“If you poke your head outside of the U.S., coal-fired plants are being built left and right….Coal is still the cheapest fuel source.”

- William L. Burns, energy analyst with Johnson Rice in New Orleans.

At one third the cost of renewables, thermo-electric coal-fired plants generate the lion’s share of the world’s electricity – and carbon pollution as well. In 2011, the International Energy Agency estimated that coal-fired plants account for 45% of global CO2 emissions. The battle being fought over coal-fired plants epitomizes the harm brought about by an imbalance between economics and ecology – pitting short term economic needs against long term survivability of human civilization.

Figure 1: 2011 Global Carbon Emissions (Source: 2012 IEA Energy Forecast)

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has issued successive warnings that limiting warming to 2 °C is becoming increasingly difficult and more costly with each passing year.  Their 450 Scenario examines the actions necessary to achieve this goal and finds that almost four-fifths of the CO2 emissions allowable by 2035 are already locked-in by existing power plants, factories, buildings, etc.

IEA further warned that if action to reduce CO2 emissions is not taken before 2017, all the allowable CO2 emissions would be locked-in by energy infrastructure existing at that time, leaving no room for future infrastructure. Rapid deployment of energy-efficient technologies described in the IEA Efficient World Scenario would postpone this complete lock-in to 2022, buying time to secure a much needed global agreement to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

Based on IEA assessment of global “carbon reserves”, measured as the potential CO2 emissions from proven fossil-fuel reserves, no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 to meet the 2 °C goal, UNLESS carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is widely deployed. Almost two-thirds of these carbon reserves are related to coal, 22% to oil and 15% to gas.

According to WRI’s global risk assessment paper 2012 on coal plants, up to 1,199 new coal-fired plants, with a total installed capacity of 1,401,278 megawatts (MW), are being proposed globally. These  projects are spread across 59 countries but two countries. China and India together account for 76 percent of the proposed  new coal power capacities. If a quarter of these 1,199 proposed plants were built, that would be the same thing as doubling the coal capacity of the United States. China is building coal plants at an extraordinary rate. From 2012 to 2016, China is expected to add about 160 new coal-fired plants to the 620 operating now and India another 46 plants. Together, that’s 206 plants in 4 years, or a rate of 1 per week. In total, India is planning another 455 plants while China, another 363. China is slowing down it’s pace of coal-fired plant investment because it has already built a large number in the past decade.

From an investment perspective for new coal-fired plants from 2006 – 2012:

  • JP Morgan Chase has provided more than $16.5bn (£10.3bn)
  • Citi ($13.8bn)
  • Barclays ($11.5bn)
  • Royal Bank of Scotland ($10.9bn)
  • Japan Bank for International Co-operation development bank ($8.1bn)
  • World Bank ($5.3bn)

Figure 2: Interactive map of July 2012 proposed coal-fired plants to be built by installed capacity (MWatts) (Source: World Resource Institute)

 

The IEA is counting on CCS technology to mitigate the majority of CO2 emissions. Studies like those from Carbon Tracker show that without CCS, institutional investors risk having very large  amounts of stranded carbon assets on their hand.

In 2012, the IEA issued a report which cited the painfully slow industry progress on Carbon Capture and Storage technology. In 2013, it came out with a new roadmap and a renewed sense of urgency. Employing a CCS strategy, it projects that a total of 120 large scale CCS projects have to be deployed globally in order to meet the 2 °C goal. In a Nov 2012 talk, IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol said that the outlook for CCS in the coming years “does not look very bright” given recent trends in the energy industry. “We see CCS as very crucial technology, but as crucial as it is we don’t see much happening,”said Birol.

Global Stats

Figure 1: Global Coal Consumption (Source: US Energy Administration c/o MIT Technology Review)

   

Figure 3: Coal as a Percentage of  Total Global Energy of 13.5 Terrawatts in 2001  (Source: Lewis Research Group)

Figure 4: Use of Coal in the US

  Every part of coal’s life cycle, from mining to burning to disposing of the leftover waste, poses a health hazard

Carbon Pollution

Carbon pollution is the main contributor to climate disruption. It is a source of life-threatening air pollution like the smog that causes asthma attacks. Scientists have settled the argument; climate disruption is happening and carbon pollution is a major contributor. Dirty coal-fired power plants are the leading source of carbon pollution on the planet.

