America's Power campaign by "Americans for Balanced Energy Choices" is misleading
I do not know if any of you have been paying attention to the recent television, print and radio advertising campaign called “America’s Power”. In case you have missed them, you can find some of the videos at www.americaspower.org.
Though the commercials a attractive and well produced, and they use some factual material – like a statement that 50% of the electricity in the US comes from burning coal – they provide a misleading view of our energy future. That is not surprising; ABEC is not secretive about the fact that they are funded by the coal industry. Anyone who has ever done much work in advertising or media production can recognize that the funding must be rather substantial – major network and cable television rates are well beyond the reach of most non-profit groups. In other words, one should not look for “balanced” information from “Americans for Balanced Energy Choices”; its funding sources have the fiduciary responsibility to increase shareholder value by selling more coal.
I have to hand it to the organization – they are not shy about setting themselves up for a challenge.
Joe Lucas, the man who founded Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC) has posted a blog titled Stick To The Facts on the ABEC blog, Behind the Plug.
I suspect that he did not mean it as an April Fools prank, even though the post date was April 1, 2008. Here is a quote from that post that begs for a response. (As regular readers will suspect, I took up the gauntlet. This kind of duel is an energizing way to start a Saturday morning; it is still too dark to start a bike ride.)
You see, I’m all for a debate — but it needs to be about the facts.
Here are the facts as I see them:
- We rely on coal today (about half of our electricity is produced by coal). Is there any debate on that subject?
We’re going to need to rely on coal for the foreseeable future, both here in the U.S. and around the world. Does the Sierra Club or anybody else have any forecast that shows that not to be the case?
- Generating electricity from coal is less expensive that other energy alternatives. Does the Sierra Club doubt the U.S. Department of Energy data backing that up? Given everything that is going on with today’s economy, I’d love to see someone try to say that low-cost energy is not important to our economy and working families.
- To date, the use of technology has made it possible to produce more electricity from coal to meet our country’s growing energy demand with fewer emissions of pollutants regulated by federal and state clean air laws. (This does not include greenhouse gases, but I’ll get to that in a second.) Again, can the Sierra Club contradict that fact?
- Finally, we believe that by continuing to invest in technology, we can reduce emissions even further, including the capture and safe storage of CO2.
As I look at forecasts provided by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), and a host of other credible independent sources — we’re going to need to use coal for the foreseeable future. And just as it has up until this point, advances in technology will allow us to use coal with fewer emissions – including eventually the capture and safe storage of carbon.
Does the Sierra Club (or anybody else for that matter) have any widely accepted facts to debate those points?
I have access to several facts that contradict Joe’s talking points. My facts might not be “widely accepted”, but that does not change their veracity. Funny thing about facts – they are not very democratic. I made a comment on the blog entry.
The Behind the Plug blog has an approval process for their comments, so it is not yet visible. Of course, it is rather early in the morning for any location in America, so I suspect that it will be posted sometime later in the day. On the off chance that the comment is not approved or that there is no one monitoring the blog comments during the weekend, I have posted my response below.
I am no journalist, but I am skeptical of the balance in your America’s Power campaign. You asked for specific facts, so here goes.
Though it is true that coal generation costs are lower than some other alternatives, it is not true that they are lower than all other alternatives. According to data produced for NEI by Global Energy Decisions (now part of Ventyx following a June 2007 acquisition), the average production cost for coal fired power in the US in 2006 was 2.37 cents per kilowatt hour. In contrast, the average production cost for nuclear power plants during that same year was 1.72 cents per kilowatt hour.
More recent numbers have not yet been released, but both coal and uranium prices have increased since 2006 so it will be interesting to see what the effects of those changes has been. The production cost figures for coal are more sensitive to fuel cost changes than the production cost figures for nuclear; Global Energy Decisions also determined that 77% of the cost of coal power is attributed to fuel while only 13% of the cost of nuclear power can be attributed to uranium.
I am also not so sure about your claims regarding the use of technology to reduce emissions. For many plant owners, the chosen technical path to meet sulfur emissions standards was a shift of fuel sources to Powder River Basin coal, which happens to be naturally lower in sulfur. That coal also requires more transportation via rail than sources that are closer to the plant, both because of distance and because PRB coal contains about 20-30% fewer BTU’s per ton than many eastern coals. It is a stretch to call fuel shifting a technical improvement.
Finally, nuclear fission is a proven generation option that allows reliable power without burning coal. There are definitely some cost and infrastructure challenges that might prevent nuclear power from reducing our dependence on coal in the next 10-20 years, but if we spend about 15 years building new plants at the same rate as we did from 1975-1985 we could begin displacing some of coal’s market share. Of course, there is no technical reason why we cannot build faster than that now – nuclear technology has improved rather dramatically in the last 30 years. As you have pointed out, there have been remarkable technical improvements in many other areas, a fair number of those improved technologies are shared between nuclear and coal.
Your failure to even mention nuclear power as an option makes your organization’s name “Americans for Balanced Energy Choices” a bit questionable and makes me believe that you are simply a well supported arm of the coal industry. By way of disclosure, I am not a balanced observer either, but I frequently and openly admit that I am biased towards the increased use of atomic fission power.
Editor, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast
Founder, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.
Oops – maybe I need to get a bit more sleep before firing off my commentary. I JUST now realized that I missed a sentence in Joe’s post that did mention nuclear. Here is how he put it:
These critics say we should use more renewable energy resources (we support renewable power), but get away without providing any credible energy forecasts to support their claim that renewables like wind and solar could significantly replace traditional energy resources like coal, nuclear, and natural gas.
Darn – I hate it when nuclear gets lumped into the category of “traditional energy resources”. In my view, fission is a capable alternativ
e to the combustion and weather dependent energy flows like falling water, blowing wind or shining sun that humans have been using for thousands of years.
Our understanding of fission is only one generation old. My Dad was an adult (his 18th birthday was just before December 2, 1942) when Fermi and his small team built the very first device capable of self sustained fission. I strongly believe that Lewis L. Strauss was correct on September 16, 1954 when he predicted – to an audience that certainly could have included my then 29 year old father – that fission provided the opportunity to produce electricity that would “too cheap to meter”. Here is the full quote:
“It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter, will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.”
Part of Strauss’s prediction came true very shortly after the talk when Nautilus demonstrated just how easily and rapidly one could travel under the sea and the Enterprise showed how fission made it possible to push a small city around the ocean at speeds in excess of 40 MPH without consuming vast quantities of oil.
I plan to be around for quite some time to come, so we still have some time to work together on making power cheap enough so that electricity can be sold for a monthly charge with unlimited minutes like some plans for cellular phones or cable television.