Tech Talk - Coal Power and Air Pollution

Fifty years ago I began my undergraduate studies at the University of Leeds in the UK. It is not something I particularly dwell on, but the stories out of Beijing describing the air pollution in the Chinese capital this week brought back a memory. This story on CNN notes that visibility in Beijing has been cut to under 200 yards. Back in Leeds in December of 1962, the air quality had registered the highest levels of sulfur dioxide that had ever been recorded as air conditions generated smogs covering large parts of the country. What made it personal for me was that I lived about a mile from the University and had to walk there through the smog that covered the city. Despite it being daylight, there came a point where I could not see my hand with my arm outstreched (and I still vividly remember doing this). Crossing the Park to the University, there were cries in the mist as folk fell over some of the now invisible decorative iron edging along the walkways. From that time on, the air quality regulations took increasing effect and before long, the black buildings that I had walked past on my way through town were being cleaned and brought back to their original white condition, which they have retained in the years since.

Immediately after the Second World War, Britain needed the coal to power the reconstruction of the country, but during the time I was in college it was already clear that the days of unrestricted mining were over and that the transition to other fuels had already begun. It was not the air pollution in Leeds that was the driving force for the regulations, however, but more likely the presence of similar smogs in London and the South where those who governed the country lived. The major legislation began after the Great Smog of 1952. In a four-day period at the beginning of December, the combination of a fog, an inversion in the immediate atmosphere, and the increased use of coal fires to provide additional warmth generated a smog that is blamed for the immediate death of around 4,000 people and a strong influence on the consequent death of some 8,000 others.

I bring this up because the air pollution in both Beijing and in New Delhi is reaching levels where the government is beginning to move to help abate the immediate problem. In both capitals it is a combination of vehicle exhaust and power generation that is driving the problem, whereas back in the UK fifty and sixty years ago, vehicular exhaust was not nearly as much of a problem as burning coal. Yet I suspect that although these problems in Asia are not yet at the levels they reached in the UK, that they may be less tractable to solution.

Burning coal to generate power remains a relatively simple process, as does mining of the coal, for which a realistic estimate would suggest that there remains, for now, a plentiful sufficiency. (That latter point is, however, disputed by some). The EIA has recently pointed out that we are at a point where China will consume about half of the global supply of coal each year.

Figure 1. Chinese coal consumption relative to that of the rest of the world. (EIA)

At the rate of increase reported, it is likely that the two lines will cross before the end of this year. However, it should also be noted that India has been importing more thermal coal than China (a projected 118 million tons for 2012, in contrast with the 102 million tons imported by China). And as Mongolian coal becomes more available, so India may take over parts of the international supply that now flows to China from Australia, Indonesia and Africa.

The need for increasing levels of power to sustain the growth rates of India and China are most often discussed in terms of the oil and natural gas that these two countries are consuming, but it has been estimated that India has a shortage of around 10% between the level of demand and actual supply, leading to crippling blackouts such as that of last July.

It should be noted that the levels of air pollution from power generation can be controlled. The United States uses most of the roughly billion tons of coal a year that it produces for power consumption, but air quality has been successively cleaned to higher standards over the decades, so that smogs are now only a historic curiosity.

Figure 2. Coal consumption in the United States by end use. (EIA)

The efforts of the EPA, among others, have had a considerable impact on American air quality. This, for example, is the median air quality index for the District of Columbia over the past 30 years. (I am not sure where to get earlier data).

Figure 3. Median Air Quality Index for Washington D.C. (EPA )

It is thus demonstrably possible for China and India to clean up their air even as they increase their demand for coal. It should also be noted that over the past thirty years, the miles that Americans drive has also increased as I recently commented, and so, based on the above, the argument applies also to vehicular exhaust.

It is true that part of the imposed solution to date, in terms of the American coal used, has transferred demand to the lower sulfur coals of Wyoming rather than the higher calorific value but also higher sulfur contents of more Eastern states, but as regulations have changed the power plant requirements, so some of that earlier loss to Wyoming is being recovered.

Figure 4. The top coal shipping and receiving states in the third quarter of 2012 (EIA )

Based on American experience, it is thus demonstrable that both China and India could clean up their air to American standards while still generating the power that they need through burning coal. Unfortunately, however, as the experience with mine accidents in China has shown, there are still too many operations too far from Beijing for central regulation to be fully enforced and complied with as yet.

The Air Quality Index should be described. As the EPA Airnow site explains:

EPA calculates the AQI for five major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particle pollution (also known as particulate matter), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. For each of these pollutants, EPA has established national air quality standards to protect public health .Ground-level ozone and airborne particles are the two pollutants that pose the greatest threat to human health in this country.

