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Why We Need CCS, Part 3: Coal

Highlights

  • Coal use has been growing rapidly in the 21st century because it effectively delivers the very high energy surplus necessary to drive economic growth in the developing world.
  • Developing nations will most likely continue exploiting their abundant coal resources despite increasing environmental concerns.
  • If climate science is correct, this situation will necessitate a very large scale CCS rollout over coming decades.

Introduction

In the previous two parts of this series (12), we discussed why CCS is likely to do very well in a future climate constrained world and how CCS might behave in a policy environment of rapid reactive decarbonization through a high and rising CO2 price. In this third instalment, we will take a look at the primary reason why we need CCS in the first place: coal.

Coal is quite possibly the most hated commodity on earth. It is dirty in almost every sense of the word, can have severe local impacts if handled irresponsibly and is also the most CO2 intensive fuel we have. For these reasons, people have been out in force against coal for decades, especially as climate change became more mainstream and studies such as the Epstein et al. work assigned enormous externalized costs to coal energy.

However, for the most hated commodity on earth, coal is doing pretty well for itself. As shown below, global coal consumption has comfortably outpaced growth in all other energy forms since the turn of the century.

Change in energy consumption since turn of the century

Despite the continued frustration of almost everyone who is even slightly informed about energy and climate issues, this trend is is unlikely to reverse anytime soon. Mainstream energy projections indicate that global coal growth should slow down over coming decades with more growth coming from gas and renewables, but growth is set to continue. This article will delve a little more deeply into the fundamental drivers of coal consumption.

Energy and economic growth

In order to grow the global economy, we require high-quality energy resources. Such resources allow us to use very little of our time and effort in the procurement and distribution of new energy and all the rest in manufacturing and distributing all the stuff that we really want. In fact, from a macroeconomic perspective, the great job creation potential of renewable energy often touted by advocates is a bad thing.

As most readers will be aware of, the Energy Return on Investment (EROI) of all major fuels has been in decline for decades now. This simply implies that we are forced to spend increasing amounts of our time and effort on the procurement of new energy, leaving less for all the other stuff. As revealed in the data of the foremost authority on the topic of EROI, Charles Hall, coal is the only possible exception to this steady decline and has maintained its high EROI steady from 1950 to 2000 according to the source of the figure below.

Charles Hall balloon graph

This situation has naturally lead to the global coal breakout over the last decade. As the EROI of oil and gas continued to decline, the world increasingly turned to coal in order to maintain economic growth. In practice, this implied a stagnation in oil-powered developed nations while rapid growth took place in coal-powered developing nations. Take a look at the figure below while keeping in mind that the coal breakout began roughly around the turn of the century.

Developed and developing world GDP growth

Aside from the potential of the heavily debated shale gas revolution in the US, the world has not solved the issue of declining oil & gas EROI, implying that there is no reason for these trends to change. If the world economy is to continue to grow, it needs a continued large energy surplus and, if oil & gas EROI continues downwards, this surplus will have to continue to come from coal. Nuclear power has potential to aid significantly here, but continues to suffer from very strong societal resistance. Wind and solar power, on the other hand, is nowhere near the EROI required to sustain (let alone grow) the global economy when accounting for the intermittency (e.g. Weisbach or Palmer).

Thus, unless we see a rapid political turnaround on nuclear (appears unlikely) or a global shale gas revolution (perhaps somewhat more likely), a continued shift to coal will be necessary in order to maintain global economic growth. And, as discussed next, growth will be maintained at almost any cost.

Growth vs. environment

It is sometimes hard for developed world citizens to understand the priorities of the developing world, but it is important to understand (and accept) that the 6 billion people living in developing countries will pursue economic development at almost any cost over the coming years and decades. There are a number of good reasons for this, the most important of which will be discussed here.

Firstly, globalization has made catch-up growth much easier for developing nations than it used to be. Skills, knowledge and investment capital can be imported through various channels and the resulting copied technology combined with cheap local labour and cheap (often very dirty) fossil energy ensures high global demand for the resulting very cheap products and services. This process creates enormous opportunity for hundreds of millions of poor people to better their lives – an opportunity which is normally grabbed with both hands.

