Some recent converts to nuclear energy advocacy are offended and confused by the fact that nuclear energy and coal have been lumped together in the Department of Energy’s recent effort to return profitable conditions to established power plants that do not depend on favorable weather or just-in-time natural gas fuel delivery.
A segment of the offended advocates were initially stimulated to learn more about nuclear energy because of their legitimate concerns about climate change and air pollution. As they learned more about the under-developed potential of nuclear fission power sources that can provide vast quantities of reliable electricity without releasing any CO2 or “criteria air pollutants” they became stronger advocates.
Many recognized that much of what they had been taught about nuclear energy was wrong. In some cases, they realized that some of the lessons that had been actively promoted were fabricated or exaggerated with the conscious purpose of slowing nuclear energy development.
Coal demonization campaign is part of a battle for market share
It’s my opinion, slowly developed during many decades of deep interest in all aspects of the energy politics arena, that coal technology has been the target of a different, but similarly motivated misinformation campaign.
Unlike nuclear energy, coal is not an upstart power source trying to elbow its way into a huge, established energy industry populated by large, well-connected power players with hundreds of billions in capital investments to protect.
Coal’s position is almost completely opposite. It was once such a dominant power source that its nickname was King Coal. It fed fuel-hungry navies, locomotives, transoceanic shipping, home heating, town gas production facilities, industrial heat supply and electrical power generation.
Its corporate leaders were titans like Andrew Carnegie. It employed millions of skilled workers, often locked into dangerous jobs with insufficient pay and poor working conditions. Those workers eventually recognized that they had serious political and economic clout if they joined together. The titans worked hard to maintain their control, so the organized assertion efforts occasionally devolved into pitched and bloody battles.
In the mid 19th century, petroleum (including natural gas) became increasingly available. Drilling technology advanced rapidly; rail, tankers and pipelines moved massive quantities of combustible fuel; and titans like the Nobel brothers, John D. Rockefeller and Henry Flagler organized the industry into a force powerful enough to take on King Coal.
Their product had some superior features, but coal was well established and sported some advantages of its own. It was more widely distributed around the world than petroleum, it was easier to stockpile, and it was cheaper to transport via bulk rail and ships.
Economies around the world were growing rapidly and demanding more power, so both sources of combustible hydrocarbons had room to grow. Overall demand growth did not stop pitched economic and political battles for sales and dominance in certain markets and at certain times.
Fuel customers generally benefitted from the competitive situation because no fuel source could unilaterally impose its prices or delivery terms without taking a risk of losing sales. Marketing pitches from many suppliers often included negative information about competitors as part of the message aimed at convincing customers to make favorable purchase decisions.
One of petroleum’s primary advantages over coal was the fact that it burned a bit cleaner than coal, though both sources of heat needed numerous inventions over time to make them gradually less noxious. A more subtle financial advantage for the suppliers was the fact that liquid and naturally gaseous fuels had were naturally less labor intensive.
That characteristic shifted the power balance, moving it a long way in the direction of the capital suppliers and away from organized labor.
The more concentrated nature of petroleum deposits, while a disadvantage from the point of view of places that had no natural endowments, created the potential for unheard of wealth and power for individuals, multinational corporations and controlling nations.
Before nuclear energy was commercially available, petroleum marketers began funding and working closely with anti pollution groups to push coal out of an increasing number of markets, including rail transportation, home heating, and ocean ship propulsion. The messaging rarely acknowledged the advances that engineers were making in their effort to capture and control various pollutants released from coal smokestacks.
Enough Ancient History. What About Now?
Anticoal and antinuclear marginalization efforts have intensified since the development and refinement of unconventional petroleum extraction technology often lumped under the pejorative term of “fracking.” Technology improvements such as diamond drill bits, Big Data processing, sensors, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing procedures have all combined to provide access to massive reservoirs.
