Food costs are rising – and soon, so will the price of electricity.

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Recently, many commodity prices have gone through the roof. You don’t have to look any further than the gas station to see the effects of $110 for a barrel of oil. A visit to the grocery store will quickly reveal that prices are also jumping for corn and wheat, as well as chicken, pork, and beef. The high price of transporting food (as well as the secondary effects of corn being diverted for ethanol production) is directly tied to high oil costs, and these rising food costs are creating serious problems for the working poor.

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Even if you’re a model of self reliance and walk everywhere while growing your own food without chemical fertilizer, try this on for size – increased worldwide demand is causing a coal shortage. Since about 50% of the US electric grid relies on coal power plants, this means that rising coal costs are likely to cause rising electric bills (and/or increasing outages). That will affect the cost of green power purchased on the open market too – which makes solar panels look a lot more attractive (more marginal benefit from power savings and higher resale prices on grid tie-ins). Always look on the bright side!

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Robert F Kennedy doesn’t like coal mountaintop removal mining, but he doesn’t like wind either

I saw this guest blog post by Robert F Kennedy on the official Google blog today about mountaintop coal mining and how it devastates the environment.

I agree with his assessment of mountaintop removal coal mining.

But I can’t help but wonder where Mr. Kennedy expects our electricity to come from, when he is also one of the biggest NIMBY (not in my backyard) opponents of wind power?

Here are some choices, as explained last year in a Wall Street Journal editorial.

Where does America get its electrical power, the annual four billion megawatt-hours of electricity consumed by our industries, cities, transportation, hospitals, homes and personal needs? Coal plants provide 51% of the nation’s electrical energy; nuclear power 21%, natural gas 16%, oil 3% and renewable resources 9%, most of which is hydropower.

And where do the electrical sector’s carbon dioxide emissions come from? About 82% from burning coal, 13% from natural gas, 3% from petroleum, and none at all from nuclear power plants.

So if additional electrical power were needed in a community, as it is in Delaware’s growing coastal Sussex County, what kind of a power generation facility should be built? Nuclear is politically untenable, especially with a plant across the river, in New Jersey, so two traditional proposals have been submitted, one for a 177-megawatt gas turbine at an existing energy facility, and another for a new 600-megawatt coal-fired plant.

And then came a third proposal: construction off the Delaware coast of 200 wind turbines that would generate 600 megawatts of electrical power.

Coal Gasification is taking off in China

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China emits a staggering amount of carbon dioxide (more than the United States by some accounts), and the future will bring even more CO2 production from inside the Great Wall. According to several chemical companies, coal gasification is surging in China.

China offers fast-track permits and relatively easy financing as well as “cheap labor and minimal regulations” — factors that allow coal conversion plants to be built quickly and at 2/3 to 1/2 the cost of a similar project in the U.S. or Europe.

Coal gasification is a process during which steam and oxygen are injected into coal turbines to produce a cleaner burn. With this technology, it may be possible to double the efficiency of coal power plants (they currently operate at only 20-35% thermal efficiency). Theoretically, this higher efficiency would reduce the amount of coal we consume to fill our needs, which would extend the world’s coal supply and reduce pollution along the way. The improved efficiency of these power plants means less coal is required per watt of energy, but without regulatory pressure the efficiency of these plants may lead to the use of dirtier, cheaper forms of coal.

The potential environmental benefits to gasified coal include easier containment of pollutants, the ability to use bio-mass instead of coal, and the production of hydrogen during the gasification process. Yet, many of the green aspects of this technology require an incentive for companies to take advantage of them. Without hydrogen cars on the road or a cap-and-trade system for CO2 in place, there are few incentives for the gasified coal plants to capture these waste products.

In China’s current regulatory environment, gasified coal plants are simply bigger, more profitable pollution machines. If pollution controls are lacking, then the environmental effects will be felt beyond China’s borders. The average Chinese citizen is beginning to be affected by runaway levels of pollution, but the environmental movement is only just now gathering momentum in China. This is a country where agitating for change can be very dangerous, and arguing against “progress” is considered counter-revolutionary.

