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After Keystone: Fight Coal and Accelerate Innovation

Jesse Jenkins's picture

Jesse is a researcher, consultant, and writer with ten years of experience in the energy sector and expertise in electric power systems, electricity regulation, energy and climate change policy...

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  • Apr 9, 2013

king coalWhile the battle over the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline rages on, energy analysts Matthew Stepp and Alex Trembath counsel a redeployment of the climate movement’s efforts. Writing in Bloomberg op ed, the pair applaud the organizers of the anti-Keystone protests, including Bill McKibben’s, but recommend that they soon redirect their efforts on two fronts:

Focus on replacing coal with cheap low-carbon alternatives. And push for more innovation across a suite of energy technologies — solar, wind, nuclear, batteries and biofuels — to make them more able to compete on performance and price.”

“The stage is already set” for a transition away from coal, Stepp and Trembath argue, thanks to “the emergence of cheap natural gas from shale … and more stringent federal regulations on pollution. Today, just 38 percent of U.S. electricity comes from coal, down from 50 percent in 2007.”

The lesson for activists: “Innovation is the necessary first step in switching to cleaner energy sources. The natural-gas revolution grew out of 30 years of government investment in research and development of new drilling technologies.”

Implicit in their argument is that while the development of relatively affordable and scalable substitutes puts the end of Old King Coal squarely in our sights, it will take continued innovation to bring about similar substitutes for Big Oil. 

Stepp and Trembath are both friends and former colleagues, so it’s no surprise that I resonate with much of what they write. 

I would make a friendly amendment to their case, however, and add that their column is best read as advice for what comes after the Keystone fight (rather than what should happen instead of it).

The armies are already arrayed on the Keystone battlefield, and I doubt anyone is backing down at this point! And I wish the “NoKXL” campaigners well. Either way, however, an imminent decision on the Keystone pipeline offers a new chance for refocus the movement’s efforts.

Finishing the fight against Old King Coal today while amping up the innovation needed to develop the affordable, scalable alternatives needed to ultimately tackle Big Oil as well is a winning climate strategy. Perhaps the only one…

With the right policies and activism, coal can be brought to it’s knees in America in the next decade. But that opportunity is due in large part to the innovations of the past three decades in natural gas and renewables that have made these fuels affordable substitutes for coal.

That’s why it makes sense to focus on battling Old King Coal today. For Big Oil to be next (and it must be) we must also accelerate the next wave of innovation needed to develop affordable scalable substitutes for oil.

I recognize that drawing a line in the sand around a major, tangible project like Keystone offers a prime opportunity for organizing. Finding a way to rally around stronger and better investments in low-carbon energy innovation is a more challenging task for climate campaigners. But it’s a challenge that cannot be ignored.

The need for substantial innovation to develop alternatives to oil is unassailable. While tremendous progress has been made, alternative transportation and fuel technologies today are clearly inadquate as a global substitute for oil. More fuel efficient vehicles are making a dent in oil consumption, but can’t alone drive emissions from oil down to zero. Electric vehicle batteries must become roughly twice as energy dense and half as costly before plug-in or electric cars can take substantial market share from conventional gasoline vehicles. That may require fundamentally new battery chemistries and technologies to achieve. Next generation biofuels remain largely pre-commercial. And no one yet has any idea how to produce a cost effective, energy dense substitute for jet fuels. 

Unfortunately, while the case for accelerated innovation is clear, public investments in advanced energy research, development, demonstration, and deployment are stalling

As author and journalist Mike Grunwald points out on Twitter, new clean energy substitutes are emerging today, thanks in large part to historic investments in clean energy deployment & innovation marshalled by the Recovery Act. But those one-time investments have now come to an end, threatening a turn from boom to bust

President Obama and his administration frequently touted the Recovery Act’s clean energy investments as a “down payment” on a new energy economy. Sadly, we are still waiting today for the first real mortgage check!