Secondly, developing world citizens value negative fossil fuel externalities much lower than developed world citizens. For example, the Epstein et al. study valued the  24475 excess deaths in 2005 at $187 billion. If this valuation was used for the 444000 Americans killed by smoking every year, it can be calculated that cigarettes cost the US almost a quarter of its entire GDP. In contrast, an Indian study valued all non-CO2 externalities of coal at less than 10% the value calculated by Epstein et al. The reason behind this stark difference in priorities becomes blindingly obvious to anyone who has ever seen one of the giant developing world slums first-hand.

Thirdly, developing world citizens still have an enormous amount of happy life years to gain from fossil-fueled industrialization. Happy life years (life expectancy times a subjective wellbeing score) tend to increase logarithmically with environmental footprint. This implies that most developing world citizens can still get large gains in happy life years through fairly moderate increases in environmental footprint (fossil fueled industrialization). The situation is totally opposite for developed world citizens, however, as illustrated by the figure below compiled from the Happy Planet Index.

happy-planet-index

Finally, a strong case can be made for the notion that getting rich as quickly as possible is the developing world’s best defence against the detrimental effects of climate change. It is well established that the developing world is much more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than the developed world simply because of a much lower level of development. Sustained (fossil-fuelled) economic development will therefore be detrimental to the world as a whole, but can certainly be of net-benefit to the countries that manage to grow the fastest. 

Coal resources

None of this would matter, however, if we did not have such a tremendous amount of coal at our disposal. One sometimes hears the definition of sustainable energy consumption as a finite resource being sustainable if it will last at least 1000 years at current consumption rates. According to a recent IEA report, global hard coal resources are 17.2 trillion tonnes which equates to 2200 years at current consumption rates. Yes, proven reserves amount to “only” 133 years at current consumption rates, but resources are continuously being converted to reserves as the market demands it.

Referring to coal as a sustainable resource really sounds heretical, but if these enormous resources are combined with the total CO2 storage capacity which could be somewhere in the order of 10 trillion tonnes (close to a 1000 years if 80% of current coal-related emissions are stored), this sounds slightly less ludicrous. The point I’m trying to make here, however, is not that coal is a sustainable resource, but that it can definitely serve society’s energy needs for many decades into the future.

More importantly, coal has the potential to give society some crucial freedom to balance between the seemingly conflicting needs of rapid economic development of the developing world and rapid decarbonization of the global energy sector. As outlined in the first two parts of this series, CCS can potentially achieve retroactive CO2 abatement at a very rapid rate when the time comes that climate change starts to have a clear and directly attributable negative effect on the life of the average member of the democratic electorate. And yes, if climate science is correct, this point will probably arrive within the next decade or two as the developing world continues its fossil-fueled expansion.

Conclusion

Whether we like it or not, coal is here to stay. Until we find another broadly accepted energy source that delivers the enormous energy surplus necessary to drive global economic growth in such a highly reliable manner, coal consumption must continue expanding in the developing world. Declining coal use in developed economies will offset this trend to some degree, but it is unlikely that coal use will decline significantly over the next decade or two.  

If the world can find a broadly accepted clean energy solution capable of driving rapid industrialization and urbanization in the developing world, it would be fantastic, but until that happens, CCS will have to remain a high priority.  Otherwise, we had all better pray that climate science is way off the mark (on the pessimistic side).

Schalk Cloete's picture

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Discussions

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on Jun 10, 2014 3:43 pm GMT

Schalk,

Totally agree.  CCS is key, and not only do we need it for coal we will need it for natural gas, oil and chemical refineries, and ethanol plants.  Any facility producing substantial CO2 emissions can be plugged into a CCS infrastructure.

Technology innovation is key to reducing negative externalities and maximizing prodcutivity of coal and other resources as well.  Tremendous improvements have already been made since the 1970’s in the USA at reducing toxic pollution from coal, even as we have ramped up usage.

