Climate Change Emissions

How to get rid of existing coal?

If you ask Jim Hansen to name the single most important thing required to avert catastrophic climate change, he’ll say this: don’t burn all the coal (nor unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands and oil shales). Ideally, we would also prefer to leave some of the oil, and much of the natural gas, in the ground — or at least use it for other purpose that didn’t require combusting it, such as for chemical feedstocks and lubricants. But the latter is, alas, unlikely.

As described in Storms of Our Grandchildren (and elsewhere), if we accept that all the proven reserves of oil/gas will be burned (i.e., consumed up to the dashed line in the figure above), and yet also required that all coal combustion be phased out by the year 2030, then the level of atmospheric CO2 would likely peak at about 425 ppm. At that point, improved forestry, soil carbon sequestration and potentially geoengineering, could be used to gradually draw CO2 back down to levels of around 350 ppm — a value necessary to restore the Earth’s present energy imbalance of ~0.75 W/m2. In short, we’d have overshoot, but have a decent chance of recovering the climate system to a near-Holocene state before amplifying feedbacks really take hold.

Now, a line of argument that has been developing here on BNC — and one that I have found quite persuasive, and readily espoused in my blogs and talks — is this: If we, as a global society, can develop and deploy electricity generating technologies that are cheaper than coal, yet emit no CO2 when operating, then we can realistically fix the carbon problem in time without the need to impose a carbon price. After all, even if you were unconcerned about carbon pollution, why would you choose to build a coal-fired power station –which has to be fed huge amounts of mined fuel and which produces large amounts of unhealthy fly ash, heavy metals, sulphate and black carbon aerosols etc. — if there was a cheaper alternative? (be it nuclear power, solar thermal, whatever)

If the above reasoning is valid, then it is reasonable to consider what, in addition, a carbon price might achieve. There has been a lot of recent heated debate in this thread on that very point! One obviously positive outcome would be to hasten — rapidly, if the price rose quickly and followed a clear schedule — the deployment of non-coal alternatives, because they’d become relatively cheaper than coal more quickly, and would also be favoured in medium- to long-term financial planning, compared to the situation where it was left only to the market via ‘nth-of-a-kind’ engineering/economic cost reductions (and the uncertainty associated with the price-parity-cross-over point). A carbon price might also provide a strong motivation to ‘backfill’ the coal problem, such as encouraging nations to look at innovative ideas such as Jim Holm’s Coal2Nuclear strategy. A negative outcome (putting aside the socio-political difficulties in getting a price implemented in the first place), would be that electricity prices would rise in the short- to medium-term, and this would risk stymieing sustainable development (other arguments for the negative case are detailed by Peter Lang, TerjeP, and some other commenters, here).

So, from a climate change perspective, a rising carbon price makes real sense (i.e., it facilitates a faster mitigation response, and avoids some risk by offering hope of ditching fossil fuels even if we cannot develop cheaper alternatives). From a sustainable development perspective, however, a carbon price might drive up energy prices up to unmanageable levels (leading to cycles of economic depression), slow the rise in people’s standards of living (especially in the developing world) and so do little to slow population growth, and would also waste time and resources in wrangling over the implementation model right and in securing political and international multilateral agreements. We all saw how Copenhagen turned out. (More on alternatives to the UN-process in later posts)

After Hansen’s talk in Adelaide on 11 March 2010 (podcast here), I had an interesting chat with him over dinner. It was wide ranging, but one point in particular stuck in my mind. I put to Jim the proposition that cheaper-than-coal electricity could fix the carbon mitigation problem without needing to impose a carbon price. He replied that he didn’t think any fit-for-service technology was close enough to achieve levelised-cost-of-electricity price parity with coal within the next two decades. I said ‘I beg to differ Jim — Gen III nuclear power in China (and perhaps India and South Korea)  is very likely to get there within the next 10 years, and after that, the world will follow quickly by example‘. I felt confident that I was on a winning argument.

He paused and then replied: ‘Well, even if you’re right, we’ve got all those existing coal-fired power stations that will go on burning coal for their lifetime‘. I responded that it might be feasible to rip out the coal burners at large plants, and install nuclear reactors, all whilst keeping the balance of the plant (cooling towers, transmission lines and other plant infrastructure) to reduce costs — i.e., coal2nuclear.

Look, even if that idea turns out to be feasible, and I have my doubts, absent a carbon price, what’s the motivation for doing this?’ he asked. I said it might be anything from cleaning up local air and water pollution, to long-term energy security, to the economic impact of the rising cost of thermal coal, whereby prices could rise dramatically if supplies continue to tighten. This would be especially the case for enormous consumers like China — which is the world’s largest coal producer yet is already a net coal importer — because as their mines play out, they won’t be able to get coal into the ports quickly enough to keep up with rising demand.

Jim said (I’m paraphrasing): ‘Barry, it’s a nice idea, but I don’t buy it. If nations start building lots of cheap nuclear or solar power plants, the demand for coal is going to drop through the floor. At that point, coal will get real cheap, and someone, somewhere, will burn it. Or turn it into liquid fuels. And they’ll keep using it for coking iron, and so on. The bottom line is that we’ve got to stop using coal within the next few decades. Slowing down over this century is not enough. We have to leave most of it in the ground‘.  At that point I nodded, and admitted that he was probably right. The conversation then drifted on to other matters.

So BNC readers, what’s your take? Will the prospect of cheaper-than-coal electricity from non-carbon sources be enough? Can we even take this risk that this will be so? Or, is a rising price on carbon required no matter what — irrespective of the difficulties in implementation and potential problems it creates? I think Jim pretty well convinced me that we need both, if we’re going to be sure of licking the climate change problem in time. But that’s my view. Over to you…

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By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

94 replies on “How to get rid of existing coal?”

From your post – ‘I responded that it might be feasible to rip out the coal burners at large plants, and install nuclear reactors, all whilst keeping the balance of the plant (cooling towers, transmission lines and other plant infrastructure) to reduce costs.’

İf you had an engineering background and had ever tried to reuse equipment this suggestion would never be made.

1) İt is horribly inefficient
2) Upon completion you will almost certainly find it more costly
3) Operations cost will be higher as you can only reuse equipment that is oversize.

İ have done this before and learned the pitfalls the hard way. With nuclear the mismatch would be even worse than you can imagine.

Hansen is certainly correct – if coal is cheap then someone somewhere will be using it – İndia for example.

Of course if steps (like new nukes) are too slow then even more rapid action would be required later which would no doubt wipe out the world economy – then no problem!


As someone who has contributed to, I have say thanks for that shout out.

First, is convincing people that the finances and technological fix of conversion IS possible. I think you’ve done that.

Second, I think Hansen is correct that no-matter-what, coal isn’t going to be dousing it’s last fires in 20 years. But it doesn’t have to. It has to be on a downward decline as an absolute amount of carbon output relative to what it does now. It doesn’t have to be zero. That’s silly, even if it’s our goal, eventually.

Third, as nuclear does become cheaper to both build and, certainly operate, then there will be a huge, absolutely huge incentive for utilities to *write these plants off* as losses as *political* pressure mounts to go from coal to nuclear. We get a snow ball effect.

Barry my whole ‘winning over to nuclear’ rests with my previous pro-coal/anti-nuclear position and how I misunderstood what is needed to alleviate both carbon/GHG emissions and the far more immediate concerns of carbon particulate poisoning that takes the lives of 20,000 Americans every year and probably 10 times that number in Asia., this site, and my writings on the DailyKos have pointed out why and *how* we can do this. It’s 100% a political, not technological issue. As the Chinese and Koreans bring their Gen III reactors on line for cheap, and the Chinese continue building their version of the PBMR, we will see the winds change.

Of course the big delta-T here is the ‘time’…is there enough time, meaning short decades, to implement all this and bring down carbon in the air? This is Hansen’s concern…we can’t wait.



