Stewart Brand appeared on the May 6, 2010 episode of the Colbert Report. (I tried to embed the clip, but Blogger does not like the way that the show’s embed code is formatted. It kept telling me that the TD tag was broken. I hit a limit on my HTML coding ability when trying to troubleshoot and correct that error message.)
While I like Stewart’s ecopragmatist way of looking at the world and I highly recommend his most recent book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto I was disappointed by his reaction when Colbert asked him about “clean coal”. I thought that Colbert was giving him a wonderful opportunity when he described the current messaging that includes the notion that you can just plug a cord into a lump of coal – at least according to the coal trade association sponsored commercials.
Here is an open letter to Stewart in response to his comments that we will inevitably keep burning massive quantities of coal “because it is so darned cheap.” You see, it is not all that cheap when compared to a readily available alternative that is much cleaner, more abundant and more reliable.
I just watched your visit to the Colbert Report.
You mentioned that humans will keep using coal because it is so cheap and then said that we have not yet found an reliable source that can replace it as cheaply.
Did you know that the “all in” cost of commercial nuclear fuel to utility customers in the US is approximately $0.47 per million BTU. while the delivered cost of coal to those same kinds of bulk customers ranges from about $.90 – $4.00 per million BTU depending on how far the plant is from the coal mine?
The low end is for “mine-mouth” coal burning plants that are in places like Wyoming where you can find seams of coal that are 15 – 50 feet thick. Those deposits can be cheaply excavated with massive equipment. The high end is for plants that burn coal extracted from underground mines located thousands to tens of thousands of miles away from the plant. For some plants that purchase coal extracted from distant mines, fully 2/3 of the delivered cost goes to the railroad, not the coal mining company.
Since nearly all coal consumed in the world today is in utility scale power plants where bulk deliveries make it fairly economical, commercial nuclear fuel and coal compete head to head. One of the reasons that India burns so much coal is that it was not allowed to access the commercial nuclear fuel market for more than 30 years as a result of international embargoes after their nuclear explosion test in 1974. That limitation has now changed; there will be visible changes in their electrical supply patterns in the next decade. China may be burning coal in vast quantities today, but I believe they have some significant programs in place that will result in larger numbers of those coal boilers being replaced with high temperature gas cooled nuclear reactors – while reusing the steam plant equipment.
The numbers show that commercial nuclear fuel is a clear winner both on an environmental basis and on a cost per unit of energy. When you add in all of the capital equipment required to try to make coal even close to being as clean as nuclear fuel, you realize that even the initial cost of the equipment gives the advantage to nuclear.
Only coal companies, railroads, “clean coal” equipment suppliers, owners of existing “grandfathered” coal burners and chemical companies supplying the bulk products required in scrubbers can actually believe that coal should be called “clean”. That is because they are selling as much of their product to the rest of us as possible while hoping that we do not notice the damage their entire supply chain is doing to our shared environment.