 

 

http://cornerstonemag.net/a-roadmap-for-the-advancement-of-low-emissions...

 

There is tremendous demand for the CO2 from coal plants in oil fields for enhanced oil recovery.  Industry and NETL estimate demand for CO2 at billions of tons, equivalent to hundreds of coal power plants operating for decades, and that is before resorting to using saline aquifers for sequestration, for which storage capabilites are orders of magnitude larger.

Today we have ~4000 miles of CO2 pipelines in operation in the USA, we will need roughly 40,000 miles of pipelines constructed over the next 30 years to establish the CCUS industry at the scale sufficient to address climate change targets.  CO2 utilization converts CCS into CCUS and makes CO2 a valuable commodity rather than a waste product.

On a final note, coal to synthetc liquids and natural gas offers much improved economics for CCS because carbon capture is integral to the process initially.  Synthetic liquid fuels are ultra pure with no sulfur or other contaminants which is an added bonus. 

 

 

 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 11, 2014 6:36 am GMT

Thanks Schalk, coal is an unpleasant topic, but one that must be discussed.

On the EROI chart, here is another analysis, this time from a source which is more friendly towards nuclear (sadly the accumulated public discussion of nuclear power seems to be a study in confirmation bias; the fact that this author took the trouble to add the letters “PWR” to the nuclear data suggests greater diligence to me).  It comes from an excellent article by Keith Pickering and reports on the work of Weißbach et. al. 2013.

As the article says, this study got such a high value for nuclear by using 60 years for the plant life (most US plants are expected to last this long, and many have already had their licenses extended to this), and by assuming that most of the uranium was enriched with modern centrifuge technology rather than inefficient 1950’s gaseous diffusion (a reasonable assumption if the goal is to guide future energy choices).

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jun 11, 2014 8:38 am GMT

The push to limit negative externalities from fossil fuel combustion has indeed been impressive. Another issue I have with the Epstein study referenced in the article (which is one of the more subjectively biased studies I have encountered in my carreer) is that they used the estimated number of deaths based on 2005 levels of air pollution to calculate their very high external cost. However, due to the pollution control measures you have described, this number of premature deaths has halved since those days (to only about 3% of the premature deaths caused by smoking).

This is a very natural transition: as societies get richer, they value cheap energy less and clean energy more, thereby incentivising the deployment of least-cost pollution control technology. As you often point out, this cost can be further brought down through innovative utilization of the produced waste product. 

In general, it will be very interesting to see what happens to coal in the US. The US has the largest coal reserves in the world and still values cheap energy very highly relative to other developed nations. However, the shale revolution has given some leeway for a politically popular move away from coal and coal power plant capital costs have risen dramatically in recent years. It will be interesting to see what happens when the shale boom is over… 

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jun 11, 2014 9:02 am GMT

The Weisbach study does seem to be a step in the right direction, but I am still missing one crucial element: a discount rate. The graph you have above shows the ability of of various energy sources to sustain our current economy assuming zero-risk and free finacial services (i.e. a 0% discount rate). However, just sustaining an economy is politically impossible, especially in the developing world where people understandably want economic growth at almost any cost. In addition, there is always a risk (technical, economic, political) of energy infrastructure investments not producing the expected output, and the finance industry doesn’t work for free.  

If we use a 8% discount rate (which is appropriate for most of the developing world – 5% time-value of money, 2% risk premium and 1% finance industry costs), the NPV of nuclear power generated over 60 years will be only 20% the value it will have if a 0% discount rate is used. This of course also applies to solar and wind and can bring the effective EROI of these sources to below 1. 

Even if the nuclear EROI in the graph is reduced by a factor of five, it is still sufficient. But it is important to note that one of the biggest advantages of fossil fuels is that most of the effort is invested in the extraction and transportation of the fuel itself and that this effort can immediately be fed into the economy without any time-shift (which can be decades for nuclear and renewables). I feel that this effect needs to be incorportated into EROI studies. 