From Saturday’s “Science Show”: Laser fusion – demo plant within sight: Best hopes. Note that you don’t actually have to produce energy directly from fusion. If you get a lot of cheap neutrons you can burn fertile stuff, like nuclear waste, in a hybrid reactor Next problem is to turn electricity into liquid fuel, or something equivalently portable, high density and safe(ish).


I am looking forward to Peter Lang’s response on this subject. He appears to be fully committed in his hostility to a carbon tax. Nevertheless, he would seems to endorse state regulation of energy producers such that they ceased to use coal once existing plants reached the end of their lives. Furthermore, at one time or another, he has suggested compensating those inconvenienced – presumably with taxpayers’money, thus imposing a cost to standard of living that would not obviously be less than that which would be consequent upon a carbon tax. The cost of leaving coal underground would, I imagine, be significant not only for the affected landowners but for the Australian economy as a whole. Presumably, to be consistent, Peter would also wish to ban coal exports as well. (What about oil shales and tar sands?)

The conclusion of the above post, which I endorse, is that, in the short to medium term, transition to clean energy will be costly and reduce living standards. However, eventually, a rapid switch to nuclear- and only nuclear provides this opportunity – has the chance of achieving a benign outcome. In the latter scenario, nuclear fission will provide the cheapest source of available power but it’s high up front costs and the time needed to get sufficient roll out will require initial belt tightening.

I would therefore support a carbon tax but I’m not sure it is sensible to go to the trouble of collecting it, just to give it all away. I accept that this might encourage more investment to be made in non fossil fuel alternatives but I’m unconvinced that the policy would generate the fastest and hence most economic transition. I am more attracted by the idea of using the funds raised directly, the idea suggested (and costed) by Joe Shuster and cited in the initiating post to Open Thread 3.

Downthread, I referred to this as an hypothecated tax. For the sake of Peter Lang’s blood pressure, perhaps it would be better to call it a temporary levy. In the case of Australia, it could be handed over to the type of authority suggested by Peter. I think it might be wrong to refer to it as a nuclear authority but I would hope that, in effect, this is what it would become. The authority should be given a brief to develop and implement an energy policy that required a rapid transition clean energy in a least cost manner. The authority should be run by personnel elected by appropriate professional bodies and would primarily be made up of physicists, engineers and economists.

The least cost proviso is important in making the scheme acceptable and might make it more difficult for politicians of any party to oppose it. If Peter is right, and I have no reason to doubt him, the authority would quite quickly reach its own conclusion that renewables were most unlikely to provide a way forward. However, given Australia’s coal reserves, it might be tempted to consider gas from coal with CCS as a source, at least, of peaking power. Obviously, the tempation should only be translated to action if the economics were first proved to make sense. (The authority would need to devote some of its funds to R&D). The authority should consider energy efficiency and might thus be minded to encourage ,for example, heat pumps. However, if the majority of BNC contributors are correct, the authority will soon turn its attention to nuclear fission and will, no doubt, address and attempt to remove unnecessary economic obstacles to its rapid deployment (just as Peter advocates). There remains the interesting question as to whether it will wish to see rapid deployment of 4th generation reactors. Australia sits on a lot of uranium and it would seem sensible to maximise profit from it during the transition period.


Hansen observes that any fall in coal demand will make it cheaper and hence encourage people to keep burnin it. However it will also encourage people to stop digging it up. The future cost of coal as indicated by the futures market is as I understand it tilted upwards. This is as much about emerging supply constraints as it is about growing demand. If you halved the price of coal a lot of producers would become unprofitable. So I don’t think it is correct to claim that coal displaced by nuclear will simply be burt elsewhere. This would only be true if the cost of extraction was insignificant.


p.s. In summary the price impact on supply is probably more relevant than the price impact on demand.


A way to analyse this would be to take the cost of electricity from an optimised nuclear plant and calculate the price coal needs to fall to in order to remain competitive. Take that price and look at the cost curve of the various coal mines around the world and see what proportion of coal supply remains profitable. Unprofitable mines won’t continue to supply coal for very long. Likewise unprofitable coal fired power stations will close in spite of sunk costs if they can’t compete with cheaper alternatives.


p.s. A complete analysis would also need to look at logistical costs not just mining costs. Declining output would mean less economies of scale in the supply chain but also possibly less bottlenecks.


If the demand for coal drops through the floor, this does not imply that it will become real cheap. It is cheap now because of economies of scale in extraction. When that is true, less demand can mean higher prices.

The nuclear-retrofit idea is interesting, and does not, as the first comment seems to suggest, involve comprehensive changes to a plant. It just needs to have a noncorrosive hot gas fed through its steam generators in place of the accustomed coal furnace effluent. The gas could be carbon dioxide, heavy nitrogen ((15-N)2), or helium. There may be other possibilities.

A molten-salt variation of the Candu has been proposed. It would allow the necessary temperatures to be reached in the liquid fuel salt without pressurization. As with today’s lower-temperature Candus, the uranium would be unenriched and the heavy water would be thermally insulated from the fuel, and kept at a much lower temperature. Because the uranium would be unenriched, circulating a large amount of the liquid containing it through a fuel-salt/gas primary heat exchanger would not entail a large inventory cost.

(How fire can be domesticated)


Coal can be supplied cheaper. Until now there was no need to do so.
I don`t see any reason why there would be less coal use in the future.
Transportation is another issue with coal.

Terje, are you familiar with the fusion-constant?
In 2040 it will still be 15 years to fusion…
in 2060 it will still be 15 years to fusion…


Asbestos provides a precedent for leaving a mineral in the ground. Worse it still creates great expense as men in breathing suits vacuum up the last vestiges above ground. It seems likely though not certain that coal will get expensive anyway as China’s domestic production peaks around 2015. Note China and India have just started importing coal from Colombia in South America which some allege involves child labour.

Another rationale for taxing coal or imposing a CO2 cap is to smooth the way against price volatility as we saw with oil in 2008. As supply difficulties loom this helps us ‘get over the hump’. I think Australia could easily live with a $20 carbon tax. It would add about 2c per kwh of black coal fired electricity and 5c per litre of petrol if fuels were in scope. Apply it to exports of coal and LNG as well. Rather than hand back the money as income tax cuts initially it could go on solar water heating and smart meters.

The first 20% of emissions reductions should be easy. Higher level cuts could well be a job killer but they still prepare us for a future without coal. Perhaps at 20% emissions cuts the logic for NP will appeal to the public because the sacrifices are beginning to hurt.

Converting coal plants to nuclear may have good economics but has bad PR in my opinion. The grime from the coal era is not a good look. I think coastal sites 50-100km out of the major cities should be chosen. Co-locate desals (whether or not they use waste heat) to underscore their importance. Leave a few acres next door for the Gen IV and pyro-processing plant.


Dr. Hansen seems to be unaware of the fact that most of the cost of coal is the cost of hauling it to the end user. Look at this table:
Do you wonder why a delivered ton of coal costs $17.43 in Montana and $66.28 in Georgia? The difference is the cost to haul the coal by train to Georgia from where it is mined out west.

Even if the coal is free, this logistics cost doesn’t go away except for mine mouth power plants like Four Corners in New Mexico and there are limits to how far a power plant can be from the end user because of transmission losses.

Go to this article on nuclear power in China:
Find the map labeled “CGNPC Nuclear Projects”. Notice how many of the nuclear plants are in the southern provinces? This is because the coal is mined in the North and China is already using nearly half of their rail capacity hauling coal around. One of the reasons China is so hot for nuclear, is that coal is becoming a drag on their transportation infrastructure.