Instead of sustained investments, thanks to the Sequester and the 2013 budget resolution (CR), Congress is cutting federal investments in Department of Energy RD&D programs by nearly half a billion dollars ($446.5 million in total for FY2013).

Reversing this trend and expanding and accelerating national investments in low-carbon energy innovation should be a central priorities of any effective climate movement.

It’s important to note that I am not counseling the climate movement to sit back and “wait for technology to save us” rather than confront the challenging political realities holding back a clean energy transition. Efforts to win political reforms and efforts to accelerate technology innovation are not mutually exclusive. They aren’t even true substitutes, but rather complements. The better performing and lower cost we make substitutes for fossil fuels, the easier the political effort required to transition our society to an ultra-low-carbon energy system. The more successful we are at transforming society to rely less heavily on existing forms of mobility and other energy services, the easier the energy technology transformation becomes.

At the same time, the limitations of existing politics and political institutions are every bit as real as the limitations of existing technologies. Wishing either away gets us nowhere. A smart climate movement would instead focus on building on what has worked.

As Stepp and Trembath write, the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign has proven just how effective climate campaigning can be when it targets an incumbent fossil fuel already challenged by the emergence of affordable, scalable substitutes. As the pair write, the Beyond Coal campaign “credits itself with closing 142 coal plants, with plans to shut down one-third of the U.S. fleet by 2030.” 

The Sierra Club and its many savvy allies have put Old King Coal on the ropes in America. That’s a tectonic shift in American politics. He may not be down and out yet, but with the right series of blows, he’ll go down hard.

But why did this effort succeed? In large part because decades of successful effort on the innovation front — in renewables and efficiency and, yes, in natural gas — brought about real competitors for coal’s market share. With the right political push, these competitors could eat away at coal’s dominance. But without these technologies, the political efforts would never have gotten half as far.

That’s a lesson climate campaigners must internalize as they turn the fight to oil.

I also respect the case about avoiding lock-in while simultaneously pushing to accelerate energy innovation and finish off coal. It may make sense to devote selected effort to blocking specific, long-lived oil-related infrastructure projects like Keystone XL.

At the same time, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that in the near-term, the core of any workable plan to eventually displace oil depends more today on accelerated innovation than it does on direct confrontation.

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I K's picture
I K on Apr 9, 2013

It is premature to call the end of coal or to even want it to end without first having something better in every way to replace it.

The horse and carriage was around long after the first automobile came onto the scene only a long time after were cars notably better in almost every way for the horse and carriage to slowly fade into history.

Current solar and wind can not replace coal nor is there are worldwide massive glut in natural gas to replace coal with that. The only thing we have that could do it today is nuclear which hasn’t been in vogue for the last 30 years.

Maybe one day, but not anytime soon

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Apr 10, 2013

Our current national plan for replacing oil is basically to wait for breakthroughs in batteries, biofuels, and renewable hydrogen.

Putting more money into research might help, but the breakthroughs still could be a long time in coming.  In other words, our plan entails a high risk of failure. 

There is an alternative that we have been ignoring which might be our best hope for a near term carbon-neutral oil substitute.  Fossil fuels (e.g. coal and natural gas) can be used to make carbon-free transportation fuels, and the resulting CO2 can be captured and sequestered.

Of course the most familiar carbon-free fuel is hydrogen, which has many problems (e.g. very high cost for fuel cells and very poor energy density).  But ammonia (NH3) is also a carbon-free fuel, and it has an energy density a little better than that of cng (and triple that of H2), so it can be burned in a modified internal combustion engine and it still produces adequate vehicle range.  What’s more, ammonia is also a bridge to a sustainable future, since it is the cheapest fuel that can be made from solar, wind, or nuclear power.  The best part is that ammonia today is cost competitive with gasoline, and ammonia engines are more efficient than their gasoline counterparts.

With grass-roots support, ammonia fuel could be a major part of our CO2 emissions reduction solution, a pragmatic solution that provides a business opportunity for influential fossil fuel companies rather than threatening them.

