Sorry, Trump, China’s cut-back on Coal Dooms Industry

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Donald Trump has said many foolish things, but his pledge to bring back coal takes the cake.

Coal is the dirtiest source of energy. Not only does it produce enormous amounts of carbon dioxide when burned, but releases other toxins as well, including mercury. Mercury is a nerve poison that can cause paralysis and insanity if the exposure is sufficiently robust. Recent studies suggest that the epidemic of Alzheimers is related to breathing polluted air, and no air is more polluted than that near coal plants. The long term harm of the CO2, however, is the big problem– continuing to burn coal at our present rate will likely put up the average global temperature by 10 degrees F., which will melt all surface ice, cause the loss (over a long period of time) of one-third of the earth’s dry land, and produce highly destructive mega-storms.

So wanting to bring back coal is a little bit like wanting to bring back the Black Plague, only much, much worse.

Make no mistake. Trump’s policies favoring fossil fuels will do enormous damage to our world. But he won’t be able to wreak as much pure havoc as he would like. And bringing back coal in a big way is probably impossible.

Look at China, the world’s biggest carbon polluter. The Chinese government, unlike Trump, believes in science and is sufficiently sensitive to public opinion that it wants to cut way back on coal. And it is doing so. Even though China’s over-all energy use rose about 1.5% in 2016, it cut coal consumption by nearly 5%! And this is the third year in a row that coal use has dropped. What’s more, production of coal fell 9%. In 2015, renewables had accounted for 18% of China’s energy, but that rose to 19.7% just about a fifth, in 2016. That is, likely a significant portion of reduced coal use was made up for by increased solar and wind.

If China cuts way back on coal, it will have a negative effect on the world market for the commodity, one that Trump’s mere bloviating cannot overcome.

It isn’t just China. By 2024, only 7 years from now, India expects never again to put in a new coal plant. Thereafter, all new power plants will be fueled by renewables. And by 2050 India could be coal free.

Coal is in a death spiral, and the faster it is actually dead, the better. In the US, the number of jobs in the coal electric generation sector fell by 24%. That sector now employs only 86,000 or so people, including 57,000 or so miners. In contrast, there were 370,000 people working in solar electricity generation in 2016, a 25% increase over the previous year. There are another 100,000 or so jobs in wind energy, and that sector is expected to double in jobs by 2024. I’m not unsympathetic to coal workers, but with what we now know, they are like asbestos workers. You wouldn’t want that stuff in your house just so the industry could employ a few thousand workers. And by the way, there were 60,000 people employed in video stores in 2006 and all those jobs are gone because of streaming over the internet, and no one even mentions it. Coal workers deserve retraining for other jobs, but don’t let the coal companies fetishize coal jobs, with their black lung and continent-sinking.

The biggest coal power plant in the American West is closing early, purely for economic reasons.

And, no, carbon capture and storage is a very bad idea. Carbon can escape, as it has from natural underground pockets, and kill large numbers of people by smothering them.

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Related video:

Arirang News: “China puts brakes on plans for more coal power plants”

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13 Responses

  1. Energy economics dooms coal.

    Coal is nothing more than stored solar and geothermal energy and it is much more efficient and cheaper to just use the two “primary ” sources of energy directly.

    From a human perspective, the only primary and “permanent” energy sources are solar energy, which includes wind and hydroelectric, gravitation (tidal), and earth geothermal. All other sources of energy are derived from the primary sources and have limited viability.

    All the hydrocarbon based forms of energy are finite. All the “easy” to obtain coal, oil and gas have already been used up. Now humans are having to use increasing forms of exotic and expensive technology to extract the remaining hydrocarbons, which makes hydrocarbon energy increasingly expensive versus the primary forms of energy, which are “free” after the technology to harvest the energy is perfected.

    While USA high-tech companies try to harvest the most energy per square meter (often at high cost), China has chosen to harvest the lowest cost energy per square meter. The result is less efficient harvesting requiring a larger energy harvesting area, but at a very low cost per watt of energy. The lower efficiency systems are also much less expensive to manufacture. As a result, China and India will very likely exceed their goals of replacing hydrocarbon with “permanent” energy.

    Chinese leadership KNOWS how much energy the country will require for most of the population to thrive and they know that the cost of using hydrocarbons to do that is an impossibly high number. Which is why they have invested in “permanent” energy because once the harvesting systems are in place, the maintenance costs are low and the energy is “free.” The fact that the quality of live will dramatically increase in China without the problems of hydrocarbon energy is an added bonus.

    As for the USA coal miners, they are doomed for two MAJOR reasons –

    – Robots – Robotic capability is INCREASING in a near exponential fashion and the costs are DECREASING in an accelerated linear fashion. PLUS in the USA, robots are considered a “capitol investment” under USA tax laws, so their entire cost can be deducted from a company’s tax bills over a few years. That is, the USA taxpayers pay for the robots. Also when a mine collapses, the robots are just left under the rubble and the insurance pays for more (newer, better) robots with no nasty headlines plus robots cost less than humans..

