The War on–and for–Coal is a Waste of Time

Some think we’re on a downturn with coal:

Across Europe and the U.S., the decline in coal output recently has averaged close to 5 percent a year. If the world as a whole can reach 7 percent a year, it would be on track to meet the IPCC’s 2030 target.

The conventional wisdom is that this isn’t possible, as rising demand from emerging economies, led by China and India, overwhelms the switch from fossil fuels in richer countries. That may underestimate the changing economics of energy generation, though.

There is one basic reality that needs to be understood: coal is a mess.  It’s expensive to transport, messy to use (a boiler fired with coal is job security for those who clean it) and a pain to dispose of, as TVA found out the hard way at Harriman a few years back.

As someone who produced steam-driven equipment until the 1990’s, I can show you photo after photo of boilers in action fuelled by coal.  Before World War I most of our equipment, along with most construction equipment, was powered that way.  Homes were heated with coal; the house my great-grandfather and his brothers grew up in disposed of its chimneys and went to coal heating, appropriate for designers and builders of steam boilers and steam powered equipment.

But coal is, in the long run, always edged out by other, easier to transport and burn, fuels, or fuels that aren’t burnt at all.  With the spread of compressed air and hydraulics, steam and coal were banished from the construction site, and the equipment still powered by steam used oil-fired boilers, as we sold the Chinese in the 1980’s.  But the biggest enemy of coal–a fact not acknowledged in the article–has been natural gas, and the fracking boom has pushed coal off the stage faster than just about anything else.   There are of course the renewables, but for massive energy production these are not quite ready for prime time.  There is also nuclear power, but the environmental movement isn’t big enough to admit its mistake to allow it to displace fossil-fuel burning on a large scale, its angst over climate change notwithstanding.

Coal gets heavily used in the early stages of industrialisation because it’s located near the industrialisation, as was the case in the UK, US, Germany and later Russia and China.  But as soon as things move down the road, coal is inevitably displaced, perhaps not at the rate one would like but displaced all the same.

It’s in that context that Barack Obama’s “war on coal”–and Donald Trump’s reversal of same–needs to be seen as a waste of time.  It’s what happens when optics and politics get put in front of reality, and the less of that in our society, the better.

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