As a South Central Virginia resident, I have something in common with the people in the Pacific Northwest who are concerned about the impact of coal exports from the US. Numerous coal laden trains pass through Lynchburg every day, many of them headed to the large coal terminal in Newport News. I can hear the rumbling of those trains at about 4:00 every morning. I once watched three trains, each with more than 100 cars full of coal, pass one of my favorite sections of the Appalachian trail in less than an hour.
In a January 2012 blog post on the topic of coal exports and the reason why railroads are such strong supporters of efforts to expand coal terminals, Eric de Place provided some well designed graphs showing the importance of coal shipments to the freight railroad industry. According to his figures, in 2010, coal represented 45% of the total commodity ton-miles carried by US railroads.
The graphs are dramatic illustrations of the reasons why the railroad industry and its unions have been supportive of antinuclear activity in the US, Australia, and Germany for so many years. Coal and railroads are tightly connected and have been for more than 100 years.
Eric’s post also reminded me about the important idea of converting coal into a more valuable fuel product that does not necessarily need to be shipped by rail. I have been intrigued by the idea for quite some time, since before I first met Bonne Posma, the founder of Liquid Coal. My friend Jim Holm at Coal2Nuclear has also written extensively about the topic of turning solid coal into liquid petroleum. People who listen to The Atomic Show might have heard me talk with Cal Abel about the economic and national security implications of refining coal using nuclear heat and water.
Eric – thank you for illustrating why freight railroad interests have been so supportive of antinuclear activities for so long.
Aside: Warren Buffett has been damning nuclear technology with faint praise for several years; perhaps his recent purchase of Burlington Northern, one of the largest coal carrying railroads in the US, has something to do with his public questioning of the ability of nuclear energy to compete in the power market. End Aside.
If the US had kept building nuclear plants at the rate we achieved and maintained throughout the period from 1963-1973, the traditional coal industry would have been out of business by 2000. Railroads would have lost one of their most profitable and most captive customers (there are few options for most coal mines; the local railroad is generally a monopoly).
I do not believe in decimating the coal industry or in demonizing the material itself. Coal is a valuable resource that can be safely mined for centuries by well-trained and compensated miners. Instead of eliminating the use of coal, I would prefer to help coal miners and coal mine owners to recognize that they could make more money and sell a cleaner product if they upgraded their fuel at the mine rather than shipping a dirt-filled, unrefined product that sells for a huge discount in the energy market.
Here are some fuel price numbers normalized to a consistent unit of measure:
FUEL Market Price Price per MMBTU coal $40 per ton $1.80 natural gas $2.50 per 1000 cubic feet $2.50 oil $120 per barrel $21.00 diesel fuel $4.00 per gallon $30.00 commercial nuclear fuel 0.5 cents per kw-hr $0.65
NOTE: MMBTU = million BTU (M – Thousand, MM is thousand x thousand)
My pitch to the coal industry would be to use cheap, clean nuclear heat to convert H2O and their carbon rich fuel into a refined hydrocarbon that could compete with petroleum products.
The Germans, Japanese and South Africans have proven that the technology exists to convert heat, water and coal into excellent diesel fuel, gasoline and aviation gasoline on an industrial scale.
So far, that process has been expensive and dirty because all of the conversion plants that have been built so far have burned up half of the input coal to make the heat required for the reaction to take place. It would be much cleaner and cheaper if the input heat was from emission-free nuclear reactors.
My solution would not necessarily do much for the freight railroad business. The coal mines might decide to ship their new, higher-value, liquid product via pipelines instead. However, the competition between pipelines and railroad tanker cars would be beneficial for all of the rest of us in terms of improving service and pricing.
Shipping oil instead of coal from our domestic mines would also be very beneficial to the US national security and to the prosperity of the world. Just think about the positive impact that substantially lower US demand would have on the price of diesel fuel delivered to a developing country.
Publisher, Atomic Insights (atomicinsights.com)
Maybe there really is such a thing as cleaner coal that we can use to power our cars, planes and boats instead of buying fuel that is imported by multinational petroleum companies that do not employ many Americans and do not have our best interests at heart.