Figure 5. The gradation of the Air Quality Index. (EPA)

Coal - I have always believed it is this fossil fuel ( I 'd keep and eye on tar pits as well btw ) that will cook our goose more than oil .....

Wikipedia coal usage by nation

Consumption of Coal by Country and year (million short tons)

Country 2008 2009 2010 2011 Share

China 2,966 3,188 3,695 4,053 50.7%
United States 1,121 997 1,048 1,003 12.5%
India 641 705 722 788 9.9%
Russia 250 204 256 262 3.3%
Germany 268 248 256 256 3.3%
South Africa 215 204 206 210 2.6%

wikipedia CO2 emmissions

Country CO2 emissions Emission per capita

China 9,700,000 7.2
United States 5,420,000 17.3
India 1,970,000 1.6
Russia 1,830,000 12.8
Japan 1,240,000 9.8
Germany 810,000 9.9

Bladerunner - for told the future ?

Hope that loads well


PS: when they finally clear that smog the sun will still be shining - the CO2 will still be there........

PPS : I posit there isn't enough coal to get China Billion to the same level as the USA either

"PPS : I posit there isn't enough coal to get China Billion to the same level as the USA either"

But there is a lot of coal in Australia and the USA that they and we seem willing to sell to China.

It is worth looking at Wikipedia entries IMHO.
Yes of course China coal / fuel consumption took off like a rocket after entry to WTO end of 2001

But here are top CO2 emitters by country 2008/2009

World 29,888,121 ... 100%

China (ex.Macau, Hong Kong)7,031,916 ... 23.53%
United States 5,461,014 ... 18.27%
European Union (27) 4,177,817 ... 13.98%
India 1,742,698 ... 5.83%
Russia 1,708,653 ... 5.72%
Japan 1,208,163 ... 4.04%

These below are per capita CO2 emissions per region: the first column with land use change; the 2nd column just fossil fuel.
(Who is doing change of land use and why could be worth further enquiry.)

Asia 4.5 ... 3.4
Europe 10.6 ... 10.5
ME & N Africa 5.7 ... 5.6
Sub-Saharan Af 4.5 ... 2.3
North America 23.1 ... 24.1
C Amer & Carib 6.3 ... 4.5
South America 11.1 ... 5.3
Oceania 24.2 ... 19.1
World 6.8 ... 5.6


Disregarding inventory changes, consumption is approximately equal to production, so the ratio of total global coal production to China's consumption would be about 3.5 in 2000 and 2.1 in 2011. At this rate of decline, China would consume 100% of global production in about 16 years from 2011, or around 2027. Of course, a net coal exports ratio would show an even steeper decline:

China's Jan-Oct net coal imports up 40 pct on year-NDRC:

Nov 20, 2012 (Reuters) - China's net coal imports in the first 10 months of 2012 stood at 217 million tonnes, up 39.5 percent from year earlier, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) said in a statement on Tuesday.

Here are the data for the ratio of Global Net Exports of oil (GNE*) to Chindia's (China + India's) Net Imports of oil (CNI) from 2002 to 2011:

*Top 33 net exporters in 2005, BP + EIA data, total petroleum liquids

peak coal - meet you sista peak oil

now play nicely - remember oomans are not a bright bunch

( their uncle is call Limits to Growth....... )

Perhaps we need another web site - "the oil drum" meets the "the coal barge" ?

Peak Coal - ELM coal - peak oil - ELM oil

getting quite interesting few years ahead

now factor in ELM of Nat Gas........ ( Japan - I'm looking at you ! )


Seems like ELM disease is quite contagious...

When their daddy, peak water, shows up. He's going to be mad and R U N N O F T.

Cleaning up power station sulphur emissions in the UK was about acid rain rather than smog and flue gas desulpurisation happened 20-30 years later than controls on domestic fuels. I can just about remember having to burn smokeless fuel in the early 60s because we lived in the city, but acid rain was a live issue 20 years after that and some of my fellow PhD students were working on using a limestone based bed to capture SOx in fluid bed combustion.

That's right.
Reducing emissions from coal fires and eventually changing over to NG in the home is what did for smog. (I remember doing the handkerchief test in the last great London smog - one breath blown through the fabric instantly left a dramatic yellow brown stain.) Britain mostly relied on very tall power station chimneys for disposing of their particular contribution, and on the prevailing wind blowing the smoke out to sea and over to the near-Continent, even as far north as Norway. Like our dispersal of radionuclides in the sea, our neighbours eventually raised serious complaint about this stuff coming ashore.

I bet the average quality of combustion of a power plant, is a lot better than the average cookstove. The former likely is overseen by experts, who are trying to optimize overall costs. The later, for the most part people just shovel some in, and maybe control the heat by changing the air intake. If the fire is starved of Oxygen, then a lot of unburnt stuff goes out the chimney.
So tall smokestacks, means it isn't dumped into the thick of an urban inversion, and better combustion means less stuff per ton of fuel burnt.

