The death of coal-fired generation is kind of like humorist Mark Twain’s retort on premature news of his demise. It has been greatly exaggerated. That is the summation of an op-ed piece by longtime energy economist Tilak Doshi in the online Forbes late last week. Doshi challenges the environmental assertion that killing coal-fired power will improve public health and that renewables can effectively replace fossil fuels as the generated for centralized grid electricity. Wrong on both counts, Doshi writes. In fact, the baseload, reliable power of coal can improve health conditions.
“Ambient air pollution in both urban and rural areas in developing countries is a real problem, but it is primarily due to the indoor burning of solid biomass in cooking and heating. The use of charcoal, wood, dung and crop residues within households is caused by the lack of access to grid electricity and modern fuels such as LPG,” the Forbes article reads.
“The World Health Organization reports that close to four million people die prematurely from illness attributable to indoor air pollution each year. The real solution, as apparent in the experience of the now developed countries, is to remove the need for using traditional biomass by providing affordable electricity and cleaner fuels,” Doshi added. “Coal power plants also lay the basis for improved public health with adequate clean water supply and refrigeration for food supply chains and the storage of vaccines in hospitals.”
Yes, coal plants are being retired in the U.S., Europe and much of the developed world at an accelerating rate. This decline is the not the same everywhere. Voters in Australia, the world’s largest coal exporter, opted to keep a pro-coal center-right coalition in power despite polls predicting a victory by the left.
The article also conjures the vision of re-elected Prime Minister Scott Morrison once bringing a lump of coal to Parliament, saying “This is coal-don’t be afraid!”
Doshi’s article reminds me of an op-ed I wrote in Power Engineering Online a few months back, although I concede mine was less authoritative or well-put as his piece. In “Maybe the World doesn’t have a Coal Problem (but an Elevation problem), I argued that we in the developed world can turn our noses up at fossil fuel generation, even if I personally believe in the wisdom of an “all of the above” electricity mix.
In the developing world, however, it’s a different matter. Two developing giants, China and India, have accounted for at least 75 percent of new coal-fired capacity built so far this century. And yes, while those nations are also seeking renewable energy options, they see the baseload power tied to economic growth. “So it seems like the goals of environmentalists in the developed world, however well-grounded, are running up against the economic needs found in many places elsewhere. And the goals are losing to the needs,” I wrote. And while U.S. utilities are closing many coal plants, it bears repeating that coal-fired generation still makes up 30 percent or more of the electricity mix domestically.