The matter of CO2 emmissions is urgent.As coal is the major source then coal must be targeted,at least initially. My thoughts on a way forward –
(1) Ban construction of coal fired power plants.
(2) Tax all coal produced,whether for export or domestic use.Tax proceeds to be used for immediate construction of nuclear plants.
(3) Expedite construction of Gen 3 nuclear plants.
(4) Put a major research effort into Gen 4 reactors with particular emphasis on small,factory built units. These may well be suitable to bolt onto existing coal fired plants.
(5) Put more effort into getting geothermal power online.This will probably mean long distance HVDC transmission.
(6) Forget using financial carrot and stick approaches.Forget compensation,either to industry or the public.What I have described above will be expensive but it is technologically feasible now.

What is required is the will.The current leadership does not appear to have it,in the main.The impetus must come from below.

There is a federal election soon.Make it an issue.


Reforestation is also critical to pulling down that other 50-75 ppm, in addition
Hansen assumes methane and black carbon are also reduced. Of our current
annual forcings, methane is about the same as CO2.
Reforestation can only deliver a maxium of about 0.5 ppm per year, so it needs a total cessation
of anthropogenic burning for 100 years to get 50ppm. That reduction in
burning won’t happen without reductions in meat consumption and
major social change, particularly in Africa … 2/3 of
the burning is for livestock and most of it is in Africa. The other 1/3 of
the burning is slash and burn cultivation by very poor people in
out of the way places and
will be tough to stop without making sure nuclear batteries and alternative
food sources are available. As Hansen pointed out, its useless paying
people not to burn patch A of forest without reducing the total
need … someone will just burn patch B. The methane reductions will need to
come fairly evenly from plugging leaking gas pipes, flaring
methane from mining and eliminating beef. The first 2 will be easier than
the last … the meat mafia make the coal mafia look like kindy kids.


If coal is recognized as being hard on the environment, the solution is simply to ban burning it for power generation by legislative fiat. Certainly there has been no problem doing this with nuclear generation, and on flimsier scientific grounds.

However I place small hope in coal-to-nuclear schemes that plan to use more than the dirt-burner’s site, and transmission lines. Conversion in general if an iffy proposition at the best of times regardless of the system being converted, and I am convinced that simple replacement of the whole plant would be more cost effective in this case.


Cards on table time.

Hope you don’t mind my being forthright. I’ve got a huge amount of respect for Barry, Peter Lang and most of the other regular commenters on BNC. I’ve appreciated many of the insights they’ve provided, but admit to spending less time here in recent months, because the discussion often seems to get bogged down in the same circular pattern:
1. climate change is a very serious problem (most though not all commenters agree)
2. we must develop non CO2 emitting energy sources to replace fossil fuels
3. nuclear power holds the best promise for replacing fossil fuels because of its reliability, high energy density of fissiles, and potential to be deployed relatively quickly/cheaply
4. renewables are over-hyped but have a small role to play/are an expensive and time wasting distraction/hold nukes back (delete as preferred).
5. Prioritise research on Gen IV nuclear/deploy Gen III ASAP (delete as preferred)
6. the best way to get nukes/preferred non-fossil energy mix deployed is carbon tax/ETS/nuclear R&D/incentivise and deregulate (delete as preferred)
[7. Lots of discussion, sometimes quite heated.]
[8. hand wringing, then back to 1]

I accept that rolling out nukes rapidly on a large scale may be technically feasible and may, ultimately, deliver us electricity more cheaply than coal can: but in the near/medium term, this would still be difficult (not least politically) and expensive. Perhaps less expensive and difficult than the other options, but expensive and difficult nonetheless.

The same applies to the various policy options discussed. It doesn’t matter whether we push carbon taxes, ETS, invest heavily in R&D or whatever; none is straightforward, regardless of which is ‘best’. You can dress it up positively with talk of dividends and incentives, and promote whichever terminology and policy levers are most acceptable to your political persuasion, but it will still involve substantial cost and change.

For most people it’s going to be like asking them whether they’d prefer a punch in the face or a kick in the groin.

Barry, I’m increasingly convinced that the most important tasks for the likes of you and Jim Hansen are a) to keep doing the science that elucidates the links between human activity, climate and other Earth systems and b) keep repeating your conclusions about the effect of these links in the mass media. Until there’s a change in groundswell in public opinion, discussion of the minutiae of technology and policy is largely redundant. It’s enough to say that technologies such as nuclear power exist, and they can potentially address the problem. It will cost; (no point trying to hide it, at least carbon tax plans are explicit on this) but it’s a price worth paying.

The silver lining (such as it is) is that if/when this fundamental shift in opinion happens, the right policies and technologies should fall into place quite quickly. This site has convinced me that on a technical level, nuclear power will play a significant role one way or the other (arguing whether renewables are a time wasting distraction or not has become something of a time wasting distraction).

Regarding policy, with the public on board there doesn’t need to be complex tax regimes or regulatory/incentive mechanisms: just appropriately designed and enforced CO2 pollution legislation. We don’t think it necessary to tax or trade permits for lead-containing paint. If nothing else, Myles Allen’s vision of taking energy companies to court for emitting CO2 might become a reality:

The bottom line remains: the coal must stay in the ground.

(My initial comments notwithstanding I’ve really appreciated the last few posts here on BNC. Jim Hansen is a truly inspirational figure.)


Oh yessss. Let´s all go vegan and stop burning coal, stop flying, stop importing goods, stop exporting…
Now go tell all the people they have to believe in cheap nuclear …lol.

China Premiere just told the workd again that they won`t cut on economics for anything.
The are not that influental that they could stop burning of fossile fuels anytime soon.

Even if coal gets expensive…they need anything they can get.
It does not really matter. They have already damed everything…depriving their neighbors from water.

They would need around 3000 nukes. (4 times the people of the USA).
They have also done models on wind and figured out they could produce 7 times their current power needs with wind energy on an area of only 1mio km² (thats about austria and swizerland together).,1518,648214,00.html

Meanwile they bring more coal plants online every week.

There will be some talk and nothing will happen.
I do understand their point. Why should they do anything to reduce their emissions when we have multiple per capita emissions.
We also consume chinese products…its our emissions too.

Another way would be to stop fighting. Take military budget to built wind and solar. Voila…no money problem anymore and world peace.

It is funny though to read all that stuff here.


I read somewhere that something like 40% of US non-passenger rail traffic is occupied with moving coal. Cutting coal usage would obviously free up a lot of rolling stock and rail space, and huge amounts of energy.


One option of course (if we aren’t doing an ETS or which we could apply to states not doing an ETS) is to place a tariff on all goods being produced with more coal-fired energy than we use here, and at some figure — (say 50% more) we impose a quota and force importers to shop elsewhere. We also impose a suitable export carbon tax on all exported coal.

Now we couldn’t do that on our own effectively, but if we could get 4 or 5 coal exporters to do it in concert, we could nudge the rest of the world world to phase out or reduce coal usage.


On per capita emissions I suspect in both India population 1.2bn and China 1.3bn the vast majority get little benefit from ‘the big smoke’. If indeed only 300m or so in each country can be regarded as middle class then their per capita emissions may not be much lower than the West. I recall that Nicholas Stern has made this point. The next question is whether the combined remainder of nearly 2bn can ever achieve middle class status. Ditto the underclass in Africa. In the UK Mackay suggests this is 125 kwh energy consumption per day and in Australia it could be characterised as 20t of CO2 per person per year.

There is no way, AGW issues aside, that Australia can supply enough coal and LNG to elevate those extra 2bn people in China and India to our middle class consumption patterns. We need a new energy source for basic needs while conserving specialty carbon fuels for the long term. Even politicians will twig to this in a few years.


I think it is exactly correct that getting the cost of electricity lower than coal is more important than anything else. If that were true and nuclear generation increased rapidly it might lower the cost of coal, but at that point would sane people say, ‘Oh, let’s start building coal plants again’? The comment about burning coal in current plants until they wear out is I think true. But, that is not at all the same thing as saying if coal gets cheaper we will burn it all.

By the way, there was a story in the last couple of days that India has ordered an additional 12 (or 16?) reactors from Russia.


