Saturday, July 18, 2009

Coal, it keeps on rollin'

Washington state gets most of its electricity from hydroelectric dams and hosts only one medium-sized coal plant. But recently I began to notice trainloads of coal rolling north through my hometown of Mount Vernon, a unwelcome reminder of how the rest of the world gets its power. These occasional trains bring coal from the American interior (probably Wyoming) to Vancouver, BC, where--along with plenty of coal from Alberta--it is shipped to Asian markets.

The picture above shows trains loading in the legendary Powder River Basin, where Montana and Wyoming host the world's largest coal mines. One trainload of coal can move up to 15,000 tons; if this is lower-energy Powder River Basin coal, it will add roughly 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere when burned (and, arguably just as disturbing, about two pounds of mercury). Each day, some seventy trains leave the Powder River mines.

The sheer scale of this movement is fascinating; I enjoyed a series of stories on coal trains by John McPhee that first appeared in the New Yorker and then became part of a book. But it's also daunting to those in the renewable-energy and greenhouse-gas-reduction worlds; for example, our first digester will have to run for almost three years to offset the emissions from just one coal train.

While we as a nation don't seem to have the political will to pull coal back from supplying half of our electricity, energy markets are giving us a bit of hope. The Energy Information Administration provides weekly updates on coal markets, and coal production has dropped somewhat this spring--likely due to pressure from sustained low natural gas prices. We have a nearly-incomprehensible amount of work to do before replacing coal, but--as I said in an earlier post--shifting to natural gas won't hurt.

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