Should US Coal Be Phased Out in Favor of Wind and Solar?

environmental groupsThis is an interrogation that, like wellsite in deep water, emphasizes all the warnings across all the profitable and surrounding groups. The New York Times published an article where all this cleared out in a outstanding example – wind turbines on mountains or mountain top removal. Tall towers on mountains; or undermining the top of mountains and delivering all the demolition waste into neighboring streams. How much more sheer can a comparison be? And yet, we do not have common opinion to select wind turbines over mountaintop removal. How can this be?

I apply seriously the CEO of Massey Energy, Mr. Blankenship’s ideas that coal is less expensive than other resources, is national for the US, and designs jobs within country. These are important arguments. We cannot implement renewables in the US without coming to grips with them.

But I also have belief that the position of the coal industry is an example of the little time, exploitive behavior that the “avarice is good” society took us. The industry is in a way a victim of its own lifestyle. They have taken extreme capitalism to its dead end, just as Wall Street did. Avarice is not good; and little time guessing is not definitive for anything, even benefits. There are causes that both are mythically identical with selling one’s soul to the devil.

To tell you the truth, coal creates a lot of problems for which it evades duties and retirement. A partial list contains CO2, irregularity, small and micro-particles, mining accidents and health risks, environmental deterioration, coal ash, and connected human health problems solved by My Canadian Pharmacy from wastes and the like, illustrated by mountain top removal. These prices are not counted for in the price of coal, excluding of the extent that subsisting correction like bubbling washers and occupational health and safety management increases the prices of coal. But even this amount of social self-determination reasons industry to yelp, just as deep water wellsite control (post the BP Gulf spill) result in oil companies to yelp.

The coal industry would claim that if we were to surcharge all these prices on coal, we would be less cliffhanging with foreigners.

Many of the penalties we pay for coal are equivocal. CO2? Not all of us take care about it. Small particles? How deteriorating are they? Irregularity– well, no one likes it, but… Coal ash? We utilize it in our roads. Those who desire to cuts by stages coal have a belief these overbalance the economic pros of marketing ourselves low cost electric energy. Yes, low price electric energy is a countrywide worth. But so is health. So are surrounding and weather conditions.

How bad are the less evident influences of coal? How well do solar and wind avoid them? How much does coal cost? How much do solar and wind cost? These are the significant interrogations. And, to be included, the same interrogations are suitable for nuclear inducstry.

The answer is, these things are changing fast. It is no longer acceptable for the coal industry to make the bland statement that wind will raise electricity prices. Some wind is almost as cheap as new electricity pricescoal power, near 8 ¢/kWh. (Why do I say “new” coal power – because only new coal has to include all the scrubbers that protect us, whereas avoiding these expenses has been grandfathered into existing coal plants). But that wind may not be the wind on top of the same mountain the coal industry wants to explode. Ditto solar. Solar PV is down to 15 ¢/kWh in the daytime, in the best Southwest sunlight. Not too bad for something that was $1/kWh a dozen years ago and supplies more valuable electrons than wind (meeting daytime demand). PV drops about 5% per year (progress stimulated by market growth), and it won’t be too long before that 15 ¢/kWh is near 8 ¢/kWh, and spreads from the sunniest regions to the mountain tops in West Virginia. In fact, with subsidies, those brownfields left by coal are good locations today for PV, just like wind. Let the capitalist fundamentalists who never saw a good subsidy (except for what they liked, like the military and highways, and the internet in retrospect) grit their teeth and bear it.

In the end, I desire to tell you something about outermost capitalism. We all like innocence, and things that work by themselves. “Avarice is good” made us create a motto that seemed to operate by itself. It let us come to a conclusion that our essential competitive advantage would be harnessed for creativity, productivity, and public benefit.

We admitted that some sort of cultural justice, perhaps inserted in our laws, would defeat us from illegal behavior, from the kind of negatives we can envision like Ponzi schemes and insider trading. But we didn’t envision all the other points that have occured– adulterated loan supplements; ritualistic blessing of bad loans by good ratings; sale of falsified, damaged loans as high quality loans under the name of hundred-year old institutions, without regard to their reputation; the same financial companies betting against their own falsified loan packages and making billions; governments too weakened by dependence on the financial sector to punish perpetrators or prevent further perpetration; governments filled with the same worm-eaten failings endemic to the financial industry…and etc.

“Avarice is good” also means that noncommercial companies live by cruel contest and corner cutting. They feel they have no recourse. Like war (where you are attacked and must defend yourself or die), they feel they cannot deny to take part in this.

If we are in this war of international cruel capitalism, we must get to know how to demolish it. This does not mean tiny capitalism for something else. It means giving capitalism a course in self-informedness and getting on with it more humanely. But we have gone down under the conjuration of “avarice is good” and have lost touch with the healthier non-conventional energy resources, so this will be very undertaking. All our schemes are on a war footing and don’t easily loosen their grip on the sword. They have reasons for all their bad decisions. Industry executives are doing the best they can with the assumptions they hold dear.

If there is not enough wind on a particular mountain, we can put wind somewhere else or solar in the desert. But if there is enough wind, we can be confident that we are making a healthy choice if we put up wind turbines instead of blow up mountains. Similarly, we still want Gulf oil, but we cannot allow immediate, unimproved deep water drilling if it has a reasonable chance of replicating the Gulf spill, even if it means some economic pain.