My take is that there is no prospect for cheaper-than-coal, non-emitting electricity, for the forseeable future. So, we should not let that “possibility” enter (or cloud) our thinking when deciding on appropriate climate change policy. In other words, I’m completely with Hansen on this issue.

Like other non-emitting options, nuclear is, and will remain, more expensive than coal, without limits or taxes on CO2 and/or other pollutants. A reactor is more complicated than a boiler. There is also the fact that nuclear is held to much higher engineering and QA standards. This is something that is not going to change for the forseeable future. Not politically possible.

Society needs to decide how important it is to reduce CO2 emissions (as well as other pollutants and oil/gas imports). Then it needs to put appropriate limits or taxes on those things. It’s really a matter of accurately reflecting real (external) costs, nothing more.

The biggest threats nuclear faces in terms of future policy is that one, nothing at all is done (i.e., no price is placed on CO2), or two, something is done but the “plan” for emissions reductions is based on political fiat (e.g., renewables mandates), as opposed to allowing free and fair market competition between non-emitting sources by simplypricing CO2). If either of the above two things happen, nuclear is going nowhere.


Quite right Steve because the long term future of coal would be doubtful. There would be massive risks that a slightly cheaper coal cost couldn’t set aside — particularly as to cash in on it you have to cut power prices.

And of course, if nuclear power did start growing enough to put downward pressure on coal prices, it would also put downward pressure on nuclear prices as delays disappeared, plants were made modular and the cost of building plants (the principal cost in NP) fell.

The question is the timeline, and realistically we need the kind of long term cost imposition on coal that would make nuclear competitive now and coal uncompetitive in the long run. merely charging the coal-fuel chains with the lifecycle health and environmental costs of their emissions would get us all of the way there and then some.


The one thing we do have going for us is that the leadership in China and India are well aware of problems of coal burning, and seem to want to replace it as soon as possible, even as they are asserting their right to use it to keep their economies growing in the interval.

This is unlike the situation in the West where the coal/gas lobby will work to oppose any attempt to shut them down, and will spend the money to mount major efforts to block or limit any legislative attempt to pass laws that will hurt them.

This being the case, it is unlikely that any carbon tax will be anything but a token effort, and any carbon tariff unlikely to speed the elimination of coal in Asia. However both are incubui for all sorts of political mischief and abuse, and as such likely to be more trouble then they are worth.

Leaving aside any attempt to directly influence Asia, the only way the use of coal can be stopped is to generate enough grassroots support for a ban that laws will be passed or governments will fall. It is that simple. It is the only tool that can counter the deep pockets of our opponents on the fossil-fuel side. Legislators need to know absolutely that they will lose elections if they do not support a moratorium on coal power plants first, and then their elimination on some fixed schedule.

For all that some countries in Europe have been held up as foolish for passing antinuclear legislation, and shutting down NPPs, the fact remains that there was a huge groundswell of support from the voters for these moves, so I see no reason this could not work to stop the burning of coal.


Jim Hopf …

In addition to CO2/CH4, there should be pricing on the other emissions — lead, actinides, mercury, CO, sulphur, PM5 & 10 and the 57 other things …

That would prejudice coal against gas as well, and since gas in this country is not controversial, we could make a start while we are getting people on board with nuclear.


One has to do a serious external cost of coal burning, coal waste, etc. I don’t think it’s really been done since only things like NOx and sulfur derivatives are regulated. What’s the cost of 30,000 deaths of US citizens every year? 10 times that number in developing respiratory ailments? How about table-topping most of the mountains in West Virginia? Anyone? Ewen is 100% correct…how about that crap? Of course ‘even’ Gen III LWRs are “cheaper” than coal. It’s worth the 4 or 5 dollars a month on each utility bill. IT would be the greatest investment human kind ever made in our industrial output.

To make this ‘investment’ means breaking from the very silly a-historical ‘free market’ religion some on this list are wedded to. A-historical since the government is the only one that can seriously plan, finance and build such infrastructure. Ask the Koreans. I don’t see anyone complaining here about the Korean STATE electricity board, from a country renown for it’s anti-socialism, in starting to build from 50 to 60% nuclear and exporting a new design nuclear plant for the UAE.

The Erie Canal was built with *government* funds. So was the Hoover and Grand Coolie dams. The US Highway system, regardless of it’s other implications, would not of happened with 100% government financing and state ownership.



If other forms of energy became cheaper than coal and the price of coal fell then the amount of coal that is economic to mine will also fall, as others have said above. With most minable resources anything that was easy to extract has been exploited already. It costs to remove overburden or to mine deeper from underground. And there are the shipping and loading costs.

On another tack, perhaps we can learn from the strategies of Campaign Against Nuclear Energy (CANE). Just as they demonised nuclear power; perhaps we need a strategy of demonising coal. This should be relatively easy to do. Catastrophic climate change is just one of the threats. There is acidification of the oceans and possible collapse of the planet’s ecosystem and, ultimately, our food chain. Then there is air pollution and acid rain, radioactive and chemical emissions, and the dangers of underground mining whereby they extract the stuff and get out before it collapses.

We need governments to ban coal mining as they were prepared to ban uranium mining late last century. Alternatively, a campaign could make future of the industry uncertain and make investment risky. Perhaps there could be a threat of legal action regarding the damage to the environment.

I guess this is just wishful thinking at this stage. However, I think extreme action is needed to prevent global catastrophe. Governments seem to be content with two degrees of warming, but the predicted consequences of this are unacceptable, as indicated in Katherine Wells’ excellent summary (…/recent_climate_change_science_kw.pdf).

An effective Campaign Against Coal seems to me to be essential, but unlikely. My feeling is that aspects of Western Culture make this more likely than in Asia where they are also more involved in reaching an acceptable standard of living for the multitudes. If there was a serious move from coal to nuclear and renewable energy then Asia would soon follow with the biggest hurdle being the first.


One reason I’m not sold on putting a price on carbon, is that (as far as I can tell) it would need to be a tax implemented world wide. Even if Australia, US, EU etc. do put a price on carbon, it doesn’t mean the developing parts of the world will. If coal demand does dramatically drop because of cheaper nuclear/renewables, Hansen is correct, the price will plummet too. It would only take one nation without a carbon pricing to take advantage of a cheap supply, and they might continue to do so.


Very interesting post!

The whole website was inspired by Hansen’s call to leave coal and unconventional fossil fuels underground.

Of course, finding out how to do so is a substantial challenge, especially if oil continues to become more scarce and expensive.


The Coal 2 Nuclear exchange with Hanson demonstrates that the idea has to be sold. The first time I came across it, i thought, this idea is nuts. But later on, as I realized that lowering nuclear costs was a major issue, I came to see that Jim wasn’t nuts at all. In fact he is brilliant. Recycling coal plant sites, has the potential to significantly lower nuclear costs. Taking advantages of other potential cost savings – factory construction of modular generation IV reactors, financing innovations, the development of secondary revenue streams from desalinization and materials recovery from FPs and desalinization brine – will all contribute to lower nuclear costs. Most American coal fired steam plants are over 40 years old. Once the Generation IV reactors are ready to come out of the factories, the government could simply issue licenses to the coal plants, with stipulated termination dates. Plant owners could be allowed to charge their customers a plant replacement fee, necessitated by the impending plant shut down. No taxes would be required.


Moot point Barry. If you’re correct, Hansen’s carbon price won’t matter, otherwise the carbon price is to facilitate the shirt toward reduced consumption and/or to alternate technologies. In either case, adopting a carbon price scheme involves little, if any risk.


The rise and rise of coal is somewhat unnerving given all the AGW evidence, a bit like someone with lung cancer puffing away on a cigarette. If the IEA figure for 2008 Australian coal production of 428 Mt is correct then Australian coal must produce over a billion tonnes (roughly 428 X 2.4) of CO2 a year. I think the components must be 428 = 65 brown + 101 domestic black + 262 exported black. Australia is both a heavy user and a pusher of that particular drug. It’s almost unbelievable when you remember the Rudd government was elected on a promise to take serious action on climate change. We would think it most odd if the competitors in a race went into reverse; not so for governments apparently.


