16 March 2011

The Guardian on Difficult Energy Choices

The Guardian hits the right note on energy policy choices in the aftermath of the still unfolding Japanese nuclear crisis:
For all the emotive force of events in Japan, though, this is one issue where there is a pressing need to listen to what our heads say about the needs of the future, as opposed to subjecting ourselves to jittery whims of the heart. One of the few solid lessons to emerge from the aged Fukushima plant is that the tendency in Britain and elsewhere to postpone politically painful choices about building new nuclear stations by extending the life-spans of existing ones is dangerous. Beyond that, with or without Fukushima, the undisputed nastiness of nuclear – the costs, the risks and the waste – still need to be carefully weighed in the balance against the different poisons pumped out by coal, which remains the chief economic alternative.

Most of the easy third ways are illusions. Energy efficiency has been improving for over 200 years, but it has worked to increase not curb demand. Off-shore wind remains so costly that market forces would simply push pollution overseas if it were taken up in a big way. A massive expansion of shale gas may yet pave the way to a plausible non-nuclear future, and it certainly warrants close examination. The fundamentals of the difficult decisions ahead, however, have not moved with the Earth.


  1. Wow. Al Guardian is actually sensible!

  2. China has made its choice COAL. http://www.heraldsun.com.au/business/coming-clean-on-chinas-coal-rush/story-e6frfh4f-1225971741528

    With 1 to 2 billion tons of recently announced coal reserves, China continues to expand coal use. So much for China being the green example that the US must emulate

  3. Trillion not billion in my original post above. It is 4 to 8 times more than the USA who used to have the largest reserves. Sorry about the mix-up.

  4. @PapaZu,

    On the one hand China claims to have 'unlimited coal reserves', on the other hand they are poking around in Wyoming and Utah trying to buy every ounce of coal they can find.

    China's coal mine productivity is measured in hours per ton. In the US and Australia it's measured in tons per hour.

    The question in coal mining is not 'how much there is', the question is 'how much will it cost to dig it out of the ground'.

  5. Harrywr2: "On the one hand China claims to have 'unlimited coal reserves', on the other hand they are poking around in Wyoming and Utah trying to buy every ounce of coal they can find."

    Alternatively, China has plenty of economically recoverable coal but the rate of requirement has outstripped the rate of supply.

  6. "The question in coal mining is not 'how much there is', the question is 'how much will it cost to dig it out of the ground'."

    And then there are the costs associated with burning it.

    Harvard Medical School estimates the total cost of burning coal for electricity in the U.S. at $175 to 523 billion (9 cents to 27 cents per kWh). (!)


  7. Why all the angst? Simply follow China by investing (as the "Climate Fix" proposes) in the "green" nuclear (LFTR et al).

    No fuel rods to melt. No radioactive high pressure coolant to leak. A waste stream that is 10,000 times less toxic. AND cheaper!

    "China Takes Lead in Race for Clean Nuclear Power"
    "China has officially announced it will launch a program to develop a thorium-fueled molten-salt nuclear reactor, taking a crucial step towards shifting to nuclear power as a primary energy source.
    The project was unveiled at the annual Chinese Academy of Sciences conference in Shanghai last week, and reported in the Wen Hui Bao newspaper (Google English translation here)."


  8. @ charlesH
    I agree. The US was working on Thorium technology in the 1950s and now we are watching China walk over us.

  9. DaveJR said... 5

    "Alternatively, China has plenty of economically recoverable coal"

    It's not just the mine mouth price that has to be considered. Coal costs 3+ cents/ton mile to transport by rail. Trains run on Diesel, as the price of oil rises so does the price of transporting coal.

    The 'vast coal reserves' in China's far west(Xinjiang Province) are 2,000 miles from major population centers. The 'mine mouth' price of 5500 kcal steam coal in Xinjiang is currently about $30/ton.

    Then there is Chinese Mine productivity, it takes on average 3+ hours for a Chinese coal worker to mine 1 ton of coal. A single coal miner in Wyoming on average mines a ton of coal every 2 minutes.

    Chinese wages are rising in real terms at the rate of 10% per year. So labor cost is doubling every 7 years.

    To summarize the 'future of coal in china'.

    The per mile cost of transporting coal continues to rise.

    The number of miles the coal needs to be transported continues to rise as the mines closest to population centers are exhausted.

    The wages of the workers mining the coal continues to rise at a significantly faster rate then inflation.

  10. Harrywr2, I accept what you're saying, but I am not sure whether you're looking far enough into the future.

    Take the hypothetical situation that, tomorrow, China wakes up with the mining infrastructure of the US. What would that do to the availability of coal in China?