There's Nothing Like a Real Coal Fire

Public Utility Commission member pushes for more coal, even after the recent TXU struggle.

Thought the future of electricity was wind, solar, and trying to reduce your consumption? Think again. At yesterday's meeting of the Texas Public Power Association, Public Utility Commission member Barry Smitherman gave electricity industry insiders the official line on how they'll be keeping the lights on. Seems the policy is coal, coal, and more coal.

Since hurricanes Katrina and Rita ripped through gas storage facilities along the Gulf Coast and caused wild price fluctuations, the PUC has been queasy about the state's dependence on natural gas prices. Smitherman was pushing the line that what's needed is a lot more coal plants to come online as fast as possible. A noted opponent of tough regulation (and equally un-noteworthy for lacking tough views on eco-protection), he's selling the line of clean coal. (Possibly the world's greatest misnomer, since at best it could classify as cleaner coal. Between the emissions from burning and the runoff water from the production process, there's still very little clean about it. It also doesn't help that, even after an April U.S. Supreme Court decision said they could, the Environmental Protection Agency still isn't trying to regulate CO2.)

But the environmental impact of coal isn't just about pollution. The old image of miners heading, sooty-faced, into the bowels of the earth is almost as dead as a canary in a gas pocket. The majority of U.S. coal comes from massive open-cast surface mining (773,705,734 tons in FY 2006 against 358,875,089 tons of underground production), and then there's the gloriously euphemistic ideal of mountaintop mining – so named because it involves taking the top off a mountain and dropping it into the valley below, just to get to the coal quicker and easier.

And what role for renewables? In the PUC's optimistic model, they're barely presenting an upward flicker in the next 100 years. If there's no carbon-charging, their graphs have the coal proportion of the power mix reaching almost 120 exojoules and renewables hovering at around 3 exojoules.

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