Here’s a group that is putting their convictions on the line to stop coal:

Among other things, they go after coal companies in the courts. Here is a different group doing something similar:

It is direct action like this that is needed to force the issue into the forefront of public awareness, where the nuclear option can be presented as an alternative.


On a semi-related note, I can’t help but feel that commenters on BNC have a tendency to neglect conversation/focus on other areas of human activity which have a large impact on climate (agriculture, forestry). These are areas which seem to lack (relatively) easy technological solutions to the problem. I think Geoff Russell (#49985) is absolutely correct, and he has discussed in detail the imacts of land use in various posts here on BNC.

I was also wondering whether someone could clarify whether the proposed carbon price is intended for just CO2, or if it includes CH4 also.

But my real question is this: if it is necessary to impose a price on CO2, is it also (perhaps more so) necessary to put a price on N2O and CH4?


TeeKay, a ‘carbon price’ would be expressed in terms of CO2-e, and therefore include all anthropogenic greenhouse gases, weighted by some measure (most probably their 100-year global warming potential, as per most current agreements). So 1 tonne of N2O = 310 t of CO2 = 13 t CH4 etc.


Interestingly some fertilisers not only create GHGs in their manufacture (eg from burning natural gas) but also when they break down in the soil. For example urea decomposition creates CO2, NH3 and indirectly N20 and CH4
No wonder they exclude farming from carbon schemes. The farmer would have to lodge an annual return detailing how many bags of fertiliser they used, how many flatulent animals they had and many gum trees grew that year. I think the correct approach is to carbon tax the fertiliser manufacturer on not only CO2 but CO2 equivalence embodied in the product. Strangely that could mean a renewable powered fertiliser maker has to pay carbon tax. See also the views of an atmospheric chemist

Too complicated? The ETS people should have had it all worked out when they were swamped by the farm lobby and the soil carbon people and they didn’t know how to respond.



Surely you can’t really be impressed with the cite you link to – it is nothing more than a wish list?

The carbon footprint of the multistory farm is likely to be huge. Photosynthesis is likely to be impaired within it. Its high density stocking is likely to exacerbate problems with plant disease, increasing rather than reducing the need for chemical plant protection. Equally, the need for plant nutrients (fertilisers) will not magically disappear.

I suspect that you may have been seduced by the claim that indoor strawberry yields may be thirty times greater than those outdoors. Do you realise that the basic reason for eating is to obtain energy and additional nutrients to grow, reproduce or replace worn body parts rather than to pass pleasant tastes through our mouths? Given that pigs have similar gastrointestinal tracts to humans, it is pertinent to consider the composition of their diets. Essentially, they are typically composed of about 70% of cereal grains, 20% soya bean meal plus sundry minerals and vitamins. Strawberries really wouldn’t cut the mustard.

Of course, I may lack the imagination to see how vertical farming could be cost effective. Primarily, all I’m saying is that your cite has done nothing other than to confirm my existing beliefs (prejudices) on the subject.


“Even if Australia, US, EU etc. do put a price on carbon, it doesn’t mean the developing parts of the world will.” – TeeKay

Doesn’t matter. If Sweden unilaterally puts a tax on carbon and applies it to imports and internal consumption, it does nothing to disadvantage our exports since we simply wouldn’t tax those(whomever imports them gets to do that when they implement a carbon tax).

Then, because the government doesn’t need to usurp a bigger slice of the economy, we simply slash VAT or income tax or whatever to compensate and make the carbon tax revenue neutral.


Barry may remember this example! Teekay: The problem with
using the 100 year GWP for coal and methane is it
can result in the following problem. E.g Imagine you have permits for
21 million tonnes of CO2 under an ETS and you are running coal
power stations. Suppose you decide to get out of the coal power
business and into the cattle business. Your 21 mt worth of permits will
enable you to get cattle to the tune of 1 mt worth of methane (annually).
Climate forcings are now tripled and this is ongoing. All that matters to
have this example work is that coal closes and permits flow to
cattle, it doesn’t have to be the coal power station owner who goes
into cattle. The GWP is fundamentally flawed … which is why climate
modellers don’t use it … they use forcings.


Joel, GRL Cowan. Geoff Russel

You are ignoring a critical issue that will indeed hasten the use of coal if no carbon price is imposed.

That is “coal to liquid”.

We need liquid fuels for a whole bunch of things : the world economic system has practically evolved around the use of petrol and natural gas. Lots of feasible alternatives exist, but the current economic system is like a biome (an environment of different species that are mutually dependent on each other for survival). If we do nothing, lot of industries will continue (and even increase) their dependency on carbon based liquid fuels.

We all know that oil and natural gas resources are drying up. So the most logical alternative is to use more difficult resources : like coal, tar sands etc to fill this gap. If cheap alternatives like nuclear emerge, coal might get too expensive for electricity generation, but it will still be damn cheap to drill it up (presumably using nuclear power) and convert it to liquid fuels.

This trend will continue until all climate tipping points are overstepped. We will easily reach 500 or even 600 ppm, after which there will be no turning back.

So a carbon price is crucial, in order to drill some sense into the market. Everybody should realize that fossil fuel era is over and we have to rapidly adopt alternatives : even with liquid fuels. This can only be achieved by a carbon price, as what Dr. Hansen advocates.


I think Hansen is wrong on this:

Barry, it’s a nice idea, but I don’t buy it. If nations start building lots of cheap nuclear or solar power plants, the demand for coal is going to drop through the floor. At that point, coal will get real cheap, and someone, somewhere, will burn it. Or turn it into liquid fuels. And they’ll keep using it for coking iron, and so on. The bottom line is that we’ve got to stop using coal within the next few decades. Slowing down over this century is not enough. We have to leave most of it in the ground‘. At that point I nodded, and admitted that he was probably right. The conversation then drifted on to other matters.

Ultimately what determines economic feasibility in an unhampered market is cost. If the cost of producing energy from a nuke plant is much cheaper than coal and also more efficient than coal then producers go out of business in this case coal leaves the market.

If Hansen was right we would still have horse and buggies as I’m sure when Ford developed the production line, the piece of buggies would have fallen too.

The real argument is about economic efficiency.


JC, I reckon his point was that as coal demand drops, price drops and it once again becomes competitive with nukes, so it starts getting used. + those with sunk costs are willing to pay a fuel price premium as it still works for their bottom line.

But I think the arguments others have made in the comment above, about real $ cost of mining and transportation, might put pay to that line of thought. Smaller-scale coal won’t necessarily be cheap, even if hardly anyone wants it. But coal-to-liquids is the big worry, as vakibs points out, which might be the single biggest reason for wanting a carbon price anyway.


What about the other problem? There is no cheap nuclear.
It is unrealistic to believe that any future nuclear would be cheaper than coal and get built up fast enough to drive coal out of bussines.
Even if there was a cheap plant it would take decades to built a substantial number of these plants.


…But when Workmen living in the Out-Skirts of London, began to bring in the burning of Sea-Coal, (which was about the Time of Edward the First) it was much complained of, as tending greatly to the making of the Place unhealthful. About the latter End of that King it was, that Brewers, Dyers, and other Artificers, using great Fires, began to use Sea-Coals instead of dry Wood and Charcoal, in or near the City. Which occasioned the Prelates, Nobles, Commons, and other People of the Realm, resorting thither to Parliament, and upon other Occasions, with the Inhabitants of the City, and the Village of Southwark, Wapping, and East Smithfield, to complain thereof twice, (one time after another) to the King, as a publick Nusance; corrupting the Air with its Stink and Smoak; to the great Prejudice and Detriment of their Health.

