The Fast Approaching Coal Fired Power Nightmare (Part One)

Posted on Thu 10/22/2009 by




October Chart for U.S. Electrical Power Consumption.

October Chart for U.S. Electrical Power Consumption.

This chart is from the U.S. Government’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) website. Click on the image to open it in a new and larger window.

In these days of being told that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from coal fired power plants are what is causing widespread global warming/climate change, there is an approaching nightmare that is creeping up on us, something that will just have to be dealt with.

Those emissions account for 30 to 40% of all CO2 emissions, and we are told that we desperately need to be closing down these plants before the climate reaches a ‘tipping point’.

Let’s for now forget totally that the total CO2 content of the whole atmosphere is only 0.0388%.

What will closing those plants result in?

As I have mentioned many times previously, you need to be aware of how coal produces electrical power. The coal is burned in high temperature furnaces to boil water to high pressure steam. The steam drives a multi stage turbine which drives a generator which produces the electrical power. Something difficult to actually believe is just how much coal is actually burned in one of those large power plants. A large plant that has a Nameplate Capacity of 2000 MegaWatts (MW) burns on average between 10,000 and 15,000 tons of coal each day, or around 6.5 million tons a year. Each ton of coal produces 2.86 tons of CO2, so taken in isolation, then these coal fired plants do emit a large amount of CO2. The page at this link shows just how much coal is burned to produce that nearly 50% of all power consumed in the U.S.

That amount is indicated at the bottom left column there, and is expressed in thousand tons, so that total there is just under one billion tons of coal, so that means that coal fired power, just in the U.S. produces just on 2.8 Billion tons of CO2 each year. CO2 is also emitted from other electrical power plants using Natural Gas and other fossil fuel derivatives, and even though that number may be difficult to comprehend and seem huge, be aware that over the whole of Planet earth, an amount of 50 billion tons of CO2 is emitted each year, and as huge as that number seems, keep in mind that the total CO2 content of the whole Atmosphere surrounding the Earth is still only 0.0388% and that 50 billion tons only adds only 0.00015% to that total each year.

Large amounts of coal have to be burned because it is needed to drive the huge weight of the turbine/generator which, in those large plants can weigh up to 400 tons, all that rotating at around 3600 RPM which is 60 times a second.

So then, what is the fast approaching nightmare of coal fired power generation?

Since all this CO2 emissions thing has been hyped, those coal fired power plants have fallen out of favour. It doesn’t matter that they are one of only two or perhaps three methods that can supply the two thirds of all electrical power that is required absolutely in the U.S. or that they can actually supply that power for 24 hours out of every day, they are now perceived as actually dangerous.

Therein lies the problem, and the source of the approaching nightmare.

Because they supply nearly 50% of all power consumed in the U.S. there are a lot of them. Those plants are robust, large and can just hum along all day, every day. Because of that, they have a long lifespan. That lifespan is around 50 years. They can even have that lifespan extended out to 60 or even 70 years. However, those plants are now all aging and aging rapidly. The average age of all coal fired plants in the U.S. is currently between 45 and 48 years. That’s all the plants, so from that it is easily seen that a lot of those plants have had their lives extended, and in fact, the whole inventory is almost at the end of its economic lifespan.

There are very few new plants coming on line, and that average age has only been moving in the one direction for the last couple of decades.

If we look at China in isolation with respect of coal fired power plants, they (China) are currently bringing on line one of these large new coal fired power plants every 7 days. That’s not just beginning construction, but actually finished and supplying power to the grid. Their plants are new and efficient. The ones in the U.S. are old, and not as efficient.

Technology has advanced in leaps and bounds since the early days of power plant construction. Those newer plants have much better technology, and what I mean by that is that the generator itself is better. Everything about those generators has improved, so that the generator itself is smaller than those old ones, and can actually produce much larger amounts of electrical power, even from that smaller size. The technology of the multi stage turbine has also improved, so that it too is smaller and runs more efficiently. The furnaces and steam boilers have also improved. So much so that those new large plants coming on line in China are about half the size of those older ones, considerably smaller, and yet they can produce more electrical power. They also burn less coal, and by that I mean considerably less amounts of coal, expressly because of the improvements in every part of the technology of the plant.

So, while China is bringing on line more and more new technology coal fired power plants, the U.S. has an inventory of plants all approaching 50 years old and with no new large plants anywhere on the horizon.

The nightmare is that very soon those old plants in the U.S. will actually BE at the end of their lifespan. No amount of extension of licenses will make them able to keep producing electrical power. They will become so inefficient, prone to breakdown, more difficult to maintain and keep on line, more fragile than they once were, that operators will just have to close them down.

This is actually happening right now. As you look at the link showing how much coal is being burned and notice that it is going down, do not think that this is because we are becoming more aware of burning less coal in those plants, because those plants will always burn whatever they have always burned to produce their electrical power. It has nothing whatsoever to do with that. That number is going down, and going down quite quickly because those older plants are being taken out of commission.