Well yes, but we actually cooked fairly efficiently using piped 'town gas' and burned the residual coke in boilers for our house hot water. The untreated coal was used in open fires to heat the living rooms (bedrooms were mostly unheated). Efficiency of the open fire was less than 20% so a million or more of them in winter in the Thames Valley, unless the west wind blew it rapidly away, produced horrendous smog under a temperature inversion.

The vast quantities from the power stations right enough went up so high that the acid did not come down until it got to the Continent's forests and catchment areas where eventually and in many places it was as big or bigger than their own local pollution, and they complained.

Better combustion, better pollution controls, tall stacks.. all adds up to pollution reduction.

But efficiency remains low.

The most efficient steam turbines operate at 30% efficiency. 70% of the coal is burned up and the heat energy released with no useful application.

If the powerplant lies on the banks of a major waterway, (the Ohio River has the largest concentration of power plants in the nation), then transport of the coal is relatively efficient. But still, how much does both mining and transport cut into the total efficiency? Maybe someone knows, I don't. At any rate, the extraction and transport of coal are oil-powered operations. What if I say mining and transport take 5% off the efficiency rating, just for fun?

Then we must contend with the transport loss of the electricity itself, over power lines. This can often be substantial- also power losses from step up and step-down of voltages, etc. Again, I don't know the numbers here, but I suspect they are substantial. I'm just going to say 10%.

Then finally, there is the efficiency (or lack thereof) of the end use. Small electric motors are around 75-80 % efficient. Lighting, cooking and heating- well they are designed around resistance... again, who knows, but imagine, that at minimum, 85% of the latent energy in a given amount of coal is expended as waste heat before any useful work is done.

How does this work? How can anyone make money selling electricity?

I suspect the profit comes, not from the energy return on the coal, but on the slim margins of energy return on the OIL INPUTS. When oil gets expensive, then coal will be expensive too, and so forth... inevitable economic results from eroding EROEI.

Coal plants are around 33% efficient:

Transmission losses are a little less than 7%, so grid is pretty good at carrying electricity.

But yeah, it is not very efficient process. At least those 10% efficient incandescent bulbs are going away. But the efficiency is only relative to a theoretical perfect maximum. Things can be massive inefficient but still be profitable. Coal is just a rock in the ground . . . it is burning it that provides some financial utility (in the short term). And it is good that inefficient things can be profitable because solar PV is pretty inefficient . . . but considering the sunlight is free, it can be very inefficient yet still very useful and valuable.

Good coal power plants have an efficiency of >45% for hard coal and >40% for lignite. It is very likely that we see powerplants that have > 50% efficiency in near future.

A temporaray solution for China may indeed be to replace as many of their old plants (efficiency around 30%) as possible with modern new ones, this may buy valuable time. Neither nuclear nor green technologies are able to provide the needed power increase that is needed to maintain a high economic growth (=stability of the Chinese society) in the next two decades.

Neither nuclear nor green technologies are able to provide the needed power increase that is needed to maintain a high economic growth (=stability of the Chinese society) in the next two decades.

I'd be curious to see a real, quantitative analysis of that.

You have to assume that 70% of the elctricity in China goes into industry and most of the GDP groth comes from industrial production/construction, i.e. +8% GDP means at least +5% electricity demand per year. In some of the last years the electricity demand increased by >10%. The private consumption is still low but is expected to increase, too. At the moment China constructs almost each week one coal power plant. 2012 the electricity production was around 4500 TWh.

This fits quite well with a Harvard study from 2009 in which China is expected to need additional 800 GW until 2030, twice of the 2009 value. This means 40 power plants per year as net increase or around +5500 TWh. (10000 TWh in sum). Each Chinese citizen would then consume as much as a EU citizen.

Today, PV is near zero, even with an exponential growth no meaningful contribution, wind will reach with +20 GW per year around 200 GW in 2020 but has only 2500 FLH, so equivalent of 70 power plants. 60 nuclar reactors are under construction, means ~12 per year, even with additional 100 launched in the next years, the main contribution will come from coal. This sobering assessment is even shared by greenies, sorry.
So for me the suggestion to increase the efficiency of the coal power plants makes perfectly sense.

But what prevents building 40GW (average) per year of wind and PV instead of coal?

My feeling exactly. Although you have to account for capacity factor. But global PV manu capacity is now 70GW, which is roughly 2x of the current demand -so technically if we tried to absorb the potential production we would close some of that gap.

OTOH, how much would PV in Bejing have generated this past month? Hardly anything. They may be in a catch 22, because they built coal instead of PV, its now too polluted for PV to be viable!

