The Relative Costs of Energy

This article in the New York Times, aimed at comparing the prices of coal, natural gas, and renewable energy sources, raises some questions and issues that lurk in the background of any discussion on electricity generation.

Looking at the numbers cited by the article, here's how it breaks down (the unit, kilowatt/hours, is 1,000 watts per hour - the average lightbulb requires 50-120 watts per hour):

Coal: 7.8 cents/kilowatt hour
Natural Gas: 10.6
Nuclear: 10.8
Straight Wind (in a good location, utility-scale): 9.9
Wind with Natural Gas back-up: A little over 12
Thermal Solar (good location): about 20-21
Photovoltaic: About 30 (for utility-scale installations

(The article gets a little less specific as it goes on - partially because so much of it is dependent on location and stuff like that.)

So, the first big issue is how we define these costs. In this case, the New York Times is defining it by how much money the consumer would have to pay for electricity, given that the electric company passes on the cost of everything straight to the consumer. But it's worth noting that there's a huge difference between fossil fuels and renewable energy. Renewable energy plants (again, utility scale - more on that in a second) have, essentially, two costs associated with them: the initial construction and upkeep (maintenance). With fossil fuel and nuclear plants, you have those as well, but there are additional costs - the fuel itself. And with coal and nuclear plants specifically, there are also by-products that need to be dealt with - radioactive remains from nuclear and fly ash/slurry from coal plants.

That by itself tells one a lot about the fundamental differences between fossil fuels and renewables. And while nuclear waste is highly regulated, the coal ash is not - as we've seen at least three times this year, when ash or slurry (ash mixed with water) contaminated nearby water sources. But because of the industrial accidents involving coal ash, it's probable that there are going to be tighter disposal requirements coming down the pipe which may act to drive the price of coal, specifically, up a little. And to be fair, they do note that coal and natural gas are dependent on the market, so even without any technological innovation renewables could still end up cheaper in the near future.

Despite all this nitpicking, though, coal is still cheapest - a fact that the New York Times article points out several times.

Well, so?

We know climate change is happening, and we know it's going to be destructive. That's not a debate. We also know that the single largest factor contributing to it is the coal that's been burned constantly, in huge amounts, over the past two centuries.

There are all sorts of analogies one could use for this, lots of them involving doctors and medicines that don't work but are cheaper, but my head's a little wonky from traveling all day. The basic fact is that burning coal is the greatest factor that got us into this mess, and therefore it should be off the table. The NYTimes starts to hit on this a little ("environmentalists cite the indirect costs to society, like strip mining or spills of coal ash" but utterly fails to see the forest. Coal is the problem, and it's changing the world. Mountain top removal, strip mining, coal ash spills - these are problems. Climate change is a disaster.

Without going too far into crazy-territory (because I never, ever do that), coal needs to stop. As much of a fan as I am for a more honest pricing system that takes environmental issues into the true cost of things, burning coal as a primary national power source is so beyond the "negative externalities" idea as a pin-prick is from a gun shot. We need to get off coal, oil, and (to a lesser degree) gas-that-occurs-in-nature. Right?

The other issue with this report: the idea of "utility-scale power plants". You need a huge facility for efficient (and, therefore, cheap) generation of fossil fuel power. You simply can't generate any meaningful amount of electricity off of lots and lots of small fossil fuel generators - the economy of scale isn't there.

But wind and solar have that potential. Small scale wind is getting better all the time, especially with lots of research being done into vertical axis turbines that are safe and easy to have in cities (larger post on this is a-comin'). And tons of houses and cities already make use of solar panels - and huge tax breaks are already available or coming down the pipe for people to put them in. Not many people can put in solar today, but more will tomorrow, and more after that, until we hit a critical mass and have to start asking what we do with all these power lines we don't need anymore (exaggeration, but still).

The fact of the matter is that utility-scale power should be on its way out. Localized combinations of solar and wind - helped along with geothermal and tidal where-ever possible - are the future, because they're better for communities, cities, and nations. We're not there yet - not quite yet - but we're damn close if we just applied some energy (haha) to the problem.

But we don't. Or, at least, the NYTimes doesn't.

Last nitpick: for their nuclear number, they say "a new nuclear reactor, 10.8 cents." Don't get your hopes up, though - in the United States, at least, this number is entirely theoretical, since we haven't built a new plant in a while. I dunno how they got their number - probably through an expert, who probably used a combination of nuke plants in other countries and theory - but it doesn't mean much.

So in the end, my issue with this article is two-fold. First, they ignore what the real concern over coal power is. Second, they don't go the distance in terms of noting some key differences between renewables and coal - despite how its the differences that make renewables so much more desirable.

Seriously though, we need to get off coal.

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