The King therefore, first prohibited the burning of Sea-coal by his Proclamation. Which being disobeyed by many for their private Lucre; upon a second Complaint, he issued out a Commission of Oyer and Terminer, to inquire of all such, who burned Sea-Coal against his Proclamation, within the said City, or Parts adjoining, and to punish them for the first Offense, with great Fines and Ransoms. And upon the Second Offense, to demolish their Furnaces, Kilns &c. wherein they burnt Sea-coals; and to see the Proclamation strictly observed for Time to come; as a Record 35 Edw. I. informeth.

Both the problem and its solution have been around for some time it would seem. Note that the economic benefits of continuing to use coal could be offset by punitive relief administered by the State, including the demolition of the apparatus where necessary.


Thanks for your response, Barry. Look I can see his point but beyond a certain price level even taking into account sunk costs operational costs are also important.


I wouldn’t be so pessimistic.

Recent bids in the Gulf was won by by a Korean firm at 30% below the American bid both using existing Westinghouse technology. There are currently 50 nuclear reactors on plan in the world, which is actually a pretty astonishing development. Things are happening.


I’m very bullish on plugin hybrid vehicles because battery innovations are kicking along at a cracking pace. I don’t think it will be too many years before we see vehicles on the market that demonstrate clearly that electricity can provide most transport energy. As such technology ramps up we will ultimately use no oil for transport fuel other than for longer commutes, heavy transport and an occasional stop gap convenience.

I think if nuclear can be brought online safely and cheaply then emission concerns relating to transport and electricity will be quite solvable. The nations car fleet gets swapped out every 20 years so it won’t happen instantly but it will happen.

I think a modest revenue neutral carbon tax is mostly harmless. However removing barriers to nuclear energy ought to be the primary political objective. A lot of things from fresh water to clean electric transport all fall into place with cheap nuclear power.


TerjeP (say tay-a), Said:

“I’m very bullish on plugin hybrid vehicles because battery innovations are kicking along at a cracking pace”

I tend to agree, however it is important that we solve the problem of where we get the power first, or we just shift the pollution geographically.


I think Hansen is right. As peak oil worsens demand for liquid fuels will increase to the point of desperation. If coal really was phased out, demand would plummet, making coal dirt cheap. Therefore, this would in turn increase the desire for coal derived synfuel. It is inefficient, but proven. The Obama administration is building a pipeline into the U.S. from Canada for tarsands derived synfuel. This shows that, unless a cheap electric car can be developed or boron car, coal isn’t likely to go away for many decades. A carbon tax, however, could make nuclear and electric cars much more competitive, making coal less likely to be used. Way cheaper than coal is better than slightly cheaper.


All –

Do not underestimate the price elasticity of coal. Look at the historical price variation. A large institutionalized industry like coal can drop price a long, long way for awhile if it believes it needs to do so in order to retain market share and get potential customers to build coal plants instead of alternatives. Once the plants are built, the customer is committed. The railroads that transport coal can also drop price substantially for a time to weather the challenge to their business (take a look at the percentage of railroad business is hauling coal, to get an idea of how important it is to them). Expect this to happen if nuclear accomplishes the hoped-for advances through systematization.

A viable coal-to-nuclear option would be very valuable.

JC – As of October, 2009 there were 462 reactors “proposed, planned and under construction” across the world. (Guardian, 19 October 2009).

In 2007 my records show were 250 (presentation at ICANN in Nice, France). If these numbers were measured the same way and the numbers are meaningful, this would be a compound growth rate of 32% for the nuclear enterprise.



I’m sympathetic to what you say but this is where the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. The lead time for conversion of the car fleet is very long and so aere the lead times on stationary power. If we start making the latter the precondition to the former, we are going to be dead before serious changes take place.

I doubt there can be many people keener than I to see an end of coal use in energy, but it is not true that plug-in vehicles simply move the pollution point to the plant.

Firstly and most obviously, a proportion of these plants have to be running because it is too costly to put them all at black start state to make it worthwhile. During the off-peak, they will run regardless of demand. So at the margins, a whole bunch of vehicles recharging overnight doesn’t add as much as it would notionally to output of pollutants.

Secondly, where the pollution occurs matters. In the Sydney basic for example, the topography tends to trap car emissions, whereas the relevant coal plant may disperse them pretty quickly and over an area less densely populated.

Thirdly, the mix of sources is important. If the mix is high in renewables — like hydro or wind — then the net imact is small. In Tasmania, most of their supply is hydro so PEVs in Tassie will be especially clean.


Peter Lang,

The Lomborg article is partly based on a research study:
which presents a more realistic picture of the consequences of melting the West Antarctic Ice sheet

Picked up this information from
Read all the comments by Richard Tol
“Lomborg’s Cool It is a popularised version of arguments that Tom Schelling, Bill Nordhaus and I have been making for a long time. Popularised and stripped of scientific and moral uncertainties.

Lomborg’s recent emphasis on geoengineering is mistaken. The risks are too large to have any faith in geoengineering as a solution.”

The problem is that our economic system is preoccupied with short term benefits and ignores long term costs. I would see this as a big part of the real problem.


I doubt that PHEVs will get the uptake some expect. Truckers, bus operators and long distance commuters will probably opt for natural gas and NG dual fuel vehicles. Some dispute this

If gas for transport takes off then we have to question the wisdom of exporting large amounts and using it for electrical generation. I suspect this will come out of the blue when petrol is $3/L and the cheapest PHEV is $40k. Australia consumes about 50 Mt a year of oil mostly imported which could be replaced by locally sourced gas, CNG for road vehicles and GTL for aircraft. To make that last for decades we need a gas retention protocol. Add that to the RET and the CO2 targets. It all says low carbon electrical generation should not require a major gas assist.


Ewen Laver – Liquid transportation fuels are not in any short term (20-25yr) threat of becoming unavailable – a move to electric cars is justified at this time only to reduce pollution. While this is both admirable and necessary, there are real concerns, perhaps not in Australia, but elsewhere, that this may not do much for the overall carbon burden of vehicular transportation.

As for your second point, I am always concerned with the socio-political aspects of energy, and I am afraid that we might run into an out-of-sight-out-of-mind situation, when people are breathing freely in the cities.

I was serious putting up that item from the reign of Edward Longshanks. You will note that all the elements required were present in that event: the use of a fuel was negativity impacting a population; the people demanded their government do something; laws were passed, and enforced vigorously. It was not until the development of the Industrial Revolution, as the steam engine took over, was there a return to the large-scale use of coal.

Like it or not, it is going to require that sort of groundswell from the masses that will keep coal in the ground, because again just like 13th Century London, market-forces will always favour coal as the least expensive source of process heat.


While you’re right DV8 that the moce to PEVs would be pollution driven, in the end moving the argument back to the power source is a spin-off benefit, precisely for the reasons you outline. Once 60%+ of road-licenced vehicles are supplied by the grid (and maybe even as little as 25%) the temptations to effect GHG cuts and achive “energy independence” or import substitution by cleaning up the grid will be very powerful.

Nuclear power is an obvious plug and play solution in that context because the fuel cost is tiny compared with coal per unit of output. This is also a context in which people who want to spend the money on roof top PV could, if they wanted, store much of their output in their car batteries, and we could drop the subsidies and RECs.


DV82XL, on 17 March 2010 at 10.19 Said:
“Ewen Laver – Liquid transportation fuels are not in any short term (20-25yr) threat of becoming unavailable …”

Can you cite a basis for this please?
This references my concern about peak oil, since I’m inclined to believe what Jeffrey Brown has to say about it e.g.
and following comments.


Conceivably lack of liquid fuels, a supply issue, could drag down coal consumption, a demand issue. For example if shipping costs nix the advantage of manufacturing in China then that country might burn less coal. Long run of course we could make liquid fuels from coal and power some land transport with electricity made from coal. Natural gas is already used in both transport and electrical generation and I think those demands will compete medium term.

