Thursday, June 14, 2012

Coal Use Down.. and Up

A dominant news story this week has been the fact that U.S. coal use in power generation continues to decrease as natural gas is taking market share because of its abnormally (and unsustainable) low price.  This year, coal's share of U.S. electricity production likely will fall below 40%, the lowest since the U.S. government began collecting this data in 1949.  While coal use is down in the U.S. it was up 5.4% globally last year, representing 30.3% of global energy consumed, its highest share since 1969.

Pundits point out that while U.S. consumption of coal was down, it is merely a drop in the proverbial bucket relative to the increase of global coal consumption, as if we shouldn't try to decrease our use of polluting coal just because its use is increasing elsewhere.  To me, that is a preposterous argument.

In nations that are developing rapidly - at a sustained aggregate growth that is difficult to fathom in the developed world - governments have little choice than to build coal power plants because they often have domestic coal resources.  It's a matter of cost and expediency - it sucks, but I get it.  Additionally, Asian and European natural gas prices are significantly higher and supply is constrained, so coal is about the only solution for most growing countries.  Cheap, available energy trumps all when it comes to feeding rapid economic growth.

But the suggestion that the U.S. shouldn't do its best to switch from polluting energy sources just because developing countries can't (or won't), is terribly flawed.  Many of these same people are quick to claim rights over the concept of "American Exceptionalism" but they don't see a role for the U.S. as a global leader in the smarter consumption of energy?  Just because our actions may not make a big difference in aggregate this year or next doesn't mean we shouldn't take the lead.  After all, it is what we do naturally.  We develop methods and technology that later are transmitted and reproduced globally.  Look at shale gas:  U.S. companies pioneered drilling techniques and technology that are going to be rolled out worldwide over the next decade.  Pardon the cliche, but it's going to be a game changer.

Why shouldn't the U.S. be a leader in the switch away from coal, even if it takes a decade or two to make a difference globally?  It is better for the health and welfare of our citizens and it can create economic opportunities for us worldwide.

Reducing coal consumption is progress - press on!

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