For further reading, see:


Sage Radachowsky's picture
Sage Radachowsky on Apr 10, 2013

It is not premature. Don’t you trust in emergence?

Sage Radachowsky's picture
Sage Radachowsky on Apr 10, 2013

What we need is a carbon tax that adds serious cost to energy based on the greenhouse emissions it causes. This is a very simple mechanism that uses the “invisible hand of the market” to find the thousands of solutions that will be the real substance of how we actually reduce our emissions significantly.

If coal-based energy is charged heavily, due to its real ecological costs, then people will find other sources of energy. Things will flow in new ways and solutions will emerge. The market is very powerful, but it needs the right information to make informed decisions. Currently, we collectively allow the fossil fuel industry to produce and sell a product, while using the whole planet as a dumping ground for waste products that are harming us and the ecology on which we depend. That needs to simply stop. We need to charge real costs to the industry for this damage they’re doing. The revenue raised must then flow directly to the people who suffer the harms, which is everyone. Internationally, this must be done in a harmonized way, with border adjustments that encourage all nations to enact similar carbon taxes at serious rates.

The only solution i see is this one, other than a wholesale toppling of the current power structure.

Wilmot McCutchen's picture
Wilmot McCutchen on Apr 10, 2013

Technology stagnation is the problem, not coal per se.  If we could come up with a scalable way to cut coal emissions (CO2, mercury, ash) coal might meet power demand while the search goes on for a real alternative.  A real alternative would be something we have not developed yet, such as cold fusion at utility scale.  Wind, solar, and biofuels — aka “non-hydro renewables” — are small players that can’t possibly scale to supplant coal, especially not for baseload generation, and especially not in China and India in the next 20 years.     .

The reason for the continuing technology stagnation is that vested interests in academia, government, and incumbent industries limit the search to timid steps from what they already know and have based careers on.  Like the drunk looking for his lost keys under a streetlight because the light is better there.  “We have all the technologies we need” is an article of faith common to purported experts on the left and right.  So there is no support for looking in new directions.   

james craig's picture
james craig on Apr 10, 2013



In the 1960s a safe energy technology was tested for 20,000 hours and it’s only problem was it will not produce fuel for the Pentagon boy toys. That’s why we have all these nuclear reactors that produce all the nuclear pollution and are a danger to the world.

The sooner we shut down all these Uranium and Plutonium reactors and replace them with the safe reactors the better off we will all be.

Recently the Navy Research Lab has produced a way to start taking CO2 from sea water that has been increasing the acid levels for years now and making liquid fuels. They are now making the equipment smaller to be installed on ships.

The BRICS countries understand the energy and water problems world wide and are on these technologies like white on paper. One of the many units is now producing 1,000 megawatts of electricity for Moscow, Russia and has been in operation for about 5 years now.

May I suggest every one to look up  energyfromthorium dot com and the Navy report on fuel from sea water. Just be of open mind and see what we are going to miss as the BRICS nations build peace and prosperity while we export war and destruction.

If you have a microwave oven you have reactor grade thorium in your home. If you have the older C.R.T. TV or computer monitor you are setting next to reactor grade thorium.


Pieter Siegers's picture
Pieter Siegers on Apr 10, 2013

Hello Jesse, thanks for this great piece, I agree on many arguments you make – KXL is a very important and stimulating issue to win (read cancel) but it is only a small part of the clean energy battle.

There are so many issues around the world today that require inmediate action (activism).

Although I thought a little different when you wrote this:

“Electric vehicle batteries must become roughly twice as energy dense and half as costly before plug-in or electric cars can take substantial market share from conventional gasoline vehicles.”

I mean, looking at what the Nissan Leaf accomplishes, I think the reality is that this EV is beating comparable ICE s, won’t you agree?


I’d like to add that innovation and investigation is key component for substantial changes to a clean energy model worldwide, but making people conscious about the need for it is equally important. That may well be the case in some countries but a lot more countries (their governments) do really need to expose mor information on the very risky energy game we’re all playing today.