Political decisions: The Chinese dilemma is that at the moment spending for PV gives a low energy return, the manufacturer are in bad shape, expansion of production capacity cost lot of time (> 5 years).

OTOH a huge wind program as suggested 2009 by the Harvard study could indeed be the solution; they would have to install 120 GW wind per years that are 40.000 turbines with 3 MW per year, however, this rerquires millions of qualified workers for production and maintenance and a huge increase in production capacity, we are talking about one order of magnitude. PV is with imported production facilities low tech, good wind turbines are much more tricky, you need the workforce.

The last published numbers show a goal of 200 GW installed wind power for 2020, this is less than +20 GW per year, therefore, the conclusion that coal power plants will play the most important role in China in the next 15-20 years.

spending for PV gives a low energy return, the manufacturer are in bad shape, expansion of production capacity cost lot of time (> 5 years).

Chinese PV manufacturers are in bad shape because of a lack of demand. Their production capacity is badly underutilized, so the time to expand domestic production significantly would be about zero.

China installed 16GW of wind last year - at 30% capacity factor that's about 5GW of generation. They installed about 50GW of coal, which at 75% capacity factor is about 37GW. So, that's an expansion of about 6x. That could be done in about 5 years, at a pretty doable 40% rate of growth per year.

So, the question is, why aren't they expanding PV and wind faster? If we think it's cost, then do we have good numbers on coal, wind and PV costs in China?

Yes and no, you are quite right that the de-sulphurisation of power station flues was solely about acid rain but in the sixties one of the main methods of cleaning air in urban areas was to remove the older coal generation plant out of urban areas. Bankside and Battersea power stations were closed and replaced by Didcot 50 miles outside of London. Didcot power station had greater generating capacity to deal with increasing demand plus some efficiency improvements (plus taller flues). This happened in all urban areas, Cardiff and Portishead (Bristol) for example were also closed.

The burning of smokeless fuel in domestic fires was a major immediate gain that could be implemented very quickly but it did concentrate all the pollution in one place where they made the smokeless fuel. One such plant was the Phurnicite works near Aberdare in South Wales. A nightmare of a place the stench was stomach turning.

The push to use North Sea gas to replace town gas production was another element that came along at the right time and this also enabled domestic coal fires to be increasingly replaced by natural gas central heating boilers.

I would be interested to hear what Dave Rutledge has to say about the
current Chinese coal burning. He is one of those that thought a peak in
coal mining in China was not far off. Any beta on his current take?

Also, HO, do we have historic stats from the UK to compare post WWII
a/q in England with recent levels in Beijing? I'm curious how close
they are to a killer smog.

The Chinese are making tons of infrastructure investments. Why not
prioritize air quality in their larger cities? They are rich enough, as a country,
to afford these improvements.

It's hard to compare air quality in London 1952 (killer smog episode) to those today in Beijing, as in the 60 years in between, the commonly used metric to measure air quality (at least in terms of particles) has changed.

In London 1952, "smoke" levels of up to 4.5 mg/m3 were measured on about 2 days.

In Beijing today, "PM2.5" levels of up to 0.9mg/m3 were measured, with more typical values of 0.25mg/m3.

PM2.5 refers to particles smaller than 2.5 micron; 0.9 mg/m3 is an enormous number as far as PM2.5 goes. For comparison, the EU yearly average limit value is 20 micrograms/m3 (0.020 mg/m3) for PM10 (which includes larger particles up to 10 microns). Typical PM2.5/PM10 ratios in the western world are around 0.5, i.e. we typically see twice as much PM10 as PM2.5. Using this (very crude) extrapolation, we can guess at 1.8mg/m3 of PM10 in Beijing at most, and 0.5 mg/m3 more typical. That's an order of magnitude or even two above the EU limit value.

Smoke measurements are before my time, so I'm not quite sure what exactly was measured there. AFAIK, smoke would have been everything, regardless of size. If that is the case, "smoke" would be more than PM10, because it would include even larger particles. In any case, the guesstimated 1.8 mg/m3 of PM10 in Beijing seen recently are in a similar ballpark as the 4.5 mg/m3 of smoke in London 1952. Since the London smog killed 4000 people over just a few days, one would expect to see something in the mortality rates and hospital admission rates of Beijing too - I just don't know whether these numbers are readily available or will be published at all...

When comparing such numbers it is also worth remembering that particles are not particles are not particles - there are harmless particles, bad particles, and very bad particles. The London particles may have been very bad (i.e. very toxic) - a 2003 study ( that looked at preserved lung tissue of 1952 smog victims found a lot of potentially bad particles (metals, in particular lead). I know nothing about the current particles in Beijing.

The Chinese figures are pretty awful.
The US Embassy in Beijing has measured PM2.5 concentration at 886 micrograms per cubic metre. Presumably the total particulate figure PM10s is higher than that.