In the face of all this, China’s growing economy is creating an increasing demand for electricity:

Already, China uses more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. And it has increased coal consumption 14 percent in each of the past two years in the broadest industrialization ever. Every week to 10 days, another coal-fired power plant opens somewhere in China that is big enough to serve all the households in Dallas or San Diego.

So, there’s a good and bad side to this news. China is ramping up its production of CO2 faster than most people expected, but the new gasified coal plants in China may lead to technological advancements that will spread to other countries. In the coming years, perhaps America will be able to adapt green technology that was pioneered in China!

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ps; Coal Gassification is not the same thing as Coal Liquefication. Here are some thoughts on Coal Liquefication and what it means for our gas tanks.

Underground coal fires around the world, an environmental problem

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Did you know that there are hundreds (and maybe even thousands) of underground coal fires burning out of control? These fires can occur naturally, but most of them are caused by mining activity or industrial accidents near coal seams. These coal fires can cause dangerous subsidence, air pollution, and poisoning of the water table, all while consuming a valuable natural resource.

Concern and action is needed… because of the environmental impact — especially of mega-fires burning in India, China and elsewhere in Asia. One coal fire in northern China, for instance, is burning over an area more than 3,000 miles wide and almost 450 miles long.

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Underground coal fires are extremely difficult to put out once they start burning. They burn so hot that even pouring water on them will feed the flames (at extreme temperatures, water breaks down into hydrogen and oxygen gas). Coal is inherently unstable and will self ignite – that means that old abandoned mines are time bombs waiting to go off and all the tunnels act as a ventilation system!

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Uncontrolled coal fires are a worldwide problem and they produce significant amounts of greenhouse gas:

Estimates vary, but some scientists believe that anywhere from 20 million to 200 million tons burn [in China] each year, producing as much carbon dioxide as about 1 percent of the total carbon dioxide from fossil fuels burned on earth… India, where large scale mining began more than a century ago, accounts for the world’s greatest concentration of them.

Underground coal fires happen in the US too – check out this video about Pennsylvania coal mining. In Centralia, PA, underground fires have been burning since the 60’s! If you can come up with a way to put these fires out, I suspect that the MacArthur Foundation will come and knock down your door!

Coal Liquefication. What it means for your gas tank and the environment

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Coal Liquefication is a controversial technology that turns coal into a high carbon liquid. The resulting fuel can be substituted for gasoline in cars, trains, and planes. It’s controversial because the process that produces liquefied coal is energy intensive and it releases a lot of carbon dioxide during production and again when it’s burned. All told, a gallon of liquified coal has about twice the carbon footprint of a gallon of gas.

To put it another way, a Prius burning liquified coal will release as much carbon as a Hummer burning regular gasoline. Many environmental groups oppose Coal Liquification. If liquid coal replaced gasoline at the pump, the American auto fleet would have to become twice as fuel efficient just to maintain current CO2 emissions. Increased coal use could also accelerate environmental damage from coal mining.

Yet, there are reasons why Coal to Liquid (CTL) conversion is getting a lot of attention. As the price of oil hovers around $100 a barrel, there’s intense pressure to develop alternative energy sources. Coal mining employs a lot of people (~80,000 in the United States) and creating an industry that converts coal to fuel could create a lot of new jobs at a time when the US economy is sluggish.

Another reason why CTL is getting renewed attention – liquefied coal is a domestic energy source. Every gallon of liquid coal would replace a gallon of gasoline – and you may have noticed that we’re having trouble with several oil producing countries. There are balance-of-trade concerns that reinforce energy independence – lately our trade deficit has been one factor driving down the value of the US Dollar. The buying power of the petrodollar has experienced a sustained decline since 2003.

At the beginning of 2003, one euro bought one US dollar. Eighteen months ago, it bought $1.20. Now it is pushing $1.50, and there is no reason to think that it will stop there.

Despite climate concerns and technological hurdles, the US Air Force is already flying some planes using liquefied coal. And the technology is supported by some surprising faces:

Illinois basin coal has more untapped energy potential than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined. Senator Obama believes it is crucial that we invest in technologies to use these resources to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

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