Rhein on Energy and Climate

During the last 150 years coal-fired power plants have been the major cause of climate change. That has not changed much despite the arrival of alternative energy power sources like wind nuclear, gas, hydropower and solar. Today, some 40 percent of global electricity is generated from coal-fired power plants.

Coal fired power plants constitute a major health hazard for coal miners and human beings living in their neighbourhood. They emit twice as much C02 per kWh as gas-fired power plants.

As their life expectation is 40-60 years, newly-built power plants will remain in operation beyond the middle of the century, when Humanity needs to have reduced green house gas emissions by at least 80 percent to avoid irreparable climate change.

A moratorium on coal-fired power plants has been called for on several occasions, especially in the USA. In 2009, James Hansen, the well-known climate scientist at NASA` s Space Centre, has told Congress that such a moratorium would be most critical for containing climate change.

But far from responding to his plea, the US Senate has exempted coal-fired power plants under planning or construction from the provisions of the pending climate and energy security bill. If the bill were to be turned into law in its present form some 22 GW of new coal-powered power plants could run until 2050 under the “grandfather clause”. A scandal if it were to happen!

There are three compelling reasons for a moratorium today, which did not exist in the past:

In developed countries electricity demand need hardly rise. Raising energy efficiency is much more cost-effective than adding new capacities. This is particularly valid in the USA.

Alternative sources to coal are available at comparable prices. This goes in particular for shale gas, of which the USA possesses more than plenty. Costs for wind and solar have tumbled to be close to “grid parity” in a matter of years.

There is a reasonable prospect for carbon capture and storage technologies being ready for large-scale use by around 2025.

But political opposition to a moratorium will be as tough as ever. At least 12 major countries – Australia, USA, China, India, South Africa, Poland, Germany, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Czech Republic, Israel and Greece- cover up to or more than 50 percent of their power needs from coal-fired plants. In some of these countries like Australia, USA and South Africa coal mining is very big and powerful business.

Even in Europe the issue has been taboo! Poland would be dead against a moratorium; and Germany would not be amused. Greece and the Czech Republic would have to replace their coal-fired power plants by modern gas-fired or nuclear ones.

The inconsistencies in our climate/energy policy are only too evident: we need to be close to zero emissions by 2050-60; we want electric cars to replace the internal combustion engine by 2040-50. But we fail to build the emission-free power plants for that juncture though alternative technologies exist at competitive costs!

In Europe grass-root movements have demonstrated, quite successfully, against the construction of new coal-fired power plants. Citizens have taken their cases to the courts. But that would be unthinkable for countries like China. A global protest movement would be too dispersed to have a political impact.

It is telling that during the climate talks the issue of a moratorium has never been seriously discussed, which shows the utterly abstract nature of global climate negotiations. A moratorium on new coal-fired power plants would be one of the few measures, together with a ban on incandescent lamps and a strict control of deforestation, susceptible of having a rapid impact on the climate.

It would be naïve for the EU to call for a global moratorium today. But what prevents it from adopting a moratorium for itself, coupled with structural adjustment programmes for Poland and the Czech Republic that depend heavily on coal as an input for power generation?

Eberhard Rhein – Brussels 25.03.10

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