In the London smog of 1952 the 'smoke' (particulate - before the days of specific particle sizes) concentration reached average daily values of 1500 micrograms per cubic metre as an average of 12 stations on 7th and 8th December, but it is reckoned that the four hours of densest smoke at the National Gallery it could have been as high as 14,000 micrograms per cubic metre. The highest daily average for one station was 4460 micrograms.

Its not just the smoke - its the sulphur dioxide as well.

And, if anything London pollution was actually at its worst in the days of Sherlock Holmes - the 1880s.

An excellent book on the history of London smogis Peter Brimblecombe's 'The Big Smoke'.

Now London air is pretty clean and on a clear day is possible to see the chimney of Grain power station from Hampstead Heath - a distance of 42 miles.

Most of the soot has been scrubbed off - there ought to be a 'listed' black building, just to remind people of what it used to be like.


The only definitive objective test is the duck test.

As a child in London in the late fifties and early sixties "pea-soupers" - severe winter coal-induced killer smogs - were a predictable winter feature. The smog really was pea green - dense, teeming with particulates. Routine was seriously disrupted (not necessarily a tragedy for a child, but definitely tragic for vulnerable adults). When it got really bad the buses stopped, and a nearby friend and I had to walk to and from school (several miles away). One afternoon on our return from school we were walking down an otherwise deserted road, with severely limited visibility, when we heard quacks in the pea soup somewhere in front of us. After a few paces we came across two confused mallard ducks. They couldn't navigate in the air any more, so they landed and decided to plod on until conditions improved.

Have OilDrummers based in China noticed ducks grounded by pea-soupers? If yes, it's time for a Chinese Clean Air Act.

I should add that I am not as sanguine as some regarding London's progress. Yes, the Clean Air Act was a fantastic piece of legislation, but London air is far from clean today. London is one of the few places that I visit in Europe and notice that my shirt collars after one day are covered in dirt - particulates.

In addition to particulates, the UK had a deplorable record on acid rain, caused by it's combustion practices, well into the Thatcher era. The then Norwegian Environment minister, Thorbjørn Berntsen famously described John Selwyn Gummer, his UK counterpart, as a "drittsekke" (= sack of human ordure). In addition to the acid rain that the UK was dumping on Scandinavia, he, like the Irish government, wasn't too happy about the residues of the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant washing up on distant shores.

Mr. Gummer subsequently underwent an apparent Damascene conversion and is now known as "Lord Deben", chairs the UK government's Committee on Climate Change, and continues to live in the style to which he has become accustomed:

"When questioned on why he owned three cars, including a seven seater 4x4, he responded that this was essential for his Suffolk constituency." (source:

On yer bike (milord) Gummer.

- Colin Moorcraft

Hi Colin,
I've still got a copy of your 1982 book 'Homes and Cities' on my bookshelf.

Colin (and BobE)
Thanks Colin for the Gummer nugget - so it goes!

Near here, power station combustion makes a comeback in the form of proposed wood-burning of up to one million tonnes of imported chip. The local population has to be one of the most vulnerable in the country with stats for cardiovascular health that lag well behind everywhere else in England. There is a UK authoritative report on medical effects of air pollution. I am a voluntary chair of a local Heart Support Group and am aware of the lethal danger of pollution episodes for the vulnerable.
Has anybody anything to add on episodic local pollution including fire risks from stored fuel?
Large-scale wood burning is only just getting going and I do not have too much data on quality and safety control.

LINK to report by the UK DH Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (2006)
LINK to more recent paper on critical effects from pollution
QUOTE from my submission

Controlling pollution from power stations is expensive and technically difficult, especially from coal and biomass fuelled combustion. Blyth and the immediate area has a history of exporting to the nation vast amounts of electricity, (1958 – 2001) from coal–fired power stations in return for an exceedingly modest share of national prosperity, and is still burdened by the legacy of multiple-cause bad health from a previous age. Toxic pollution of the North Sea from coal-ash barges was stopped in 1992 to meet international regulations. A possible final local pollution threat, the burning of foot & mouth carcasses, was proposed and then rejected in 2001 because 100,000 people lived within 3 miles (5 km) of the then still existing power station chimneys. The old power stations were closed when they became uneconomic.

Blyth and the other towns comprise one of the worst concentrations of post-industrial multiple deprivation in the country, with a vulnerable population having major health risks still well above national average. These are risks from chronic diseases instantly exacerbated by air pollution, alongside high cancer prevalence. Serious health risks are carried by a significant fraction of the population who have not had their individual risks diagnosed, and it follows there is widespread vulnerability to air pollution well above the national average. An Air Quality Management Area (AQMA) was established in 2004 in Blyth town centre to meet regulations and has only recently (2011) met these requirements. cont ...

