The First of Their Kind

Posted on March 28, 2016
Posted By: Emily Carey

This month Oregon became the nation's first state to completely do away with coal. Governor Kate Brown signed a bill to get rid of all coal generated energy by 2030. Now if that wasn't enough the bill also doubles the state’s standards for renewable energy. By 2040 Oregon will  now require utilities to provide half of customers' power with renewable sources. Oregon is the first to go down the path of zero coal. Will other state’s follow?

Let’s go over a brief history of coal. Coal has been used in the world since 4000 BC as an energy source. Fast forward to 1800’s United States and you have the fastest growing industry in coal. The production doubled or tripled every decade. Coal mining and coal power was one of the first big industries in the US. It literally powered us into and well past the industrial revolution. Up until 2003 over 50% of our power came from coal.

Now with that being said, there is another not so nice aspect to coal. It is dirty. It is a dirty energy source and has proven effects on our environment. It causes pollution, acid rain and produces toxic waste. The other thing that makes it “dirty” is that it is not renewable, thus why it produces so much waste.

The one thing that has kept it at the top for so long is that it is cheap. It has been the cheapest energy source to produce all these years. Essentially you boil it to produce steam and there you  have a power source. It is more complicated that that but you get the idea. Now, you may ask how is it the cheapest when you have to mine it, especially when sources like the sun are right here on the surface? Yes sunlight is plentiful however the means to harness that power are not cheap and not yet cost effective for  a nation wide power source.

Back to Oregon. The main reason behind the bill is the environment and the affects coal has on it. They are on trend with the nation in saying that renewables are the future and maybe we should start taking care of our planet more. Those are facts, however are they prepared for the financial investment for this transition? What toll will it take on their economy?

The biggest question from this is will other states do the same? Will they put a ban on an industry that built this country?

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March, 28 2016

Malcolm Rawlingson says

Interesting post Emily. You might be interested to know that Ontario, Canada has phased out coal generation entirely. We burnt our last lump of coal a couple of years ago.Ontario used to have the largest coal fired power plant in the world. A 4000MW behemoth at Nanticoke.on Lake Erie but it is now out of service. For us in Ontario it was a no-brainer really since the Province does not have any coal of its own and all of it was either imported from coal fields in Pennsylvania or from British Colombia. Is coal really that cheap when all the downstream costs of using it are factored in. I think not. The number of lung and breathing afflictions has dropped dramatically over the last few years and it is suspected that this is a direct result of using clean alternatives to coal. The health care burden has also dropped along with it.

So what has taken the place of coal in Ontario. The Province has taken a highly practical and multi-pronged approach to phasing out the use of coal. Firstly the output of hydroelectric power plants was maximized. This effort included building a 13Km tunnel under the City of Niagara Ontario to channel water from upstream of the falls into storage reservoirs that supply water to Sir Adam Beck power plants for peaking purposes. All other hydroelectric plants have been optimized with better impellers on generating equipment and a multitude of other work. Secondly a major construction program of wind and solar plants. Unfortunately these sources are intermittent and produce capacity factors of only about 20%. Subsidies are currently required to make them economic for power companies. We have also resorted to natural gas to take over some of the peaking duties that coal had.Modern gas fired co-generation plants can achieve efficiencies of about 65 to 70% over conventional single cycle plants. So the deployment of modern technology along with low polluting natural gas has also helped us to get off coal.

But by far the biggest contributor has been the refurbishment of the CANDU nuclear power plant fleet in Ontario. The Ontario Government recognized many years ago that any reduction in coal usage could not be accomplished with renewable sources alone. In our Province all the hydroelectric sites have been developed and this is not a very sunny place (especially in winter time). Wind is a useful contributor but it too has problems with respect to its reliability. Often the wind is not blowing when the power is required.

So we were faced with the decision whether to continue burning coal or to improve our nuclear fleet. As noted, while it may seem an odd choice to some environmentalists I think it is fair to say that the number of deaths and illnesses caused by coal has far exceeded any harm that may be caused by the operation of our nuclear facilities which have been incident free for decades.

All 8 units at Bruce Power are now on-line and some of these units will be refurbished to extend their lives to at least 2050. Similarly the 4 units at Darlington will be refurbished over the next few years for operation also to about 2050.

I will watch with interest whether Oregon can do this on renewable power alone. Certainly they will need to use every watt of available hydroelectric power first. Then renewables but I doubt they will be able to fill the gap left by coal. Perhaps more widespread use of battery storage may help there (Tesla Wall Units). I think without nuclear power Oregon will need to use natural gas combined cycle plants more extensively. It will get you off coal but will still be a CO2 emitter.

But I firmly believe the days of king coal are done. It has served us well but we are deluding ourselves if we think that it has been cheap. It has left thousands upon thousands of coal miners dead, many more seriously ill with black lung and other respiratory diseases. And , for the rest of us that were forced to breath in the harmful emissions year in and year out in return for "cheap" electricity....we paid for it in our hospital bills and lung cancer wards.

Cheap it certainly is not.

Good article Emily. Thank you.


March, 30 2016

Richard Vesel says

While some see it skeptically as a political move to prevent loss of local control of their own utilities, Hawaii has also committed to being fossil-free by 2045. They have no nukes to rely upon, so their's will be a bit more challenging. Ontario has set a fine example, and it's actual generation mix provides an excellent long term standard for a viable model. Even with renewable variability, and lousy winter solar conditions, they have pressed forward, and shown the way for many to follow. I hope the US learns from this example.

Regards, RWV

March, 30 2016

Richard Vesel says

Malcolm, you may find this to be particularly interesting, and supportive of your comments about the Ontario solution.

Cheers! RWV

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