Why Coal Has No Future

Coal can never be king, even if Scott Pruitt plays the joker.

This is a transcript of the video.

Brian Palmer, writer, NRDC: Coal. It pollutes our environment, makes us sick, and contributes to climate change. If we’re going to keep burning it, we need a very good reason.

Here’s EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s best argument for coal, which he prefers to call “solid hydrocarbons:”

“The utility companies across this country need fuel diversity. You need solid hydrocarbons on-site that you can store so that when peak demand rises, you get solid hydrocarbons to draw on.”

This isn’t the 1920s; we don’t meet increased demand by shoveling more coal—I mean, solid hydrocarbons—into a fire. The modern grid is market-based. Here’s what I mean.

Each day the grid operator looks for the cheapest sources to fill the next day’s energy needs. It’s like an auction, except the lowest bidder wins. If the sun is shining, and the wind is blowing, these two will always be the lowest bidders because they cost basically nothing to run, but these low-carbon energy sources only supply about 7 percent of the energy we need, which means that for now, these three guys compete to supply most of the next day’s energy needs.

For decades, the winners were typically these two, coal and nuclear, but these days coal is the priciest energy source, which means now the winners are usually these two, nuclear and gas.

Sorry, coal, we’ll just power you down for now.

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Now, what happens when tomorrow comes and we need more electricity than we thought, when people are turning up their AC, and the sun and the wind aren’t producing as much energy as we had hoped?

This is what Scott Pruitt was talking about when he suggested that coal could help us meet increased demand. In theory, this gives coal a second chance to sell its energy at a higher price.

Unfortunately, turning on a coal-fired power plant takes between 90 minutes and 15 hours. You have to heat up all the pipes and all of the water to create the steam that spins the turbine that creates the electricity.

Compare that to booting up a gas-fired power plant, which is basically as simple as turning on a car. So, when the grid operator says, “I need electricity right now, and I’ll pay top dollar,” coal isn’t the right choice.

That’s why coal has no future.

As wind and solar supply more and more of our energy needs, we’ll only need to fill the gap for cloudy, windless moments. That requires responsiveness, which for reasons of simple physics, coal will never have.

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