Will the plant burn woodchips or torrified pellets?

Your guess is as good as mine. This is all I have. UK domestic wood resources could only meet a small (tiny?) fraction of the proposed fuel input. We need to import the majority of our wood to cover all uses as it is, I understand.

burning a mixture of biomass fuels. In a year the station would burn between 500,000 and 900,000 tonnes of woodchips, wood pellets, wood briquettes and recycled chipped wood.

Burning woodchips and recycled chipped wood, plus maybe some other debris that gets mixed in like plastics, is difficult to do cleanly and efficiently. Particularly if the piles will sit out in the rain. Just a guess but the pellets and briquettes may be used to increase the heat of combustion. In areas with cheap natural gas, biomass power plants will augment the wood chips with gas to keep the boiler temperature up and reduce pollution.

Biomass power plants aren't terribly efficient. With the pollution controls and material handling equipment they are only about 25% efficient. It would be more efficient and probably cheaper overall if the power was produced with natural gas and the wood put into pellets that could be burned fairly efficiently, ~75%, in pellet stoves in home and commercial heating applications. Pellet stoves and boilers aren't terribly expensive either.

An odd situation is apparently developing in the UK. I am reliably informed that because of a serious tightening of emission control (EU-wide Directive), particularly SOx and NOx, there will be only two coal-fired stations still working in the UK after 2015. Apparently one, DRAX is now importing very large amounts of biomass (co-firing?). It is not clear to me how biomass-fired power plants will meet emission quality control requirements.

The coal plant may be co-firing with torrified pellets. They can be ground and introduced into the boiler with the coal without changing the boilers operation. There are a few companies in the US looking at the European pellet market for exports.

Biomass power plants have been meeting the emission requirements in California for quite awhile. Particulates and NOx are the biggest issue. The emission control equipment is a fairly large parasitic load on the plant which reduces the overall efficiency. The difficult part of running a biomass power plant cleanly is keeping the boiler hot enough to insure complete combustion. In California some of the plants are essentially wood waste burners or incinerators that use almost as much natural gas as wood waste. Given the efficiency of a natural gas plant these biomass plants aren't producing any additional energy and essentially are just a means of diverting wood waste from landfills and reducing open burning of orchard prunings.

In your case, the higher quality pellets and briquettes as well as possibly higher quality dry hardwood chips would be used to keep the boiler operating efficiently. With the tonnage required for this plant maybe more trees can be planted in Scotland?

Thanks very much for the information.
My relevant info follows:

National Forest Inventory ... 2,982,000 hectares of woodland across England, Scotland and Wales, representing 13 per cent of Britain’s land area - a massive increase on the 5% tree cover we had when the Commission was formed some 90 years ealier.

From a recent discussion paper

... due to global pressures, the value of British timber sales has fallen by 40 per cent in just a few years.

From Wikipedia:

The UK does not produce enough timber to satisfy domestic demand, and the country has been a net importer of timber and paper for many years. In 2008 the country imported sawn and other wood to a value of £1,243 million and exported £98 million; imported £832 million of wood-based panels and exported £104 million; and imported paper and paper-based products to a value of £4,273 million and exported £1,590 million.

My understanding is that previous forest plantation over nearly 100 years (particularly upland Wales and Scotland) is in part 'stranded' for economic reasons. Much of the previous state Forestry Commission is sold-off or up for sale. We still need to import most of our timber/lumber. Given the time-scale for return on investment and the scale of biomass imports, domestic supply is barely relevant. Our resources for liquid biofuel are of course even smaller - ludicrously tiny where our maximum possible 'plowable area' works out at about one acre for every four persons.

Biomass and biofuel means imports - soon to be true for almost all our fossil fuel supplies as well, it seems.

Where your domestic supply is relevant is at the local level. The most cost effective and efficient use of wood energy is for local heating needs. A lot has already been done with developing standards for cord wood, wood chips and pellets in the UK. A few firms are importing German, Danish, Polish and other manufactures of wood chip and pellet boilers and furnaces. There are also some folks getting into the wood chip and pellet supply business which paves the way for homes and businesses to be converted to wood heat.

As an example, the Isle of Arran has a wood supply business that is harvesting and suppling wood chips and cord wood to local residents. While this is a drop in the bucket compared to the entire UK, it shows the potential and cost effectiveness of locally supplied wood products for heating. To the extent that more rural communities can be self sufficient with heating, it helps the entire UK.

With modern heating appliances, wood heating is actually fairly efficient and definitely more efficient than producing power. As oil becomes more expensive, I expect that energy sources will become more fungible and prices will tend to converge closer to the BTU value of a particular form of energy given its efficiency of conversion and use. With this in mind, I expect that burning wood for heat in rural areas where the supply is fairly close will always be more cost effective than producing power or biofuels. The implications of this is that rural residents should be able to outbid power plants and biofuel plants for wood and still save money versus a competing fossil fuel source of heat.