Figure 5: Pollutants emitted from coal-fired plant and impact on human health (Source: Greenpeace)

Toxic Mercury

  • Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that damages the brain and the nervous system
  • Exposure to mercury is especially dangerous for pregnant women and young children, as it can cause developmental problems, learning disabilities, and delayed onset of walking and talking
  • Toxic mercury is emitted from dirty power plants. On December 21, 2011, the United States Environmental Protection Agency issued the first-ever nationwide protections against toxic mercury from dirty power plants
  • These landmark protections will cut over 90 percent of this toxic pollutant from coal-fired power plants, and will dramatically clean up our nation’s air and significantly reduce children’s exposure to life-threatening and cancerous heavy metals and air toxics, including mercury, arsenic, and chromium
  • Countries around the world must study the EPA policies and force their own governments to adopt them

Coal Plant Pollution Health Stats USA

  • Asthma strikes 1 out of every 10 school children and is the number one illness that causes kids to miss school in the United States
  • Children are at the greatest health risk from air pollution because they are more likely to be active outdoors and their lungs are still developing
  • In the United States, there is a 50 percent chance that your air is not safe to breathe [1] — thanks to dangerous levels of air pollution like smog and soot
  • Smog is not just an eyesore. It irritates our lungs, triggers asthma attacks, increases emergency room visits, and can lead to irreversible lung damage or even death
  • Soot pollution, meanwhile, causes an estimated 9,700 hospitalizations and more than 20,000 heart attacks each year
  • Dangerous soot pollution is linked to irregular heartbeat, chronic bronchitis, decreased lung function, and irritation of the airways
  • Coal pollution leads to approximately 12,000 emergency room visits each year
  • Continuing to allow high levels of coal pollution in our air could result in more than $100 billion per in annual health costs

Mountaintop Removal

In Appalachia, mining companies blow the tops off mountains to reach a thin seam of coal. They then dump millions of tons of rubble and toxic waste into the streams and valleys below the mining sites. This destructive practice, known as mountaintop-removal mining, has damaged or destroyed nearly 2,000 miles of streams and threatens to destroy 1.4 million acres of mountaintops and forests by 2020. The mining poisons drinking water, destroys beautiful forests and wildlife habitat, increases the risk of flooding and wipes out entire communities.

Who Gets Hurt

  • Mountaintop removal pollutes waterways and allows toxic heavy metals such as cadmium, selenium, and arsenic to leach into local water supplies — the same water that Appalachia’s people rely on.
  • mountaintop removal causes air pollution that affects communities for miles around
  • Many of the toxins that pollute mountaintop-removal sites are carcinogens, and cancer rates are twice as high for people who live near mountaintop-removal sites

Mountaintop Removal Stats

  • Mountain Removal continue to destroy mountains, pollute waterways, and make people sick
  • This destructive practice has damaged or destroyed nearly 2,000 miles of streams and threatens to destroy 1.4 million acres of mountaintops and forests by 2020 in the USA
  • The mining poisons drinking water, destroys beautiful forests and wildlife habitat, increases the risk of flooding and wipes out entire communities
  • It pollutes waterways and allows toxic heavy metals such as cadmium, selenium, and arsenic to leach into local water supplies
  • Many of the toxins that pollute mountaintop-removal sites are carcinogens, and cancer rates are twice as high for people who live near mountaintop-removal sites

What is Coal Ash?

  • In addition to health hazards caused by mining and burning coal, disposing of coal waste puts communities at risk as well
  • Every year, the nation’s coal plants produce 140 million tons of coal ash, the toxic waste that is left over after the coal is burned
  • All that ash has to go somewhere—so it’s dumped in thousands of open-air pits across the nation
  • At these waste sites, chemicals like arsenic, lead and selenium, can leak into the groundwater
  • Coal ash is not subject to federal protections, and state laws governing coal combustion waste disposal are usually weak or non-existent
  • The result: millions of tons of coal ash are being stored in ponds, landfills and abandoned mines
  • Many of these sites lack adequate safeguards, leaving nearby communities at risk from potential large scale disasters like the 2008 coal ash spills which contaminated Tennessee and Alabama

Hazards of Coal Ash

 

  • Living near a wet coal ash storage pond is significantly more dangerous than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, according to a risk assessment done by EPA
  • The toxins found in coal ash have been linked to organ disease, cancer, respiratory illness, neurological damage and developmental problems
  • People living with 1 mile of unlined coal ash ponds can have a 1 in 50 risk of cancer, more than 2,000 times higher than what EPA considers acceptable
  • Exposure to toxic coal ash can lower birth rates, cause tissue disease, slow development and even kill plants and animals, leading to changes in wildlife concentrations and disruptions in entire ecosystems
  • The toxic pollution from coal ash builds up in exposed animals and plants, causing the pollution to make its way up the food chain when they are eaten
  • Children are more susceptible to the health impacts of coal ash—and, according to the EPA, 1.54 million children live near coal ash storage sites

(Source: Beyond Coal)