Some interesting ideas on The Oil Drum website. One is that high oil prices triggered the financial meltdown of 2008; see for example the views of economist Jeff Rubin. Another idea is that crude oil may stay relatively cheap even as it depletes, seemingly a contradiction of the law of supply and demand. Another is that oil supply must continuously increase to avoid recession. Global crude oil production seems stuck on 74 million barrels a day with ethanol, LPG and tar sands struggling to add much new net energy. Put together it suggests that Peak Oil may do more to reduce CO2 emissions than all the efforts of governments. Yet our own Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan was on TV last night saying we need all these immigrants to build the higher energy future.


Lawrence, I don’t argue peek oil, because the signal-to-noise ratio is much too high. Will oil last for ever? No. Will it stop being an important fuel in the next thirty years? No. Will it be cheap? That’s a no too.

The first scholarly papers suggesting the post war oil shortages were permanent were written in 1948. We know that this didn’t happen because things like off-shore drilling, and techniques to exploit fields previously deemed unworkable, were developed.

Depending on peek oil to ameliorate the CO2 problem is a fool’s game – no help is going to come from there at all.


Lawrence …

There is a difference between “becoming unavailable” and becoming unviable.

I have no idea whether the disjuncture between demand and supply of oil will force up prices enough in real terms to make oil unviable for personal transport within the next 25 years, though I suspect that this will happen long before there are con commercially recoverable supplies of oil. I also suspect that once the price threshhold at which crude oil price made fuel usage a major factor in vehicle choice, rapid conversion to low liquid fuel usage vehicles would follow, then demand would ebb, restabilising prices.

Not the least reason the oil producers are downplaying peak oil, which you might expect them to accentuate if oil were a normal product, since they could lift the price, is that they want to forestall this process. There’s some evidence that OPEC has conspired to overstate RARs in part for this reason.

So peak oil (not oil exhaustion) is quite possible within 25 years, and indeed the IEA keeps talking about it in 2013, but what this means is harder to say.


Thanks everyone.Very interesting discussion.Let’s not forget that there are already 33 nuclear countries, another 20 building reactors as I write [53 under construction] and nuclear electricity growing from 16% now to about 20% by 2020 and if the planet gets it right to 30-35% by 2030/35 then the world will not need an ETS of any sort. I suspect that the new nuclear countries have considered most of the arguments about cost,alternatives etc that you are making here and have decided that nuclear is cost effective, safe clean,green etc and is the obvious way to go. Why don’t we point this out to our leaders. While we get there slug the polluters with a carbon tax, get coal outlawed as a source of power [legislate to forbid construction of new coal powered stations everywhere]. Subsidize struggling third world countries who want some electric light and a stove with suitable small scale reactors [PBMR’s come to mind]. That can be called “Aid. etc etc”
Podargus, you are dead right on the first four of your requirements viz, ban coal plants, tax all coal products,speed up Gen 3 construction and research Gen4 reactors urgently. And we need to make it an election issue. Couldn’t agree more. Who has written to a politician on this matter this year? If you haven’t, it’s time you did. The contention that with more nukes the cost of coal will drop and then we’ll get more coal power. NOT IF NEW COAL PLANTS ARE OUTLAWED IN ALL COUNTRIES, INCLUDING DEVELOPING COUNTRIES. The planet has to stop burning the stuff for power. Sorry, I’m becoming a bit strident. Must be due to frustration following ten years of pushgg these lines to politicians etc. They’re a spineless lot when it comes to difficult issues.


Ewen Laver, on 18 March 2010 at 9.38 Said:

“There is a difference between “becoming unavailable” and becoming unviable…”

Yes I think I understand the difference. The ELM model that Jeffrey Brown ( I should have said he goes by the moniker ‘westexas’ on TheOilDrum) advocates incorporates that distinction at it’s heart – oil will still be pumped in quantity some time after the importing countries of the world are facing severe shortages. ELM makes the point that the world is divided into exporting oil countries and importing oil countries – if you are a net importing country your oil supplies will run short well before the oil fields stop producing because oil availability to oil importers will fall short of total oil production because an increasing fraction of oil production will be kept by oil producers for themselves.
If there is some flaw in this model I’d like to know.

A lot of the rest of your post is about demand management. Ok sure, everyone in the game will try to manoeuvre the game to their advantage. Jeffrey Brown thinks there is just not that much room to move, in particular for the producers. They face geophysical limits on the oil production curve, and these are final. And due to local claims within oil producers on oil production, global oil availability will reduce faster than oil production, further confining oil availability. Should this be so, we are all confined, and even the IFR or LFTR or any kind of nuclear implementation does not change that. Additional technology to supplant oil dependence would be required.

Either we have the time to implement replacement technologies and infrastructure for the oil-based technologies and infrastructure or we don’t. I would like to know.


And of course, one way to augment oil production is coal-to-liquids, something I now mention in order to claim some connection to the the title of this entry.


Take this topic before the public and tell them as some suggest:

1) coal burning & power generation must stop
2) you all have to live like peasants
3) you all have to go vegetarian
4) you all have to make do with far less food

Then watch the fuss! The 1% that are serious on this issue will comment here. The other 99% will never go along – no matter what.

You all need to come up with a program that is a lot more palatable to the general public or else keep it as a private topic.


Reading the comments on the Quiggin blog is like the drone of a religious mantra … renewable energy will save us if only it we’d let it. Major slipups in the numbers are brushed aside since it has to be right somehow. The fact that coal is currently keeping the lights on is evidently regarded as a temporary glitch.

ABC Lateline reported on the geothermal prospect at Gherang near Geelong. This ‘wet’ geothermal hasn’t gone very far which I guess is why they show footage of ‘dry’ geothermal in SA, also stalled I gather. It seems the Greens regard geothermal baseload as a kind of turning point that will vindicate their opposition to nuclear. Meanwhile we’ll just keep burning more coal.


The problem is that coal is underpriced. There are various govenment subsidies of one form or another; those externalities must stop. There are the pollution problems from unregulated burning of coal and (non) disposal of the wates (fly ash); those externalities must stop.

Now that all that has been internalized, the price of coal will be considerably larger, especially if CCS is required. I rather suspect that then coal will be priced out of the market in favor of cleaner means of producing heat and elecricity. Then, I opine, a Pigovian tax on carbon is unlikely to be required.

But yes, Virginia, the cost of electricity will go up; learn energy efficiency.



You need to be careful what you mean by subsidies. Coal and coal fired plants is not really subsidized that much at all. According to a productivity commission report coal and plants had around $500 million of identifiable subsidies, which in the scheme of things hardly means it would be unprofitable if it stopped. The subsidies offered the car makers is around $6 billion.

terje: Plug ins will enter the market, however I don’t see a big future for them unless battery replacement is as easy as filling a tank. It’s okay for people that have garages and car ports but a good slab of the world’s cars are housed outside. It’s unrealistic to expect the owners to be running power cords from the 15 storey apartment down to street level.

Yes, there could be power outlets at street level with individual identifiers. However the infrastructure costs and the problems that would create is pretty big.

Hydrogen engines are what I think we will end up with.


JC said:

According to a productivity commission report coal and plants had around $500 million of identifiable subsidies …

Laughing …

It is the unidentifiable subsidies that are the principal issue …

It’s unrealistic to expect the owners to be running power cords from the 15 storey apartment down to street level

Indeed, but of course the proposal by companies such as Better Place is for rapid battery exchange points. Some people might be able to recharge at their workplaces or in commuter or shopping centre carparks.


What are the subsidies the productivity commission didn’t find, Ewen?

The battery replacement issue isn’t as easy as you think. Storage is one problem.

Running power cords was a little tongue in cheek, however it does point to some serious structural issues with plug-ins as the cost of electrifying street level availability would be quite expensive, vulnerable and pretty dangerous in case of accidents.