So, then, no trouble you think. It is then actually achieving the desired result. Emissions are decreasing. However, those emissions are still only decreasing by what is really a minute amount when taken in context with the 50 billion tons of actual emissions on the whole Planet.

Nothing however is coming on line to replace those plants, new plants of any sort that actually can supply power for the full 24 hours of every day.

Look again back at that pie chart. It can sometimes be a little misleading because with something like this, there are many variables. You’ll just have to believe my analysis of the actual figures shown at the Government’s huge database that this simple pie chart is taken from.

On that chart, look across at the small area that indicates renewables. It says 3.9%. That number has actually gone down from the last chart where it was at 4.2%. Be aware also that this renewable sector has 5 sources in it and two of those are actually large emitters of that CO2 Greenhouse gas, and other noxious Greenhouse gases, those being wood and wood derived products and Biomass.

The two renewables of choice currently in favour, Wind and both forms of solar power are also in this renewable sector. Combined they make up only 1.8% of that 3.9% Total. Most of that comes from Wind power because both forms of Solar power only make up 0.02% of that 3.9% total.

That renewable sector has actually decreased in the overall total, both on the chart and at the statisitcs of actual power delivered.

The point I am making here is that while coal fired power has decreased by almost one full percent, renewable power has not only NOT filled that gap, but has itself gone backwards. That one full percent reduction in overall power from the coal fired sector is the equivalent power produced from 15 large coal fired power plants.

If, as we are told, those renewable plants will be be required to replace those coal fired plants then the hope would be that they actually would start to fill up that void of closing coal plants.

As I have gone to great lengths to explain in numerous earlier posts, those two methods of renewable power, Wind and both forms of Solar patently cannot supply the power required, and patently cannot replace coal fired power.

So, while those old coal fired plants rapidly approaching the end of their lives are closing down, nothing is coming up to replace them.


Those coal fired plants will close and there will be no electrical power.

Keep in mind that if you believe the hype that those renewables CAN actually replace coal fired power, they would need to be constructed at a significantly greater rate than they are now.

If one large 2,000MW coal fired plant closes, you will need to construct nearly 700 of those large towers, each with a 3MW nacelle on top. There’s at least ten years alone in constructing that. Even then, those 700 towers will only supply power for 8 hours of each day on average, so not only have you spent billions of dollars, you’re still only getting one third of the power. So for the above one percent reduction from the coal fired sector, then you would need to construct nearly 11,000 of those towers, and still only be getting one third of the power those coal fired plants once provided.

Look at that again. One large coal fired plant closes. 700 wind towers.

Those plants are rapidly approaching the end of their lives. How quickly will those hundred of thousands of wind towers take to be constructed. How long are you going to extend the life of aging old technology plants. How far into the future are you going to use aging and inefficient coal fired plants while those so called replacements are in construction.

Consider this scenario.

The passage of the Waxman Markey bill will see a cap placed on those emissions for plants already aging. That Cap will decrease each year and the Trade part of it, if the design actually works, then that means costs will be increasing. That aging plant needs an extension to its license to supply power for a grid already at the top of its limit. They will be paying more to the Government for their emissions. Those emissions will need to be decreased. The plant will need to refurbish to extend its license. They will need funding, and that funding will be impossible to find because no bank or large financial institution will want to be seen as funding those ‘dirty coal fired power sectors’. Bean counters in the Company that provides the power to the grid will do the sums and find that no matter what they do, they will end up going backwards. No amount of coercion from a Government running scared, (knowing that if that plant is removed from the grid, then that grid will go into overload) will see that plant continuing in operation. It will not be economically viable to keep the plant in operation.

On one day, they will flick the switch to close that plant down. To replace it with wind power, they will now need 700 towers which will take ten years at best to construct. One day. Ten years. What do you do for electrical power in that interim.

There’s your nightmare.

However, the real nightmare is that right now, it’s too damned late.

There are no new coal fired plants out there, and they are so far out of favour, it would be impossible to even contemplate a provider even considering construction of a new coal fired power plant.

Meanwhile this link tells how The World Bank is spending billions of dollars constructing coal fired power plants in the Developing World. New coal fired power plants, smaller, more efficient, burning less coal, and producing more electrical energy, while in the U.S. old technology plants are closing as they rapidly approach the end of their lives.

That is the beginning of the nightmare.

The nightmare will be there for politicians too. Not that they will be worrying about us, the people. The nightmare for them will be the contemplation of their political future, or lack of it, with an angry populace who have never been told the real truth looking for someone to throw out of office.

The nightmare for us, the people who consume that electrical power, is quickly approaching, approaching not only over the next few years but as soon as this Winter, purported to be a very cold Winter.

In tomorrow’s post I will explain in intricate detail how the politicians dreams of ‘Clean Coal’ is not really a dream, but a compounding of the rapidly approaching nightmare.