgical coal) that is mostly burnt for power generation and steel production and adds to the greenhouse effect is valid for western countries who may allocate resources and funds to alternative and more greener sources of power. Some of the alternatives may be "safer" than the traditional mines. Unfortunately, coal reports and coal statistics show developing economies are more likely to increase their use of thermal coal & metallurgical coal in coming years because of its affordability and to meet increasing demands for electricity and steel. Whether they will embrace and utilise sophisticated software systems that no doubt add to the cost of production is yet to be seen. Cherry of


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