Panelists Discuss the Future of Coal in Michigan

You’ve heard the “peak oil” predictions and you’ve listened to the clean coal debate, but does anyone know the size of the global fuel supply with certainty? Or whether or not coal is a viable option for our energy future?

On June 15, fossil fuel expert and Caltech professor David Rutledge gave a brief lecture and participated in a panel discussion on the topic of world fuel supply and the future of coal in Michigan.  The events were hosted by the Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club and Hope College.

Dr. Rutledge focuses his research on making accurate predictions regarding the world supply of fossil fuels.  These estimates are relied upon heavily in alternative energy discussions, climate change modeling, and economic development.  He has shown that many previous estimates on coal reserves have been too high.  He concluded in his most recent paper that more accurate predictions could be made by fitting curves to historical production rates.  Dr. Rutledge makes the prediction that the world coal supply will reach 90% exhaustion in 2070, based on current trends in the data (the talk is available as a 4-part video series on YouTube).

The evening panel discussion was designed to present the issues with more local focus, especially in light of the proposed expansion to Holland’s James DeYoung Power Station.  The panelists were local experts from varied backgrounds:

  • David Gard, Director of Energy programs at Michigan Environmental Council; MBA, MS in resource policy from the University of Michigan.
  • Frank Zaski, former member of the Michigan 21st Century Energy Plan and Midwest Governor’s Association Renewable Energy Advisory Group.
  • Sara Leeland, PhD, retired professor of environmental ethics and Holland resident.

Michigan’s Energy Future

In light of Dr. Rutledge’s estimate, the “clean coal” debate seems to be a moot point.  Audience members and panelists alike seemed to have similar questions on their mind: is it worthwhile to invest in technology that makes coal production more efficient or coal-burning more environmentally friendly if the supply will be exhausted in 60 years?  Is it a good idea to spend $250 million on expanding coal-burning capabilities facing a decreasing coal supply?

“Holland is in an unusual situation in that is really has a choice right now–coal is truly a viable alternative, the question is: is it the right thing?” said Dr. Rutledge on Holland’s proposed coal plant expansion.

Dr. Leeland spoke about using ethics to guide decision making, “Our care for humanity, and the planet, is a deep underlying value to people that has not been considered.”  The ethicist urged the audience to remember that money should not be the center of the discussion; while most energy choices are made in order to benefit economically, making an ethical decision would involve considering health and environmental costs.

The Cost of Coal

A short presentation by Frank Zaski detailed how coal prices are dependent on three things: productivity, overburden, and oil.  Productivity is intuitively tied to prices, but overburden is less well-known.  It is defined as the amount of rock situated above a coal seam, and is a measurable quantity that affects the ease at which coal can be extracted.  Because so much coal is transported to a final destination, rising oil prices will drive up the cost of burning coal; overburden is also increasing nationally, contributing to rising coal prices.

A question from the audience prompted a discussion on the “cost” of coal: When externalities like detrimental health effects and environmental losses are accounted for, what are the actual costs to society?  Zaski relayed the results of a recent Harvard study that quantified the true costs of burning coal: the externalities added about 17.8 cents per kWh to the base cost of coal, which ranges from 5-14 cents per kWh.  If consumers were to pay for the “true” costs of coal, the price would double or even triple as predicted by the study.

Since the costs of coal are high and expected to go higher, not to mention coal may be in short supply in 60 years, isn’t it time to consider some alternatives?  The audience asked several questions of the panelists regarding the cost and viability of alternatives to fossil fuels.  As Gard revealed in his presentation, $1.4 billion leaves the state each year to buy coal.  That money could be invested here in Michigan in renewable energy.  The estimated cost of coal is $133 per MWh, while the estimated cost of renewable energy is $98.68 per MWh.  As one audience member asked upon hearing this, “Why aren’t people just throwing wind turbines up?”

The problem with popular renewable energy sources like wind and sun is variability.  However, this is successfully being overcome by the state of California, which relies heavily on solar power and depends on strategic usage of natural gas for times when solar is not enough.  Here in Michigan, the conditions are better suited for wind energy but the principle is the same; we would need to find a way to store energy to use during periods of low wind or high demand.  Undoubtedly this would happen on a local level, as the same solutions will not work across the nation, or even perhaps across the state.  As Gard explained, our energy future lies in diversifying our portfolio.

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