Friday, February 08, 2013

Holy carbon! US exports coal and Europe imports it!!!

A chart that I would never have imagined would be the case:
In the United States, natural gas is now frequently less expensive than coal for power, so demand for the hard, black fuel has plummeted. Ships are steaming the coal around the world instead. U.S. coal exports to Europe were up 26 percent in the first nine months of 2012 over the same period in 2011. Exports to China have increased, too.
But, ... but, ... aren't Europeans supposed to be, ahem, greener than thou?  
Green-friendly Europe has a dirty secret: It is burning a lot more coal.  Europe’s use of the fossil fuel spiked last year after a long decline, powered by a surge of cheap U.S. coal on global markets and by the unintended consequences of ambitious climate policies that capped emissions and reduced reliance on nuclear energy.
So, Germany shuttered its nuclear program after the Fukushima incident, and now burns more coal instead.  The truth is always dizzying!

How much have things changed in Germany?  Like so, in a community not far from the Polish border:
Last year, the power plant consumed 88,000 tons of lignite a day and generated more electricity than it had since 1981, according to Vattenfall, the Swedish company that runs it. That record is even more impressive given that in 1981, Communist East German officials didn’t have to contend with labor laws or environmental regulations and could run the mines almost every day of the year.   
The expansion of lignite mining has stunned some people who live in its path. One community under threat is the tiny hamlet of Atter­wasch, a cluster of 250 people on the edge of a proposed expansion of the Jaenschwalde mine. They might have to leave their homes, as well as their church, whose chapel was built in 1294.   
“This church survived the Thirty Years’ War [in the 1600s], two world wars and socialism,” said Mathias Berndt, the senior pastor at the church, which is festooned with anti-coal-mining protest banners. “Now a free country is coming and saying, ‘Good for you, but now you have to move.’ ”
Germans are in love with coal now.  And that too one of the dirtier varieties--lignite.  It was their expertise with lignite that led the West Germany of those old times to provide technical assistance in the town in India where I grew up.

The burning of coal is understandable when poor countries do it--they simply cannot afford to use way more expensive resources, especially when they have to import it.  "Moving away from fossil fuels could be devastating for some of the world's poorest countries."  But, Germany? The Netherlands?

Why is Germany so much anti-nuclear energy, even to the extent of burning more coal?  For that matter, it is a shame that an anti-nuclear energy stance has come to be typical of the liberal left. Why so?  Ashutosh Jogalekar discusses the following five reasons in detail over at the Scientific American:
  1. Ignorance: This simple reason remains remarkably pervasive. I am not trying to sound preachy or elitist here but reading two or three books would greatly benefit people who have a gut reaction against nuclear energy.
  2. Bad psychological connections: There are two bad connections in the minds of many liberals, both of which are rather unjustified and contribute to their dislike of nuclear power. One is the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons.  ... Another flawed connection is between environmentalism and the boycott of nuclear power. Unfortunately die-hard environmentalists are mainly responsible for reinforcing this connection. Their decades-long opposition to nuclear energy started with some reasonable premises, but then mainly descended into irrational, uninformed and exaggerated polemic.
  3. Waste: ... Many people think that this is the single greatest threat from nuclear power, that we will all be inhabiting vast atomic wastelands if we allow nuclear power to flourish. ... It’s not a trivial issue, but many of the problems have to do with inefficiency and increased proliferation threats from burying valuable plutonium-containing nuclear waste.
  4. Damn them Republicans: There is actually a third connection- that between nuclear weapons and belligerent right wing political leaders that drives liberals’ disdain for all things nuclear. If the erroneous connection between power and weapons takes hold in your mind, then it is not too difficult to perceive a connection between nuclear energy and right wing excesses.
  5. Fear of the unknown: This is again related to the first point. Fear of the unknown has unfortunately driven negative liberal reactions to many other promising technologies, including vaccines and GMOs. 
An argument in favor of rationally approaching the global energy issue, and the energy needs of the developing countries in particular, is not new to this blog.  Especially when Europe is importing coal like there is no tomorrow!

BTW, the US is flush with coal because fracking has made natural gas available in plenty, and at low prices.  And Europe is grabbing that coal.  Why doesn't Europe also use natural gas then?
One big part of the problem, experts and officials say, is Europe’s cap-and-trade system, which aims to reduce European Union-wide industrial greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020. The system is the centerpiece of Europe’s green policies. But the program, which charges industries for permits to emit greenhouse gases, no longer serves as a major disincentive to pollute. Industrial production fell dramatically during the economic crisis, so overall greenhouse gas emissions remain well underneath the cap, and they are still falling. The price per ton of carbon emissions is barely more than a tenth of its 2008 peak. Energy companies, who must plan decades in advance, have shied away from investing in gas-fired power plants because they are not profitable in comparison to coal.
Yep, carbon is way too cheap now!  Burn, baby, burn!


Ramesh said...

Well reasoned and argued. Lots of the loony left and environmentalists should read your piece.

By the way - can you solve the issue I am not able to reason out. We lived in a lignite town- right. We should be walking examples of the horrors of pollution - right ? But Neyveli was, and is, one of the cleanest places around. How come ??

Sriram Khé said...

Well ... at least two responses for now ...
One, when I lived in Neyveli, I had severe allergies. Once, it got so worse that the typical tablets couldn't work and they had to give me some big-fat injection. During my undergrad days in Coimbatore, no allergies at all ...
Recently, at the reunion, a classmate (KK) was talking about his father's mysterious illness that forced him into an early medical retirement even before he turned 50.
My point here is that it could be that we didn't know anything better at that time?

Second, maybe things were better at Neyveli because of how the project was planned out (and perhaps thanks to those West Germans.) Apparently even early on it was decided to build the town with extensive green and open space, and not to crowd the living areas, in order to provide as much "lung space" as possible.