The Atlantic has a very informative article in its December issue with the controversial title Dirty Coal, Clean Future. In it the author, James Fallows,  makes the important point that coal is here to stay for a long time, and thus a realistic approach to reducing, or at least maintaining, current levels of carbon concentration in the atmosphere needs to include cleaner ways of using coal.

…coal can be used in less damaging, more sustainable ways than it is now [and] it must be used in those ways, because there is no plausible other way to meet what will be, absent an economic or social cataclysm, the world’s unavoidable energy demands.

“It is very hard to go around the world and think you can make any difference in carbon-loading the atmosphere without some plan for how people can continue to use coal,” Friedmann said. “It is by far the most prevalent and efficient way to generate electricity. People are going to use it. There is no story of climate progress without a story for coal. […].”

The author cites data showing that an attempt to rely on renewable energy sources, given current technology, is doomed to failure. The math simply doesn’t work out:

“Emotionally, we would all like to think that wind, solar, and conservation will solve the problem for us,” David Mohler of Duke Energy told me. “Nothing will change, our comfort and convenience will be the same, and we can avoid that nasty coal. Unfortunately, the math doesn’t work that way.”

The math he has in mind starts with the role that coal now plays around the world, and especially for the two biggest energy consumers, America and China. Overall, coal-burning power plants provide nearly half (about 46 percent this year) of the electricity consumed in the United States. For the record: natural gas supplies another 23 percent, nuclear power about 20 percent, hydroelectric power about 7 percent, and everything else the remaining 4 or 5 percent. The small size of the “everything else” total is worth noting; even if it doubles or triples, the solutions we often hear the most about won’t come close to meeting total demand. […] On average, every American uses the electricity produced by 7,500 pounds of coal each year.

Precisely because coal already plays such a major role in world power supplies, basic math means that it will inescapably do so for a very long time. For instance: through the past decade, the United States has talked about, passed regulations in favor of, and made technological breakthroughs in all fields of renewable energy. Between 1995 and 2008, the amount of electricity coming from solar power rose by two-thirds in the United States, and wind-generated electricity went up more than 15-fold. Yet over those same years, the amount of electricity generated by coal went up much faster, in absolute terms, than electricity generated from any other source.

The journalist Robert Bryce has drawn on U.S. government figures to show that between 1995 and 2008, “the absolute increase in total electricity produced by coal was about 5.8 times as great as the increase from wind and 823 times as great as the increase from solar”-and this during the dawn of the green-energy era in America. Power generated by the wind and sun increased significantly in America last year; but power generated by coal increased more than seven times as much.

In his book PowerHungry, Bryce describes a visit to a single coal mine, the Cardinal Mine in western Kentucky, whose daily output supports three-quarters as much electricity generation as all the solar and wind facilities in the United States combined.

Another important point is that designing new coal plants to capture carbon is much easier and more cost-efficient than trying to refit old plants. And yet, environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, pride themselves in helping to block new coal plants. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign proudly proclaims having blocked 139 proposed coal plants in the United States over the last few years.

Fallows also highlights that captured coal could be used to harvest oil more efficiently, increasing our energy supplies even further:

All larger-scale, longer-term proposals for storing carbon involve injecting it deep underground, into porous rock that will trap it indefinitely. In the right geological circumstances, the captured carbon dioxide can even be used for “enhanced oil recovery,” forcing oil out of the porous rock into which it is introduced and up into wells.

That’s great, but, see, we don’t really like oil either.

This rhetoric about oil is bad, coal is bad, and only renewable energy is good, is damaging to America. Sensible energy policy needs to include both energy sources, in addition to nuclear energy and natural gas. Let those who believe in renewable energy as a viable source for America’s current and future energy demands put their money where their mouth is. Don’t force American taxpayers to subsidize costly, unreliable sources of energy, while stifling those very industries that keep America running.