Aggressive, entrepreneurial developers naturally want to make use of the technology and to continue to improve it to gain cost advantages over competitors. However, energy customers have been trained for many decades to restrain their energy consumption. Slack demand growth and rapidly growing production have led to an oversupply situation and a more pressing need to take action to restore balance.
It’s natural for all participants to seek outcomes that are beneficial to their own interests and also natural for most participants to focus on near term indicators.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that “going negative” on competitors is an increasingly popular strategic move. It also should surprise no one to learn that some of the players in the game have invested decades worth of effort in laying the foundations of the aggressive negative campaigns.
Enormous multinational gas and oil interest groups are highly movivated to grab markets for their products from both nuclear energy and coal. They know that negative messages demonizing their competition will have more profitable long term results than positive efforts to grow the energy market. They are also well aware of the increased effectiveness of negative messages that come from seemingly independent sources.
They may be interested in efforts to enable an ever growing share of the world’s population to use more power, but they’d prefer for power demand to increase in an environment with fewer choices and less competition. That would be a market characterized by higher prices and greater profits.
Coal technology improvements
It is undoubtedly true that some coal-burning power plants are obsolete and far dirtier than other alternatives.
A less well understood truth is that advanced coal combustion technologies can produce power that is as clean or cleaner than a significant segment of natural gas power plants. Modern coal technology can have real economic and environmental advantages over simple cycle gas turbines valued for their rapid response capability and over dual fuel power plants that burn distillate fuel when gas prices skyrocket.
But coal isn’t limited to being a direct combustion fuel. It can be refined into almost as wide a range of products as crude oil can produce. When paired with nuclear fission heat, the processes can be as clean as those used to refine petroleum. With design and business model refinements, that fission heat can be substantially less costly than the traditional sources used in petrochemical production plants.
Cleanliness is important, but it isn’t the only attribute of an energy supply
Many long time nuclear advocates appredicate the inherent cleanliness of nuclear energy. We are happy to share the knowledge that nuclear fission is clean enough to run inside sealed buildings or submarines.
We are pleased to share our understanding of the important fact that the life-cycle CO2 emissions from conventional nuclear power plants average out to be roughly equal to those of wind turbines. We don’t talk enough about the fact that we can do even better than that with advanced nuclear technology.
But cleanliness isn’t the only advantage that nuclear fission has over its competitors.
Speaking for myself and a few long-time acquaintances, at least some of us became excited about nuclear energy because we were motivated to empower our fellow humans. We wanted to spread access to the same kind of readily affordable and abundant energy that was available in the U.S. before 1973. We appreciate the freedom of movement, creature comforts and convenience enough to recognize that others would also enjoy them.
We learned that multinational petroleum interests could not be trusted with the power and control that they had achieved over our modern economies and ways of life.
My 33 year career in the U.S. Navy has reinforced my view of the importance of abundant domestic energy to improve the lot of human beings and to reduce the sources of friction between nations.
Coal remains a widely distributed and affordable natural resource that can be used to improve human well-being. Of course, there is a need for technological development to improve its environmental impacts. It is likely that the annual production rate of raw coal will shrink, but improved coal might become a more prosperous enterprise.
I’m proud to be linked with coal advocates who are also motivated to provide abundant, affordable energy from known resources that will last for centuries, especially if used responsibly. There are many ways in which coal plus nuclear fission can produce abundant clean energy and useful raw materials for human prosperity.
It’s also nice to see that interests that have been quietly cooperating for years have been maneuvered into a more open, transparent alliance.
Multinational petroleum interests and multinational unreliables (aka renewables) promoters have joined together with groups that self-identify as “consumer advocates” or “environmental groups.” They are leading the opposition to proposed electricity market changes that will restore reasonable and just pricing for reliable power sources that do not burn natural gas. I am happy to have the opportunity to engage in a more factual conversation about advantages and disadvantages of available power sources.
It’s more fair and has a better potential for beneficial outcomes than trying to fight propaganda battles with heavily armed opponents who can buy ink by the bucket and air time by the month.