Thanks again.
Personally where we are we already intend to rely on what you have just said. Whether we might be more sustainable in other ways is more of a question.

Britain is the 9th largest island in the world, but it is still not very big. Canada, where it sources much of the wood chips it is burning, has two islands of its own which are bigger than Britain (Baffin and Victoria) and a few more which are not much smaller.

Burning wood chips for fuel is not a sustainable strategy for producing energy even in Canada, even though Canada is bigger than the entire EU and has not much more than half the population of Britain. Burning wood chips is just a useful method of getting rid of wood waste from its lumber industry, the majority of whose output goes into building houses in North America, Europe, and Asia. If lumber companies increase the wood chip production for fuel, it will cut into the lumber production for buildings. There are always trade-offs.

I personally have a wood burning fireplace, but then I have a forest behind my house to supply me with fuel. It takes about 5-10 acres of woodland to produce enough wood to heat a house on a sustainable basis, and most people don't have that - especially in Europe.

Canada's electricity production is 60% hydroelectric, 15% nuclear, and the rest a mixture of coal, natural gas, and wind power. Electricity production from wood chips is minuscule.

I knew that Canada was a significant exporter of power to the US, but I didn't realize it had quite that much hydro. That's enough to balance quite a lot of wind power, I should think - a 20% market share in Canada, as well as some in the US.

California biomass not so clean!
This has just been sent me – see blockquote from a report from February 2011.

Am also told that very unlikely for torrified pellets at proposed biomass plants in UK.
Apparently total of proposed biomass in UK could need around 60 - 90 million tons of wood feed, if implemented (pelletising needs that much wood to produce the required tonnage of pellets). That is one lot of atmospheric pollution, but produces less in the way of SO2 per tonne than the same tonne of coal, and maybe a way of converting and keeping open obsolete coal-fired power plants that would otherwise close under new regs.
That 90 million is a good deal more in tonnage than the coal we currently burn. (We import something well over 2/3 of the coal we burn.) And UK total wood production per year is only 10 million tonnes.

The whole UK biomass situation looks to be much worse than I thought. A lot of world forests going into the pelletiser!

California Biomass Plants Fined $835,000; Decree Cites Failure to Comply With Emissions Standards and Monitoring Requirements
Last week, two wood/agricultural waste biomass plants in California were hit with one of the largest air pollution fines in State history. Cont …

Other plants in California have received higher fines. It goes back to the problem of these plants being difficult and expensive to operate. The cost to produce electricity in a biomass plant is prohibitive compared with the low cost of natural gas which is why the plants in California, for the most part, aren't burning wood chips unless they are located at a sawmill. The other plants are burning agricultural waste that is delivered for free or very small fee and wood waste diverted from landfills that the plants can charge a tipping fee to accept. Some of the wood waste will also contain plastics that are supposed to be separated out if they exceed a certain threshold.

So, is the idea in the UK to import wood chips to produce pellets to feed the power plants? This would make the emissions issues easier to deal with as the plants should burn fairly hot and clean but sounds expensive. Wood chips are bulky and expensive to move, hate to think what the power plants will have to pay for delivered chips.

My recollection is that a portion of the woodchips will be sourced from Canada.

Some background information here:

Apparently we have hardly started with imported biomass in the UK - see future estimates in my reply above.

I am reliably informed about current sources:

So far, most imported pellets come from Canada and the southern US, some from the Baltic States, Russia and Portugal In Canada and the southern US, highly biodiverse forests, including old growth ones, are being clearcut to produce pellets for our [UK] power stations.

" that smogs are now only a historic curiosity."

Talk to the people of L.A., Salt Lake and Houston about that. We have about 600 coal fired power plants in the U.S., Texas wants to build 12 more of the old kind right away. We are still blowing up mountain tops, a legacy of the Bush group. We have a ways to go yet to improve.

LA is world's better than it was in 1962. I worked in a bank at 6th and Spring in downtown LA in 1962 and 1963. On really bad days you could see the smog inside the building and walking around downtown was "breathtaking".

A tad more complete accounting of who has supported mountaintop removal (MTR) over the years:

“Mountaintop removal has been practiced since the 1960s”. IOW during every R & D controlled presidency and congress. Since the beginning of MTR the D party has controlled the Senate 70% of the time and the House 75% of the time. MTR removal requires a permit from the US Corps of Engineers. The COE has continued to issue permits for the last 4 years during which the D party has controlled both the White House and Congress.

