Change We Can Live With: Fracking Steers Us Away From A Coal-Fired Future...updated

future image

"Future." "Take the Future by your Hand. Who else can do it?" HKD
Image & title credit:Flickr, h.koppdelaney's photostream

Think tankers and lobbyists have had a hard time envisioning the unintended consequences of their diverse fossil fuel-defending tactics, tactics that have been intensifying for 12 years, culminating in an 'eliminate EPA' frenzy, as mapped by The Newt. Here's a fun example of the huge, unexpected adverse impact on coal, caused by the synergy of colliding fossil fuel defense strategies.

Carbon lovers seem not to have thought through what might come about from simultaneously advocating unregulated natural gas fracking, unregulated coal production and consumption, and the killing off of EPA. Large numbers of coal-fired boilers are being converted to natural gas and many coal-plant expansion plans have been scuttled in favor of the natural gas option. Much of this coal-to-gas change is taking place in the US Mid-Atlantic states, home of mountain-top removal coal mining, and in the Southeast, abode of Newt Gingrich.
Boiled down to the most basic elements, here are the scenario drivers.

  1. Loans for capital equipment became hard to get after the economic meltdown of 2008-9.

  2. Investors and banking institutions are skittish about potential climate liabilities, doubtful about the long term effectiveness of spuriously attacking climate science, and concerned that expensive pollution controls will be required first of coal burning facilities when, eventually, climate protecting regs are promulgated.

  3. China's burgeoning consumption has driven up the price of both steam and metallurgical coal, detracting from the 'exclusive, US energy resource' brand that PR agencies had created for US the coal and utility industries.

  4. Now this: natural gas prices are at parity with coal on a per kW basis; and, gas fired electricity plants are projected to become cheaper to operate than the coal-fired kind because of the large volumes of gas production expected from unrestricted fracking.

  5. It's cheaper and faster to build a gas-fired generation station than a coal-fired one. Plus, emissions from the gas fired stacks will be far lower, so intrinsically easier to get an operating permit from USEPA.

  6. Limited capital resources go where? You guessed it...natural gas fired electricity.

Reviewing: Lobbying for unregulated fracking has unexpectedly thrown big coal into the ditch, right where coal has the most political support. Free market, good!

Precautionary principle, deviously.
If coal interests had strategically weighed the prospective interplay of the factors mentioned above, they might have done better to have backed environmental groups lobbying to institute a moratorium or at least a slow down on fracking permit issuance - until the risks and benefits were carefully studied by states and by USEPA. A few years of delay imposed on fracking expansions could have helped bring the price of natural gas back up and given coal another run for the money.

Makes me wonder who's all in support of putting "Gasland's" Oscar in Jeopardy?

Reuters has covered this overall issue extensively and I am surprised that none of the big papers have reported on it.

Analysis: More U.S. utilities switch from coal to natgas

(Reuters) - A narrowing gap between coal prices and cleaner natural gas is accomplishing in the short-term what U.S. regulators hope to achieve in the long-term -- forcing more power plants to burn gas instead of coal.

Coal prices hit a 26-month high last month as natural gas struggled to break $5 per million British thermal units, putting the two fuels at cost parity for U.S. Southeast power plants -- an unprecedented incentive to burn gas in the middle of the winter, when frigid weather normally makes coal the clear choice.

That may be only the start of a record year for power companies to make the switch in order to boost profits.

Environmental advocates also can miss the Big Unintended Consequence. They are every bit as vulnerable as a fossil lobbyist for failing to take advantage of a big 'change they could live with' factor.

In fact, it might be harder for a DC-based environmental group to support fracking as an indirect means of holding back coal than it would for the coal lobby to oppose fracking to reduce the price competition. Greens would go wild with opposition if such a strategy were formally and openly proposed. Greenpeace, OMG.

Please do not assume by this post that I favor unregulated natural gas fracking. That's simply not true. I'm just calling recent events and plausible future directions as I see them.

Fracking's coal-scuttling effect won't last forever. Enjoy the respite and put the time to good use.

Climate progress most hangs on whether young people get off their deadbeat organic-jeans wearing butts long enough to vote in 2012 and whether China lowers it's cumulative GHG emissions, either by intent or as a result of their own version of the Great Recession.

Update: I acknowledge the comments suggesting that the fracking edge is best thought of as an interim arrangement, a relatively short bridge to a low-carbon future.

Apparently, USDOE has an idea to take us well past the fracking-bridge. They hope to fast track a project to partner with nuclear power plant design and construction firms, hoping to develop relatively small, modular drop-in reactors capable of replacing existing coal plants in a short swap period. Probably the Tea Party faction of Congress will be the main obstacle. Read this cite: via New York Times.

In promoting the reactor, the administration's immediate goal is to help the Energy Department meet a federal target for reducing its carbon dioxide emissions by relying more on clean energy and less on gas and coal. Like other federal agencies, the department is required by an executive order to reduce its carbon footprint by 28 percent by 2020.

Yet the longer-term goal is to foster assembly-line production of the small reactors at a far lower cost than construction of conventional reactors. The reactors could even replace old coal-fired power plants that are threatened by new federal emissions rules and sit on sites that already have grid connections and cooling water.

The costs of construction would range from a few hundred million dollars to $2 billion, as opposed to the current price tag of up to $10 billion for a twin-unit nuclear complex, which has an output 20 times larger than that expected for a modular reactor.

Now go read the whole article, and come back here please.

Not sure if DOE has teased this out yet, but swapping a modular nuclear poowered unit for coal-fired thermal one leaves important issues to be be dealt with, long-term. Some are relic issues and others prospective.

One issue is managing the massive quantities of coal-originating fly ash left lying around the property and at outlying sites - in settling lagoons and tanks. A prospective issue is finding a better way to manage spent reactor rods than leaving them on-site in a contained pool of water. And no, don't even think about burying them in wet fly ash.

One of my first jobs after college was as a contractor studying the effects of cooling water discharges on aquatic ecosystems. There are turbulence effects in the surface water, direct and indirect thermal effects in the surface water (local fishermen love thermal plumes because they concentrate desirable fish during the cool months), and entrainment effects on organisms pulled through a screen and into pumps and pipes. IN other words, the concern is over a lot more than just over the 'delta T.' The engineering of the drop in unit needs to take a balanced approach if the cooling withdrawal is being redesigned.

Let's put the waste heat to use.

I was always amazed that the clean hot water flowing from a single pass cooling loop of a nuclear power plant never got used to run say a hydroponic farm or fish farm. I later realized it was mostly security and safety concerns that prevented this from happening. (The license holders want nothing to do with an ancillary project that draws outsiders to the plant vicinity. More people to be evacuated in the event of a minor release and more law suits to fend off.)

Wouldn't it be nice if creative minds could find a solution, or set of solutions, to get over the security issues and put the waste heat to productive use? Say...robotic automation of aquaponics? Shared responsibilities of nuclear plant and fish farm operations, to boost local employment opportunities?

Change We Can Live With: Fracking Steers Us Away From A Coal-Fired Future...updated
Think tankers and lobbyists have had a hard time envisioning the unintended consequences of their diverse fossil fuel-defending

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