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 12, 2014 4:22 am GMT

I don’t understand how an intrinsic value can be shaped by discount rates. If it takes a billion kWh equivalent to build a nuclear reactor, and it delivers 100 billion kWh equivalent over its lifetime, it seems that the only way the EROE would be less (than a 100 in this case) is if the plant shut down prematurely. Once built, it would seem to be the cheapest source unless CCS is not applied to fossil fuels (but CCS should be).

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jun 12, 2014 9:21 am GMT

Sure, according to the Weisbach study, nuclear would deliver 75 kWh over a 60 year lifetime for every kWh used in construction. It is just that most of this energy would be valued much less in a growing economy. For instance, if an 8% discount rate is used, the 20 final years of production of a 60-year nuclear plant is valued at only 0.4 years of present production. Thus, the EROI numbers I would like to see are not about true energy output, but the actual value to society of that energy output. 

But it could be easier to understand from another angle. Say we are in a steady state economy where energy demand is stagnant. If such an economy is served exclusively by nuclear plants with a 60 year lifetime, 1.67% of the nuclear fleet would have to be retired and reconstructed every year. According to the Weisbach numbers (and ignoring all risk and financing costs), this economy would consistently invest 1 kWh for every 75 kWh it gets out. 

However, if the same economy now suddenly starts growing at 7% p.a., they would have to build new nuclear plants not only at the 1.67% replacement rate, but also at the 7% demand growth rate, thus bringing the total build rate up to 8.67% of the total fleet per year. The total fleet still produces almost the same in a given year, but the energy inputs to construct new capacity now increased by a factor of 5.2. Thus, for every 75 kWh of useful electricity delivered to the economy, 5.2 kWh now has to be invested to maintain growth and replace retired plants, thus bringing the effective EROI down to about 15. In other words, every year, this economy now has to invest 1 kWh in energy infrastructure for every 15 kWh it gets out. 

For fossil fuels, where most of the costs are incurred during operation (not up-front), this picture is very different. For example, in China, fuel and operating costs make up about 70% of the LCOE of coal power plants, leaving only 30% as up-front costs. Thus, to serve a 7% growth rate, only ~2% of the total energy output of the economy is needed to construct the new capacity instead of ~7% for nuclear. This is part of the reason why China has consistently expanded coal consumption at a rate 80x faster than nuclear consumption over the past 10 years. 

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jun 12, 2014 8:23 am GMT

Another important factor with this discount rate approach is the nuclear energy construction time. If we assume that energy inputs to a nuclear plant are distributed linearly over a 6 year construction phase, the energy input costs are actually worth 1.35 kWh in NPV at the plant commisioning for every actual kWh invested if an 8% discount rate is used. This would bring the effective nuclear EROI in a rapidly growing economy estimated above down from 15 to 11.  

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jun 12, 2014 2:43 pm GMT

“This is part of the reason why China has consistently expanded coal consumption at a rate 80x faster than nuclear consumption over the past 10 years.”

Is it though?

You show that the energy intensity of an economy growing at 7% would be on the order of 5% higher if the expansion was nuclear-based rather than if it was coal-based. You seem to imply that this situation would be a negative for the economy. I don’t see why it would have to be. Chinese investment in nuclear generation is economical (i.e. it is not consuming net subsidies), so the increased energy intensity resulting from choosing nuclear over coal should not necessarily be a negative for the Chinese economy. 

I think a better explanation for China’s historical coal-based expansion could be the technical and organisational simplicity of such an expansion. And the fact that China had little or no civilian nuclear capability to speak of. It has basically imported all of the know-how it has today. Now that it has it, a nuclear expansion is gathering pace and showing great promise.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jun 12, 2014 4:05 pm GMT

I’m not saying that the nuclear in China is uneconomical, I’m just saying that it is not quite as brilliant as the 75 EROI in the Weisbach study seems to suggest. 

And the time-value of money is also not the only reason for the consistent 80x coal/nuclear consumption ratio in China. As you said the simplicity of coal is also a very important factor. I really hope this ratio comes down significantly as the Chinese economy matures and diversifies away from coal, but thus far (data up to the end of 2012) this has not yet happened. 

