Coal: US promotes while Canada and Europe move beyond

Posted: 5 December 2003

Author: Lester R. Brown

On Monday, November 24 (2003), the US Congress abandoned all hope for this year of passing an energy bill laden with subsidies for fossil fuels, including coal. While the White House strongly supports heavy subsidies to expand coal burning, other industrial countries are turning away from this climate-disruptive fuel, including Canada. Lester Brown reports.

Coal-fired power plant, USA
Coal-fired power plant, USA
Electrical transmission lines in front of coal-fired power plant, USA. Photo © Warren Gretz/US National Renewable Energy Laboratory

In Ontario, Canada's most populous province, the three major political parties agreed early this year on the phase out of that province's five large coal-fired power plants by 2015. This bold plan accelerated with the early October election of Premier Dalton McGuinty, who has pledged to close all the coal-fired power plants by 2007, eight years ahead of the earlier deadline.

Cleaner air

The goal is to clean up the air locally and help stabilize climate globally. In terms of cutting carbon emissions, shutting down just the huge Nanticoke power station on the shore of Lake Erie would be equal to taking 4 million cars off Canadian roads.

Ontario is the first Canadian province to turn its back on coal. Its political leaders simply concluded that the health and environmental costs of coal burning are too high. Jack Gibbons, Director of the Ontario Clear Air Alliance, calls coal "a nineteenth century fuel that has no place in twenty-first century Ontario." Other East Canadian provinces including Nova Scotia and New Brunswick may soon follow its lead.

Blyth Offshore Windfarm
Blyth Offshore Windfarm
Blyth, the UK's first offshore windfarm. © E.ON

Several leading industrial countries are turning away from coal including the United Kingdom and Germany. The United Kingdom, which used coal to launch the Industrial Revolution more than two centuries ago, cut coal use by 40 per cent between 1990 and 2001 mainly by substituting natural gas. (See data.)

Germany, Europe's largest industrial economy, cut coal use by a comparable 41 per cent from 1990 to 2001. Reduced subsidies, gains in energy productivity, and the massive harnessing of wind energy means the use of coal may be on its way out in Germany as well.

Carbon tax

Although some major industrial countries, such as the United States and Japan, are still increasing their coal use, world use has changed little in the last 5 years. And the movement to phase out coal is gaining momentum. The Economist, a business-oriented publication, which surprised many readers in July 2002 with a cover story entitled Coal: Environmental Enemy Number 1, is urging adoption of a carbon tax to discourage coal use.

If global temperature continues to rise and the world experiences more crop-withering heatwaves of the sort that shrunk the grain harvests of India and the United States last year and of Europe this year, or the life-threatening heat wave that claimed 35,000 European lives in August, the pressure to move away from coal will intensify.

There are two ways of reducing coal use. One is raising energy productivity. The other is shifting to less carbon-intensive sources of energy. Just one quick example on the productivity side. If a world increasingly concerned about climate change were to decide that over the next three years all of the old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs would be replaced with the new compact fluorescent bulbs, which use less than a third as much electricity, hundreds of coal-fired power plants could be closed.

Wind power

On the renewable side, wind power, now expanding by over 30 per cent a year, is on its way to becoming one of the world's leading sources of electricity. Europe is the leader with 24,000 megawatts of generation capacity.

In early October, the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) updated its projections for wind electric generation, raising them by one-fourth to 75,000 megawatts by 2010 and to 180,000 megawatts by 2020. In 2020, EWEA projects that wind-generated electricity will satisfy the residential electricity needs of 194 million Europeans, half the region's population.

As though on cue, two weeks later the United Kingdom approved construction of four massive new offshore wind farms. Western Europe, with enough offshore wind out to a depth of 40 metres (130 feet) to satisfy most of its electricity needs, is fast turning to this new source. While the North Sea is rich in both oil and wind, the oil is being depleted; the wind is not.

Solar power

Solar cell use worldwide also is expanding by over 30 per cent a year. The cost of solar cell generated electricity is falling steadily but lags the fall in the cost of wind power by roughly a decade.

Unfortunately, the United States is falling behind in both wind and solar energy development. Once a leader in wind electric-generation, it has ceded leadership to Europe. And in solar cell production it recently has been eclipsed by Japan. If Congress resuscitates the energy bill next year, it should consider the global environmental consequences of its actions, the job-creating potential of these new energy sources, and the long term costs of lagging in the development of these new energy industries.

Copyright © 2003 Earth Policy Institute

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