Over time, we can phase out coal with wind and solar, and be better for it. In time, we can phase out oil with electric vehicles and wind and solar, and be better for it.

Ken Zweibel


Sol Shapiro
August 15, 2010 12:04 pm

Ken: I agree wholeheartedly with this statement at the end of your piece: “Over time, we can phase out coal with wind and solar” \
The issue to me is, what is this time frame and how do we do it while minimizing the impact on our life-style. I think emphasis on how to drive down the cost of renewables (including the all important issue of energy storage if we are to look at 80% and not 20%). And the need to study geoengineering technology and governance (because of the probable time frame to move to renewables) are critical.
And I believe there are issues other than environment to be considered – such as increased U.S. domestic transportation fuel using coal and gas to liquid as we await invention of a replacement for oil (electricity??, liquid fuel from air, water and solar??). And here, “protecting” the world with geoengineering plays a major role!!

August 15, 2010 12:47 pm

Yes, I agree. In the context of our social priorities, we should assess all options on a careful life cycle basis. I would add that we need wait no longer on wind and solar, as we aggressively implement them at today’s prices, while they improve and their costs drop to more attractive levels. The same with electric vehicles. Beyond these no regrets policies (obviously including efficiency), we should consider and develop some of the others. But the clear positives of solar and wind make them obvious for fast deployment.
Today we are fairly static because of recession and the sticker shock of buying many years of fuel on day one (for wind and solar); and our lack of clarity on the environmental and similar issues.

Appalachia Rising
August 16, 2010 5:37 pm

Join us on September 25-7 in Washington, D.C. at Appalachia Rising, a mass mobilization calling for the abolition of mountaintop removal and surface mining. Appalachia Rising is is a national response to the poisoning of America’s water supply, the destruction of Appalachia’s mountains, head water source streams, and communities through mountaintop removal coal mining. It follows a long history of social action for a just and sustainable Appalachia.
Appalachia Rising strives to unite coalfield residents, grass roots groups, individuals, and national organizations to call for the abolition of mountaintop removal coal mining and demand that America’s water be protected from all forms of surface mining.
Appalachia Rising will consist of two events. First, the weekend conference, Sept. 25-26, Appalachia Rising, Voices from the Mountains will provide an opportunity to build or join the movement for justice in Appalachia through strategy discussions and share knowledge across regional and generational lines. The second event on Monday, Sept.27, is the Appalachia Rising Day of Action which will unify thousands in calling for an end to mountaintop removal and all forms of steep slope surface mining though a vibrant march and rally. An act of dignified non-violent civil disobedience will be possible for those who wish to express themselves by risking arrest.
For more info, visit

Joe Beach
August 18, 2010 2:56 pm

Ken, thanks for writing these articles. I agree with a lot of what you say, and I’m glad you are able to make these points to decision-makers in both government and industry.
I’ve come to the conclusion that global climate change is the single most important reason to grow our solar and wind resources quickly to replace fossil fuels. Traditional pollutants can be removed with scrubbers, foreign energy sources can (in principle, at least) be made stable through diplomacy, jobs can come from any number of undertakings. But stopping global climate change from CO2 emissions really requires solar and wind power. What is amazing and disturbing to me is that global climate change is now somehow seen as a divisive political topic even though it is entirely based in the sciences of physics and chemistry, while energy independence and security are seen as uncontroversial even though they are entirely political in nature.
One of the posts mentioned needing a fuel made from solar energy. I propose that we have one: ammonia, NH3. It works in internal combustion engines, burners, and fuel cells. It meets the hydrogen storage goals that DOE has established. It is already made, transported, and stored at large scale for farm fertilizers. It has safety issues similar to LNG, which is already used as a transportation fuel. Its cost on an energy basis is about the same as gasoline, and it has room to drop with lower energy production processes and further scaling.
Between compressed air energy storage, thermal storage, and ammonia fuel, we have all of the technologies we need to provide electricity, heating, and transportation from solar and wind. It is just a matter of realizing that if we continue on our CO2 emission trend, global climate change will destroy our agricultural systems in the next 90 years, and that will in large measure decimate human civilization. The cost of coal fired electricity is not $0.08/kWh. It is $0.08/kWh + the painful destruction of our civilization over the next 90 years. That last part is not liberal or conservative, socialist or fascist. It is the prediction of our best climate science, which has gotten very good over the past several decades.

August 18, 2010 6:03 pm

Thanks for the kind words, Joe.
I tend to favor electric vehicles because electricity is so efficient at moving vehicles. You need about 4.5 quads of electricity per year to replace 17 Q of oil – and I assume, something similar of ammonia. If we make that ammonia using solar and wind, we’ll need that much more solar and wind. But if we use electricity in electric motors, we can avoid those internal combustion or fuel cell conversion losses.
Still, I know that all these things are hard and will take time and exploration.

David Dunnison
August 18, 2010 5:02 pm

Thanks Ken.
While I wholeheartedly support cleaning up the mess from coal, let’s also be honest and observe that ‘clean coal’ is an oxymoron.
Black lung to mountaintop removal, what a legacy.

Christof Demont-Heinrich
September 10, 2010 12:20 pm

Very thoughtful and well-written post. It’ll be a slow transformation, but I’m hopeful that more and more people will awaken to the fact that traditional economics is both analytically and politically problematic because of its tremendous and outrageous narrow-ness in calculating “cost.”