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 12, 2014 5:07 pm GMT

Thanks. CCS will add to the EROE costs of fossil fuels in a growing economy as well as declining “easy” reserves.

I understand that the time component of EROE is severe for solar (like 3 years!) and almost instant for coal.

Mike Barnard's picture
Mike Barnard on Jun 14, 2014 1:56 am GMT

Per CCS organizations CCS will add from $168 to $196 to the cost of a MWh of coal generation. That’s 16.8 to 19.6 cents per KWh which puts existing coal plants impossibly deep into unprofitable territory. 

Necessary? Only on the coal plants we do not shut down immediately for being completely obsolete. 

CCS is a necessary technology as a short term bridge but it’s much more expensive than alternatives. Eliminating fossil fuel gemeration rapidly is key and more economically viable. That will create useful and sustainable jobs too, as the CCS market will just disappear in forty years or so. 

http://qr.ae/s3liA

 

Wayne Lusvardi's picture
Wayne Lusvardi on Jun 14, 2014 3:44 am GMT

Very helpful ROI analysis Schalk.  Please be cognizant that California and a few other states (Pennsylvania and Ohio I think) have what are called Community Choice Aggregation laws — which is a euphemism for an electricity buying co-opertative that is run on zero ROI as a nonprofit. They are sweeping into Califonia but can only promise ratepayers lower rates by using Renewable Energy Certificates that can be money laundered to make dirty power look like clean power. 

Lung cancer rates are generally higher in coal power states. But non-coal power states such as Vermont and Maine also have some of the highest lung cancer rates.  Vermont has already achieve 100 percent renewables from nuclear, hydropower and other non-fossil fuel sources. Maine depends on a miniscule proportion of coal power and already has over 60 percent renewable poer from hydro and other renewable sources. Moreover, states with a high proportion of renewable energy such as Washington, Oregon, Vermont and Maine also have high asthma rates. 

Nonetheless, U.S. EPA Director Gina McCarthy says: “The science is clear. The risks are clear. And the high costs of climate change keep piling up.”  McCarthy is promising $90 billion in health care savings from mothballing coal power plants. 

But the science about health benefits is not clear even in those states that already have the highest proportion or renewable energy.  Shouldn’t we be looking at those states that already have highest proportions of renewable energy to indicate the future promised health improvements from Pres. Obama’s new C02 reductions?  But if we look, they appear imaginary. 

Unfortunately, there is no way to get truly independent studies of health care effect of coal power plants because everyone in the food chain of producing such knowledge in academia, regulators, and environmental advocacy organizations are dependent on government funding in some form or another. 

Sure what I am pointing out is purely correlational and geographical and correlation is not causation. But the health studies on coal power plants are mainly correlational too.  Sure, we can say that “acid rain” or coal soot floats from Pennsylvania to Vermont and Main, but then there would be no difference in lung and asthma rates in each state (but there are differences). 

California outsourced coal power plants in the early 2000’s (it was called the Cal Energy Crisis) but California still has 9 cities on the 25 worst polluting cities list (almost all at the top of the list). Conversely, Texas imports coal from other states and burns coal in Dallas power plants. But asthma rates are not statistically different in Texas compared to California. 

If we are going to be a technological society that depends on science to legitimize what is morally good, not religion or a divine monarchy or a tribal patriarchy or tradition, then it is going to have to be true science not mythic science as has been found in historical Marxism (e.g., “scientific socialism”). 

Then there is the paradigm busting new economic study of Charles R. Frank of the liberal Brookings Institution that has definitively found that hydro, nuclear, and nat gas power can reduce roughly the same amount of C02 but at far, far lower economic costs than wind and solar.  So we don’t even need wind and solar to reduce C02 given their low capacity factors. 

ROi is a modernized method of analysis assuming a Capitalist economy.  In post-modern California ROI would be considered an evil method of analysis that excludes externalities (but without including internalities or positive externalities).  Any form of rational economic calculus of energy would be looked at suspiciously in a post-modern economy.  