Check out “externalities” as a concept in this discussion.

Storage is one problem

How so? Please outline the storage problem you see.



“Externalities” is the most abused term in economics.There are positive externaities too by the way, they aren’t all negative. The productivity commission is perhaps one of the most respected groups in the country. Dismissing their arguments should illicit a little more than a laugh.

“Storage’ is a problem in terms of where the batteries are going to be stored and if there is room to store them in the gas stations we have. My concern with ideas like “Better Place” is that it may be very labor intensive adding to the costs of fuel.

I tend to to speculate that plug in won’t be the way to go, but hydrogen will be and as an interim we’ll see hybrids.



Simply saying the concept of “externalities is abused is argumentum ad nihilo. It tells us nothing about whether externalities are a form of subsidy in any particular case. For coal, we need to ask tow things:

1. Does coal use become more or less economically feasible as a consequence of the externalities attached to its use?

If the answer is yes, the the next question is

2. Do these externalities impose costs on others (opportunity or tangible)?

If the answer is again yes, then we have a cost shift from one party to another. If the other party is the commons, we have a classic Tragedy of the Commons scenario — i.e an unidentified subsidy. Some economists call this a collective action problem.

Just yesterday for example, I heard that people in NY were given the right to keep bees. Hitherto, the risk to the public from these “wild animals” was considered to great a risk to impose on the public as a whole, since people could die of bee-stings. In short, this externality had been considered too great a public subsidy to hand to people wanting to produce honey. Today that view has been reversed and so the subsidy will now be paid out of the increased risk imposed on members of the public of being stung by bees. Presumably, if someone is stung and suffers a quantifiable harm traceable to a bee’s keeper, he or she (or the estate) can sue. Hopefully, there will be an insurance fee so that anyone stung by a NY bee can recover damages. See the point?

On your reading, the PC takes it as self-evident that people should suffer poorer health while the coal fuel cycle operates and a fall in the value of ecosystem services for all eternity in exchange for the value of the electricity now. We could monetise this, but the real question is that if this externality were internalised i.e if all of the waste in the coal fuel cycle were internalised what implications would this have for coal fired electricity costs?

Given that nobody in the business even toys with this idea, one may assume that the figure is huge. Indeed, even the rather lesser challenge of CC&S is acknowledged to not be feasible until at least 2032, if ever. If you look at Lang’s contributions here, you will note the outrage with which he greets suggestions that coal be held to the same standard as nuclear — he rejects this as simply unthinkable — and he is right on that score.

So the real question is why you (and if you’re right, the PC) think that coal fired power people ought to be able to poison the populace and destroy ecosystem services for free so we can have marginally “cheaper” power? Why this huge subsidy from the public?

“Storage’ is a problem in terms of where the batteries are going to be stored and if there is room to store them in the gas stations we have. My concern with ideas like “Better Place” is that it may be very labor intensive adding to the costs of fuel

The “gas” stations we have already store large volumes of hazardous materials. Presumably, better place will negotiate suitable arrangements or build their own stations. They have done this in a number of places already. That’s a business problem for them to solve in each market. I’m going to suppose that any designer of PEVs would arrange matters so as to facilitate rapid swapping of the units.

I tend to to speculate that plug in won’t be the way to go, but hydrogen will be …

Best to stay away from asking the questions you asked of batteries for hydrogen.

The stuff embrittles metals, has low energy density, tends to escape gaps in pipes, and there is no mass production hydrogen vehicle in existence. The infrastructure needed to roll this out would occupy more than the space of conventional liquid fuels, LTFCs require noble metals. Hydrogen will never underpin a significant proportion of vehicle miles.


JC, on 20 March 2010 at 14.58 — I’m no econmist, so really I should just use externalities in general and not break out subsidies per se. However, I recently read a estimate that energy production and consumption is “subsidized” to the tune of US$500 billion per year, although coal wasn’t seperately broken out nor was excess CO2 in the atmosphere included in those externalities.


HI David:

Honestly I have no idea where $500 billion comes from as it would represent 50% of Australia’s GDP per year, so the figure seems a little far fetched to me.

I’m heavily in the Peter Lang camp. He just great. We should be very careful how we dismantle our current energy production as we head to nuclear plants and we should strive towards making nuclear cheaper than coal.


JC, I think David’s $500 billion figure is worldwide, and seems a plausible amount. Of course, on a $/MWh basis, it represents a tiny fraction of the subsidies currently given out to renewable energy, so it’s never fair for coal critics to challenge it on this basis. Coal has enough flaws without needing to make up new ones – which is perhaps your point.


JC tried:

So you think there has been no benefit from energy production?

You want to talk about something else without standing by your implicit claim that there are no unidentified subsidies in coal?

Why would that be? Peter Lang, whom you claim to admire, affirms these externalities and that internalising them would be incompatible with viable coal production. Pending a substantive response on this I’m going to claim that your attempt to change the subject reflects your agreement that my discussion above refuted your claim.

Integrity would imply admitting this explicitly.

As to your change of subject … of course there have been benefits associated with fossil energy production. There have also been costs and those are mounting while benefits are static. To date, net benefit has been positive, but we are now at a stage when the relative net benefits of reducing the fossil intensity of industry and human activity more generally would be very significant and perhaps the difference between a roiling series of disasters for humans, followed by a catastrophic period of decline and the preservation and steady ascent of civilised life.



Regardless of the relative subsidies Barry, the point is that the subsidies to renewables are explicit and innocuous (except perhaps in OC terms) whereas the subsides to coal are not.


Ewan :

I think this straying a little far and wide as I have no desire to defend coal. I don’t hate coal, the producers or the users, which in reality is us, as were are the ones turning on the lights.

Are there externalities in the use of coal? It appears there are obviously. Are they properly priced? I’m not at all certain if such an exercise is easily done as externalities despite what people often say are really complex to figure out..

Having said that if there is going to be government intervention in the energy markets I would much prefer to see the removal of all subsidies, stop the hobbling of nuclear energy and enact a point-in-time objective where we’re totally emissions free getting there by stages. That way all the technologies can compete on a level playing field.

I would also tend to agree with Peter that after decades of emotional abuse governments have allowed to be perpetrated against nuclear energy it is incumbent on them to find ways to revitalize it. They helped almost wreck this technology, so they owe it something at the beginning such as insurance guarantees etc while the market develops over a short period of time..

Thanks Barry. Yes I think it would be a global figure.


JC, on 21 March 2010 at 13.50 — See David B. Benson, on 21 March 2010 at 9.02

My main point is that coal has to have all externalities removed; turned into internal costs. I strongly suspect that will be more than enough to see that
(1) energy efficiency
(2) geothermal (where available)
(3) Combined cycle natgas with carbon tax or offset
(4) nearby wind (where available with hydro backup)
(5) nuclear
will all be less expensive than coal with costs running higher further down the list.


Quite so David

If it’s all too hard to work out, then the simple answer is for coal to be required to fully inrternalise all of its impacts — restoring places from which they have harvested coal to a condition comparable to the condition they were in prior to harvest. Ensure that all mining coal are pretected from inhalation of particulate and leave the workplace fully decontaminated. Let the coal be transported in such a way as to avoid spillage. Let all potentially harmful emissions from thermal plants be collected and sequestered until they are innocuous.

If any part of this cannot be done, then let the damage arising from those parts of the cycle be the subject of costs borne by the coal using companies involved.

Then let them compete with other energy sources doing the same thing.

It’s quite simple really.


[…] Given the recent discussion on BNC in various threads, a topic worth collecting up here is the merits/demerits of imposing a price on carbon, rather than simply pursuing policy to lower the costs (and regulatory burdens) of low-carbon energy sources. In reference to past discussions on BNC about the form a carbon price might take, read about cap-and-trade vs carbon tax and fee-and-dividend. An argument NOT to impose a carbon price is given here. An argument FOR a carbon price is outline here. […]


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