    – Energy economics – as noted above, the market for coal is rapidly decreasing because other forms of energy are much less costly. Already natural gas has replaced coal in most power plants in the USA and the same is happening across the world. Close behind gas are the “permanent” energy harvest and storage systems, which also follow the two technology curves (exponential INCREASE in capability and linear DECREASE in cost). There are too many coal producers and not enough buyers. A classic collapsing market that will end with only a very small number (one or two) highly automated producers supplying an exotic niche market. We have over 10000 years of history showing how this ends.

    Basically, coal mining jobs will NOT increase but continue to decrease as more and more mines close.

    The cruel reality is other than coal, there is no reason for any business to locate in “coal country” so there will not be any other jobs replacing coal jobs. Virtually all “modern” jobs are “brain jobs” that require extensive skill development. There are virtually no jobs for people with less than an AA degree or a Journeyman level certification. And the jobs that exist are located near population centers where employers have the highest possibility of finding the skill they need.

    The REALITY is the USA government is going to have to provide FREE skills development and moving assistance for the coal miners so they can move to where jobs are. Yes, they will have to abandon the hills that their ancestors moved to, in search of jobs when there were none where they came from. The hills of “coal country” are no longer a viable economic area and should be left to nature to turn back into wilderness.

    * Yes, I know that republicans are loath to use any tax dollars to actually help humans instead of companies, but if enough people get angry, maybe they will do it anyway – pure fantasy on my part.

  2. These republican conservatives love to go backwards to please their base or rich buddies. If polluting the environment are the consequences of these policies, you can be sure it will not deter them. While other nations, even China, is making strides, the US is taken backwards by these politicians.

    • Keep in mind that by abandoning the non-carbon competitive landscape to China and Europe, the USA is PERMANENTLY dooming itself to being non-competitive since the expertise to catch up can not be bought only learned during the development phase.

      So while the USA is protecting the carbon energy companies, it is dooming the USA to be a second rate nation over time buying energy technology from other countries.

  3. He could reduce his military budget increase by one billion dollars and put five thousand coal miners back to work making $40,0000 a year for five years….restoring leveled mountain tops into solar farms.

    But then Raytheon would object. Just a thought.

    • Unfortunately, mountain top solar plants are impractical due to the problems of transporting the energy from the remote mountains to the users in the cities.

      California faced a similar problem when they started putting solar farms in the remote desert. Since California needs so much energy, they paid to put in a new electrical energy backbone from the deserts to LA.

      BUT . . .

      California still has not increased the capacity of the north/south backbone, so the energy can’t be transferred to northern California.

      While it is “technically” possible to build new backbones from the Appalachian mountains to eastern cities, the costs would be very high compared to building across an open desert.

  4. “[coal] now employs only 86,000 or so people, including 57,000 or so miners. In contrast, there were 370,000 people working in solar electricity generation in 2016, a 25% increase over the previous year” Whether talking about drilling and mining, or brazenly running leaky pipelines across other people’s lands, backed up by paramilitary thugs called out by corrupt local governments, “renewable” jobs are invisible to Republicans. This is because the carbon industries were too stupid to diversify into wind and solar, finding it easier to bribe rent-a-legislators, and for that failing, the planet pays the price. I want to scream when fools talk about coal jobs or pipeline jobs because the conversation ignores (deliberately) the fact that alternatives to polluting jobs exist.

  5. Coal is crappy but when it comes to climate change Liquid Natural Gas is worse. Read why here – link to simplysolar.co
    Chins is now the biggest carbon polluter however if you deduct the carbon produced making all the crap that the US orders from China then the US is still the biggest polluter. Not oly that but the biggest share of the man made carbon added to the atosphere is from the US, by far.

  6. Good analogy with the video store employees. I have used an analogy of Trump being like someone in 1910 vowing to maintain employment in the horse drawn carriage industry. BTW, before automobiles, horse manure was becoming a major problem in large cities so that cars were actually better for public health at that time. What is amazing is that anybody buys Trump’s snake oil.

  7. So Trump is going to revitalise the US coal mining industry, bring jobs back to Appllachia and the flyover states where coal mining was decimated by Obama .? Simple facts show this is all fantasy: mining coal is an expensive business and only profitable if the price of energy is high. But gas, produced in abundance and at comparatively low cost, is cheaper than coal, which increasingly will not be able to compete. Coal can be mined, extensively and at fairly low cost, but only by highly mechanised surface mining methods that require limited labour inputs. Mountain top removal and strip mining are horrendously bad for the landscape and the environment and do not provide much employment. Trump simply cannot ensure that coal mining returns to the old mining areas and that superannuated miners will get their jobs back.

    • Solar and wind are cheaper than natural gas both in absolute terms and especially if you take into account environmental impact.

      • And as I have noted, solar and wind follow the technology capability and cost curves so there is no way for hydrocarbon energy to compete.

        China’s and Europe’s pushes for non-carbon energy will constantly drive solar and wind toward “zero” cost.

  8. Carbon sequestration is easy and permanent. Its called coal and remains in the ground for many tens of millions of years.

    Carbon dioxide sequestration is a bit more difficult. As the link shows you don’t want to store it in just water. However, pumping supercritical carbon dioxide with just a little water added into any mafic rock, basalt for example, turns the carbon dioxide into carbonate rock in only two years. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, down the road a bit, recently concluded just that test.

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