There have been four major social forces in response to the modernization of the world: nationalism, socialism, traditionalism, and post-modernism.  Renewable energy is a cultural pheonomenon not a rational economic method for evaluating energy technologies. In fact, post-modernism is an anti-rational method.  

Post modernism at its core is quite simple: modernity has run its course, modernization and rational energy development must be challenged as goals for modern society as well as modernizing Third World nations, and new approaches to poverty and injustice must be invented.  

Those Third World nations that are still modernizing however will choose coal on rational economic grounds.  

Those socialist countries will attempt mixed economies.

Traditional countries that have tried renewable power having found it has failed (e.g., Spain).

Post modernism wants to go back to older windmills and magnifying mirror technologies that can restore a bucolic environment and reduce alienation between the producer of energy and the consumer (ergo, rooftop solar power).  We must understand modern energy technologies sociologically in order to figure out why renewable energy eschews rational economic ROI as a measure of energy feasibility and why the cheapest, cleanest forms of energy (hydro, nuclear and nat gas) are not favored by post-modern states.    

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 14, 2014 6:13 am GMT

To me, post modernism means more clean energy and no fossil fuels (that exhales CO2 into the air). It means high temp nuclear and solar converting NG into syn gas and CO2 for injection back whence it came. It means 10 billion electric cars or cars powered by fuel cells running from solar and nuclear made fuels from air and water. It means machine automation on the vast scale of solar powered continents. It means vision to break free from the bonds of the past.

In order to save the future from it.

Wayne Lusvardi's picture
Wayne Lusvardi on Jun 14, 2014 7:47 am GMT

Mr. Bernal

I agree with you, that is precisely what it means. 

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jun 15, 2014 10:03 am GMT

I hardly think one can generalize one set of FOAK estimates specifically to the Canadian environment to make sweeping conclusions about CCS in general. This type of thinking is very much unhelpful to the discussion.

Organizations like the IPCC and the EIA offer much more reliable estimates. If you look at figure 7.7 in this IPCC report, you will see that, when considered as a large-scale CO2 mitigation option, first generation CCS technology is highly competitive with other clean technologies. For the North American environment, the EIA shows the same. 

CO2 capture is the most expensive part of CCS and second generation CO2 capture technology has the potential to bring substantial further cost reductions in this regard. See this review for costs as low as $30/ton for retrofits and this one for costs as low as $10/ton for new plants. 

In addition, we have the potential of a significant CO2 utilization industry emerging from a functional CO2 mitigation policy framework which can improve the economic outlook substantially. Ed Dodge often makes convincing arguments about this topic on TEC. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it must be recognized that the developing world (where by far the most CCS will be required) can generally do large scale industrial projects more than 2 times cheaper than the developed world where most CCS cost data comes from. The vast differences between coal and nuclear plant capital costs in developed and developing nations offer a good example in this regard. 

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on Jun 19, 2014 1:31 am GMT

Do you really think it’s fair to burden the EROEI of a nuclear plant with the energy associated with building yet another plant?  I don’t.  While some might argue it’s replacement after 60 years needs to be factored in, I see even that as inappropriate.  I think that is drawing the box too big.

However, since we are reaching for ways to complicate an otherwise simple analysis, how about we include the energy associated with the global warming mitigation made necessary by your coal plant.  That should quickly render it uneconomical, about as quickly as adding CCS.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 19, 2014 4:51 am GMT

I understand what Schalk is saying about fast growing economies, especially when that growth is limited by the availability of investment capital.   Since fossil fuel plants have lower upfront cost, it takes less cash to grow the fleet at a given rate.

But is their growth rate really limited by cash?  Or given the availability of global finance, is the problem really getting the cash to where it is needed?  I would think it is much easier to attract foreign investments in the form of vendor financed purchases (like nuclear plants) than it is to get investments to grow local businesses like coal companies.  The nuclear investment is safer for the lender, since the nuclear vendor provides the project management and operations exertise.

For China, it is not even clear to me that they lack investment capital; they are prodigious savers, and seem to be actively investing in other people’s countries.  And with the upcoming bubble in Chinese worker retirements, it would seem better to invest in nuclear plants today, since they will require less operating cost (therefore a smaller workforce) later. 

