Friday, October 31, 2014

Kicking the World's Coal Dependency Would Be Such a Rocky Journey

Environmentalists are pretty good at vilifying coal. It emits a lot of carbon. It's dangerous to mine. Coal production emits pollutants like methane. It decreases air quality and increases risk of respiratory issues. It's non-renewable. "Clean coal" is an oxymoron. Coal is continuously under fire, yet for some reason, the world can't get enough of it. What is about coal that continues to draw people in?

The Manhattan Institute just published a report entitled Not Beyond Coal: How the Global Thirst for Low-Cost Electricity Continues Driving Coal Demand (Bryce, 2014), which answers that very question. If I had to summarize coal's appeal in one word, it would have to be "scale." There is a demand for coal, and given its availability, it is the world's most commonly used source of energy (see below).

Whether we're talking about American production or global production (IEA, p. 48), coal consumption consumption is not going anywhere for a while.

If coal is projected to have the greatest growth, then environmental experts predict that coal is not going away anytime soon. Even with modest growth in wind and solar power, we don't see a growth sufficient enough to handle the energy demands or keep costs down like coal can. This is all the more important for developing nations, for whom access to a cheap, viable energy source will be vital if they want their economies to grow. According to the study, anywhere from 671 million to 1.1 billion people gained electricity from coal-fired generators (Bryce, p. 9). It should become clear as to why coal has developed a love-hate relationship. It has its environmental impacts, but it's so good at providing energy en masse. If we want cleaner energy like solar or wind power, it not only needs to be cheaper, but be able to produce enough to meet energy demands. Until that day arrives, we should make sure that all citizens of the world have as much access to energy as possible with as few distortions to the energy market as possible. Instead of implementing cap-and-trade or a carbon tax, let's pour some money into research and development to speed up the technological progress of renewable energies. The "War on Coal" is much less constructive than creating more advanced technologies to make coal a cleaner energy (Bryce, p. 10). We have seen how natural gas, a cleaner energy source, can compete in the marketplace and reduce coal's share in the world's energy portfolio. Unless renewable energy can compete in the same way, there is no sense in using government policy to quash coal and deprive individuals of cheap and accessible energy.

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