Coal Comfort

August 7, 2012

On March 27, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a proposal that would, if enacted, outlaw the construction of new coal-fired power plants in the United States. The EPA believes that these plants, by emitting carbon dioxide (CO2) in profusion, contribute to global warming. Reducing the domestic use of coal may force Americans to pay higher prices for electricity, but it will have nearly no effect on global emissions, says Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

  • The EPA rule would cap the amount of carbon dioxide that new fossil-fueled electricity generation units can emit, at 1,000 pounds per megawatt-hour.
  • That would rule out coal-fired units, which emit about 1,800 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour. (Natural gas-fired units emit about 800 pounds per megawatt-hour.)

But even if the EPA and the Obama administration succeed in prohibiting new coal-fired electricity generation in the United States, they will leave global coal demand and CO2 emissions almost unchanged.

  • Over the past decade or so, American coal consumption fell by 5 percent, but global coal consumption soared, growing by about the same amount as the growth in oil, natural gas and nuclear combined.
  • Coal now fuels about 40 percent of global electricity production.
  • Over the past decade, even if American emissions had dropped to zero, global emissions would still have increased.

And coal consumption will keep rising as electricity consumption rises.

  • Between 1990 and 2010, global electricity production increased by about 450 terawatt-hours -- roughly the amount of electricity that Brazil consumes -- per year.
  • The International Energy Agency expects electricity use to keep growing by about one Brazil per year through 2035.
  • Given this surging electricity demand, it's no surprise that between 2001 and 2010, global coal consumption rose by 47 percent, or the equivalent of about 23 million barrels of oil per day.

Coal is helping meet the world's electrical demands for a simple reason: it's cheap and has high "power density" -- the amount of energy flow that can be harnessed from a given area of land.

Given the world's insatiable demand for electricity -- and all the wealth- and health-enhancing opportunities that come with cheap, abundant, reliable supplies of electricity -- it's obvious that coal will be powering the global economy for many decades to come.

Source: Robert Bryce, "Coal Comfort," Manhattan Institute, Summer 2012.

 

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