Synergies between nuclear energy and coal
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.
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.
Hello Rod, that’s the issue I had after watching Pandora’s Promise. They didn’t spend a lot of time on coal but they did seem to demonize it IMO. If both industries constantly fight one another it will be a losing battle. Time for all energy producers to work together. Very good article BTW.
“Coal” covers a lot of ground. Metallurgical coal isn’t in competition with other fossil fuels, but there’s relatively little of it used in the USA these days; I understand that it’s generally anthracite. The rest is “steam coal”, which ranges from high-grade bituminous to lignite that’s barely the other side of peat.
The problem is that the immediate competition for steam coal is nuclear, and any other uses for it will require many $billions to implement. Even converting coal into methane is difficult and costly; the SNG plant in the upper Midwest went bankrupt and only operates because the original investors were wiped out. I would love to have a look at their balance sheet to see, in this era of rock-bottom NG prices, how much of their revenue comes from sale of CO2 to Canada for EOR operations. Extracting much larger fractions of the petroleum in the ground is certainly not doing any good for climate change.
The truth of the matter is that the models for a nuclear-heavy USA are France and Sweden; very little coal consumption, low gas consumption. Neither industry would do well. A nuclear model where vehicle fleets are largely plug-ins of one sort or another would take a huge chunk out of petroleum consumption as well. Everyone can see that writing on the wall.
The New York Times has a relevant editorial today, Friday Dec 08. The editorialists make a claim regarding grid reliability which needs to be taken into account or else refuted.
Briefly, they see no role for coal in powering the grids in the USA.
It would be nice if you had linked it. I’m not finding anything with a pertinent headline.
“The Trump Administration’s Coal Bailout”
Reliable links to TNYT are difficult for me to arrange.
Here it is:
At risk of flogging a dead horse, Who will deliver the negative emissions needed to avoid 2C warming?
In the absence of some large group stepping up and doing it (and what we see is those claiming to do it, specifically Denmark and Germany, demonstrably doing it all wrong and failing to achieve the results they claim to want) the answer is “nobody”.
Given that likelihood, some are going to pursue the outcome by force of one kind or another. Open warfare is unlikely and is itself carbon-intensive. It’s going to feed the ranks of people pursuing far more radical means such as bio-engineered plagues to remove the bulk of the emitters. Captain Trips, here we come.
If one wants a over all outline of how a National Energy Master Plan would appear [including coal] it should be like this , IMHO : first and foremost nuclear fission using pebble bed SMR’s and molten salt reactors based on thorium need to put into routine operation. No real progress can be made until these highly safe reactors are developed and deployed.
Concurrently a large scale effort between the U.S. , Canada and Mexico on a power and water project called the North American Water and Power Alliance would generate about 180,000 Mwe plus irrigation of large areas now too dry to farm.Nuclear power would play a important role in eliminating the need to trans mit power of the hydroelectric facilities back over mountain ranges to the lift pumps. A possibility of using ultra cold superconducting power lines presents it’self here.
Coal development would center around using MHD conversion which would cut greatly both fuel consumption and pollutants and nuclear heat for converting coal into synthetic fuels.Lastly a major effort on fusion needs to be started , partly underway now with the ITER project but in need of expansion , a recent NASA conference this past September examined a fusion concept which although designed for space applications might be used for power generation on Earth , fusion idea’s are abundant but untried.
The North American Water and Power Alliance would be hard to sell, especially in Canada. It has on a grand scale the main disadvantage of hydroelectric power of flooding large areas. In Canada it was to a large extent seen as flooding large parts of Canada for the benefit of only the US.
I would rather see nuclear power used for desalination near the areas the water would be used. There are some recent advances that have cut the cost of doing that.
See also http://vortexengine.ca/index.shtml
If that works it would be a nice bottoming cycle for a nuke plant & if the nuke & vortex engine combination is placed on a desert coastline would drop rain on the surrounding area.
” first and foremost nuclear fission using pebble bed SMR’s and molten salt reactors based on thorium need to put into routine operation.”
All this talk and pilot plants cannot even be constructed. Here’s a Chinese quote I heard from Ralph Nader, the antinuke that applies, ” “To know and not to do is not to know.” We’ll never know how great some of these new designs will be until they are built.
Pebble bed reactors are under construction in China. The first pair should be operating commercially before the end of 2018.
I don’t spect the Chinese to provide too much information about how well they operate. They aren’t making plans to export the technology. Instead they will use it to repower their own grid first.
In my mind, nuclear power is not primarily a solution to climate change, but a way to defend a high energy lifestyle in the face of “climate guilt” being pushed on us from all sides. Energy consumption as such has been demonized in the name of fighting climate change. We’re told to turn down our air conditioning/heating, and to drive less (even by Oil companies such as Chevron corporation). In California, this crazyness has reached new levels, with single family homes being discouraged (via zoning) and dense multilevel apartment blocks the new politically correct way to live. Why? because of climate change, and the need for energy to heat/cool a large home, and the fact this energy causes carbon emissions, and those carbon emissions are causing climate change…. This madness has to stop one way or another, and the biggest tool in the drawer is nuclear power, which has many other advantages. It smashes the “other side”‘s lifestyle destroying arguments. The fact that nuclear power is STILL by many supposed climate fighters, goes to show their agenda was never to fight climate change, but to cut down our lifestyle with climate change the convenient excuse.
‘ This madness has to stop one way or another..’ Well, a fair sized chunk of California is on fire, so extending that to the rest of the state would be one way. We’re having near-record spring heat in New Zealand too. Europeans get by with half the energy use of USAnians, and so did the latter, back in the fifties, when they used to walk a bit more, and didn’t have obesity and diabetes rates nearly as high as now.
In Minnesota they’re putting up solar panels and wind turbines. I’m not against alternatives but when they use tax payer money to do so that’s where I draw the line “crony capitalism”. I always say if the sun is not shining and the wind isn’t blowing you got nothing. Nothing for storage in the way of wind or solar. I’m not against coal, oil, natural gas ect. Notice how the narrative is changed when the weather changes. First it was global cooling in the 70’s then it was global warming and when that didn’t work it’s now “climate” change. So now they can say anything and people will eat it up with really no scientific proof. One just needs to do a little research pre-industrial revolution to see reality of real climate change. They were farming in Siberia not long ago, that’s written in history. I’ll put it this way we’re not going to save the planet if we can’t even save ourselves. I’m very pro nuclear energy, and IMO the industry is over regulated. But I think one day we will wake up and see we will power the world as a very cheap and safe alternative to hydrocarbons.
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