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on Jun 19, 2014 12:15 pm GMT

Agreed and clearly these matters can be nuanced to death.  The point is EROEI calculations are most useful when a stand-alone approach is used.  Schalk’s approach merely serves to mask the poorer standing of the coal plant.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jun 19, 2014 8:42 pm GMT

It is important to remember that investment capital is just a proxy for the actual physical activity that must take place to establish a working nuclear or coal power plant. One can throw lots of investment capital at a given desired outcome, but, if some actual physical factor is limiting, this will cause nothing but inflation and other harmful economic distortions. 

I do not think it can be disputed that the level of actual physical activity needed to establish an operating nuclear plant substantially exceeds the activity needed to establish an operating coal plant both in scope and complexity. Naturally, if a country like China has all the capacity required to construct 50 functional nuclear plants per year (as they have been doing for coal), a massive redirection of investment capital will be able to make this happen, but I doubt that this is the case. If a 10% p.a. growth in electric generating capacity needs to be maintained to support economic development, this is a very important factor. 

Although there have been many examples of a very rapid coal-driven economic expansion, I cannot find an example for nuclear. France immediately comes to mind, but struggled to maintain even meagre economic growth rates of 2% during the 80s when the rapid nuclear expansion was taking place. Naturally, this is totally politically unfeasible for countries like China and India. 

As developing economies like China mature away from the unsustainable investment driven model of present, I totally agree with you that nuclear should play an increasingly important role relative to coal. This follows naturally from LCOE calculations with a lower value for the time-value of money. 

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jun 19, 2014 8:54 pm GMT

I think there is a misunderstanding here. The point of the above comment was not that we need to factor in the energy needed to replace decommissioned plants, it was that, in a rapidly growing economy, we should factor in the resources required to construct plants at rates many times higher than the replacement rate. 

About CCS, I completely agree with you, but we are talking about rapidly growing economies here. Personally, I think 5-10% p.a. economic growth rates will be totally off the table when the global economy eventually becomes truly CO2 constrained, making this example irrelevant. This is an important part of the reason why it will most likely take a very long time before the policies necessary to put a fully functional CO2 constraint on the global economy is put in place (and why we will need lots of retroactive CCS as described in the previous article). 

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 20, 2014 3:21 am GMT

It seems that the easiest way to almost unlimited growth, given CO2 contraints, is in factory produced advanced nuclear (we could use some of that growth too!). I would think the main issue is onsite reprocessing so as to generate on the order of 100 x less wastes to deal with. Transparency is needed to ensure both CO2 constraints and proper wastes isolation.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jul 28, 2014 2:29 pm GMT

Although there have been many examples of a very rapid coal-driven economic expansion, I cannot find an example for nuclear. France immediately comes to mind, but struggled to maintain even meagre economic growth rates of 2% during the 80s when the rapid nuclear expansion was taking place.”

Are you seriously suggesting that there might well be a link between slow economic growth and choosing nuclear over coal, by using France as an example?

There is no way anyone can credibly suggest that choosing coal instead of nuclear at the time would’ve made any difference to France’s economic growth, because there is no indication that choosing coal would’ve been any cheaper for France than choosing nuclear. On the contrary, French electricity costs are the lowest in Europe! All thanks to nuclear, not coal. If anything, choosing coal would have made France’s economy even worse. Are you denying this?

In China’s current growth phase, things are very different. Unlike France, China has a choice between coal and nuclear for this phase in it’s development. Either one will help them achieve economic growth, because either one is cheap in China, but only nuclear will deliver long-term benefits, clearly.

It seem ridiculous that you are seriously suggesting in these comments that China should choose coal in order to provide maximum economic benefit. Using your tortured, half-baked treatment of ‘discounted EROI’ as some kind of real-world economic principle doesn’t help your argument in support of continued coal expannsion. On the contrary, in my opinion it exposes the fevered imaginings of someone who is desperate to find pro-coal/anti-nuke arguments, no matter how far-fetched and marginal.

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