Regards, Pieter

Jesse Jenkins's picture
Jesse Jenkins on Apr 10, 2013

Hi Pieter,

Thanks for the comment. 

Just a quick reply regarding the Nissan Leaf and current state of EVs. The Leaf costs roughly 2x a comparable internal combustion car (it’s most comparable to the Nissan Versa hatchback which starts at $14.7k. The Leaf starts at $21.3k, and that’s after a $7,500 federal tax credit, so the real cost is $28.8k, or as a said, roughly double the cost of a Versa. Then there’s performance. The Versa has 122 HP versus the Leaf’s 107 HP. The Leaf is MUCH heavier than the Versa thanks to the battery. The better torque of the electric drivetrain probably compensates for this somewhat, but starting at a lower HP already, it likely accelerates more slowly than the comparable Versa. And then there’s the real killer: range. The Leaf gets an average of a 75 mile range, according to Nissan. I think the max range is around 90 miles but if you’re running AC or the heater in the summer/winter, that range is going to plummet to closer to 50 miles. The real upside of the Leaf of course is in fuel economy — 130/102 city/highway miles per gallon-equivalent according to the EPA versus the Versa’s 28/34. 

So in upshot, you get a pretty decent car provided you drive mostly in the city and mostly less than 50-75 miles per trip. And you get it at twice the cost. If you ever drive more than 50-75 miles, then forget it.

For now, both range and cost significantly limit the market segments of customers willing to adopt something like a Leaf EV. That’s largely why sales of the Leaf are modest, at 50,000 vehicles worldwide as of February 2013. In contrast, Americans bought 1.4 million light duty vehicles (cars, trucks, SUVs, etc) in 2012. So even assuming we sold all of those Leafs in the US rather than worldwide and assuming they were all sold in 2012 (the Leaf actually began sales at the end of 2010), total Leaf sales amount to 0.035% of new vehicle sales. (And as a share of on-road vehicles, it’s even smaller).

As I mentioned in the post, thanks in large part to supportive public policies, the alternatives to oil are emerging. But they will require significant continued innovation and improvement before they present the same competition to oil as natural gas, nuclear, wind, and solar power now provide to coal.


Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Apr 11, 2013

 If you ever drive more than 50-75 miles, then forget it [the Leaf].”

That’s the real catch isn’t it.  Even if 99% of the time, a person drives only 40 miles a day, the Lead could  still be non-viable.

Telsa Motors is trying to build a Supercharger network, so that electric car owners can travel long distances using fast (30-45 minute) chargers along the way.  At these fast charge rates, batteries will only accept about a 60-70% charge.  That means with a prudent 30 mile reserve, a car with a range like the leaf would have to stop every 10 miles.

Electric cars need 200 mile range to really be robust products. 

Pieter Siegers's picture
Pieter Siegers on Apr 11, 2013

We must stay fair. Compare the EV with what the ICE was more than 100 years ago. What would you find? ICEs with of course low if not very low range… low speed… low reliability. And much lower than today’s EVs, no doubt about that.

Of course, there’s always something to complain, if I could get a car that is electric end it covers my daily trips for 99% than I would be more than happy with it. I live in a place where there’s not one real option yet, but hopefully the Leaf is coming this year (to Mexico).

People all over the world are so used today to speed, range, and lots of horse power that of course it is difficult to adjust to something a less. They always seem to want more.

The point is, if we don’t accept these current EV specs then how can these EVs improve?

How can the price lower if we do not decide to leave those ICEs behind and really start adopting EVs?

I think we cannot wait until EVs are comparable to ICEs, there’s too much money going into research and development.

Those who really want to change their lifestyle and strive for a zero carbon footprint they will gladly accept the higer initial costs. And they will smile when time goes by and ICE owners see higher maintainance sosts, gasoline costs that only will increase.

I think ICEs have had their time and are old fashioned noisy stuff. Let’s get rid of them.

Tesla is making it easy for the rich guys, and Elon Musk is a very smart guy putting chains of superchargers and innovated financial products, but he would be a whole lot smarter to produce a car that has lower price and better range. But no doubt about it the Tesla S is a wonderful example of how an EV can be, today.

Of course, it is only a matter of time that EVs will have better specs, but early adopters make this possible, not the waiters like you guys, that’s for sure.


Paul O's picture
Paul O on Apr 11, 2013

This is not a question of fairness or unfairness. It’s a question of whether the product fullfills a need or it doesn’t. Those “early adopters” are people who fully intended to use EVs within their known limitations. What is unfair is to ask the public to buy an expensive product that’s simply inadequate, and not able to fill the role that it is expected to fill.

Fortunately there are many innovators who are working hard to bring the EV up to specifications where they can trully be adopted for our transportation needs, and there are some exciting developments in Lithium-Air battery tech that I have read about.  

The Obvious thing to dofor now,  is to continue using the most efficient transportation we currently have, whether that’s supercharged diesels or natural gas fleets, or even simply better, higher milage gasoline cars. In the meantime we could accelerate the decomisioning of older coal plants while replacing them with Natural Gas and/or 3rd/4th generation Nuclear.

Pieter Siegers's picture
Pieter Siegers on Apr 11, 2013

I completely agree on the carbon tax idea!

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Apr 12, 2013

 if we don’t accept these current EV specs then how can these EVs improve?

Oh, that’s no problem.  The EV’s are weak not because car companies are inexperienced at electrics, but because battery technology is adequate.  But battery technology is improving independent of the car industry:  the battery market for hand-held electronics and tools is on the order of a billion cells per year.

I bought a Prius, in part, to insure that car companies and battery companies talk to one another.  The Prius does that as well as the Leaf.

The other thing to keep in mind is that when it comes to inovative and automobile-specific technologies like the lithium-air batteries, they will appear first in high-end models like the Teslas long before an economy car the the Leaf.

Pieter Siegers's picture
Pieter Siegers on Apr 12, 2013

Doing that would sustain the current situation, which need to change as quickly as possible, we all know that. We need a different action plan.

I think that to improve the transition speed a carbon tax should be introduced for all types of energy sources including renewables (because one way or the other these also have some CO2 footprint but indeed very small compared to fossil fuels) and with that money available do specific investigation and get good ideas to the consumer market more quickly.

Current energy susidies model should be revised completely and turned into a world-wide tax carbon system. Simply said: make polluters pay.

That will cause the market to change much quicker than it does right now.

This article explains that idea a bit and adds a lot of other interesting information:


Grace Adams's picture
Grace Adams on Jun 2, 2015

As much as I agree on the NEED for a carbon tax high enough to cover all the costs imposed on society by our use of fossil fuel, it would step too thoroughly on the toes of our TOO BIG TO FAIL fossil fuel firms to be politically feasible. The only way I could see to get it in even partly would be to use a substantial part of it to make up to the fossil fuel giants by buying fossil fuel reserves as mineral rights ONLY FROM TOO BIG TO FAIL (i.e. politically powerful) fossil fuel firms.  As much as everybody in favor of green energy hates those fossil fuel giants, the object is to “KEEP IT IN THE GROUND” not to punish fossil fuel firms. 

Grace Adams's picture
Grace Adams on Jun 2, 2015

Considering how much in extra health care pollution from the full life cycle of coal costs the US, (at least $345billion/year according to an online petition from Natural Resources Defence Organization), I feel replacing coal with something a little cheaper than nuclear and less toxic to humans than coal with all its life cycle pollution needs to be done, even if it has to be justified by an appeal to savings in health care costs from replacing coal.

What could coal be replaced with?  Maybe round up such nasties and water hyacinth clogging waterways and toxic algal blooms; drain, dry, and pulverize them, and sell the powder to utilities as “green” coal?

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