“On May 25, 2008, North Carolina State Representative Pricey Harrison introduced a bill to ban the use of mountaintop removal coal from coal fired power plants within North Carolina. This proposed legislation would have been the only legislation of its kind in the United States; however, the bill was defeated.” Defeated by the D’s in control.

The history seems very clear: both the D’s and R’s, including those currently in power, don’t seem to have a problem with MTR. The Baby Bush certainly has supported policies many here would disagree with. But with respect to MTR there’s abundant support from both sides of the aisle. The legacy of MTR goes far back before Baby Bush's daddy was in office. Trying to lay the responsibility on the R's only allows some cover for the equally responsible D's.

The difference is W allowed the mountain top people to just throw the rubble into the rivers.

So if the spoils were ending in the valleys the 30 years before or since W what were doing with it…launching it into space? LOL. You seem intent on giving the D’s a pass on MTR despite the fact that they could have banned it any time in the last 50 years… just as they could have done recently. Given how President Obama is so handy with executive orders he could do it now without congress. After all MTR requires the Corps of Engineers approval and they do work directly for the president. Of course if he did that it would be a tad inconsistent with his decision two years ago to have his EPA to issue a Clean Air Permit to a new coal-fired power plant in Texas. Coal that will be shipped for 30 years from Illinois to Texas.

No doubt there has been little will to make a final push against coal by either side of the aisle. The election cycle isn't very good at dealing with long term costs. But 'W' may well go down as the worst Republican since Grant. Likely your ex-gov will need all the 'passes' you can muster for him to be rated above Ullysses by and by, so keep up the good work.

However, major difference between W and Grant: Grant helped save the Union and ended a war.

A more importance difference: Grant could handle his liquor. LOL

I meant to type worst Republican president since Grant--quite subjective and likely neither he nor 'W' were as bad as some of the entirely ineffective guys to hold the office...all a matter of point of view.

No doubt the events of the 1860s in the US were extremely instrumental in shaping the world of today. Since I just finished reading Empire Express (1999) by Bain--very worthwhile read if you've the time--I' retell the finale here.

The Union Pacific and Central Pacific joined the tracks up the hill about forty miles out of Ogden, Utah May 10, 1869 (a shade over eight years after the Union surrender of Fort Sumter). Telegraph wires hooked to the spike and hammer triggered cannon fire over the Pacific and Atlantic (from San Francisco and NY City respectively) and triggered fire alarms in many US cities including Omaha and Chicago--where they signalled the start of a near spontaneous parade of tens of thousands that stretched a full seven miles long--as close to simultaneously as wire resistance allowed.

The event deserved the fanfare--despite the corruption, bad oversight, quick, shoddy, race and greed inspired construction that were part and parcel of the completed line. By November of the same year the Suez Canal would complete the steam powered girdle around the planet...

And much of that rushed track, had to be replaced within a year or two.

The stuff Union Pacific built on the snowand ice had to be replaced before they finished. The Central Pacific built to a higher standard in general but it had its sub standard spot or two. Still the whole thing was an amazing project--no doubt it could have been done with much less waste, theft and dirty dealing as could have the slew of transcontinental RRs built--or not built--its wake. Same can be said for the build-out and a whole lot of other major expansions in our history. Just our style I guess...

And much of that rushed track, had to be replaced within a year or two.

Rock - thanks for this. Action speaks louder than words, or at least, if most people are unaware of the action, it gives those who are aware a better idea of what someone in government is really about.
I think that there is probably nothing better that can be done hear in the US than a clear exposition of facts, a focus on truth and transparency in business and government. Much work to be done in this regard in the media, government etc. to bring clear info to the public - Democracy does not work correctly when the electorate does not possess accurate info (well, some would say it works best that way, I say only if we think what we have now is the best).
Much work left to be done - where it counts, both parties act nearly the same, they take the same money and stop real campaign finance reform or banking reform in its tracks. Republocrats all.

Seagatherer – I think I tend to confuse folks sometimes. Yes I’m an oil patch conservative. No I’m not a Republican even though I register as one in Texas. For the same reason I register as Democrat when I live in La. In both states it’s all about the primaries. In my lifetime I don’t think we’ve had a good leader in the Whitehouse with the possible exception of Carter. But his inability to get things done brings even him down a few notches IMHO.

I have no problem drilling anywhere in the US as long as companies follow the regs. But I also think some states, like PA and KY have, poor regs that should be brought up to at least the level in Texas/La. Folks should be able to sue the crap out of oil companies that mess up their land. Landowners that file frivolous lawsuits as well as damage their own lands in an attempt to defraud oil companies should get the crap sued out of them. I enjoy what I do for a living because I’m good at it and the country needs it. And at the same time it pisses me off to see how we waste energy even though doing so occasionally provides me with a good living. I rarely think about our oil imports without having a quick mental image of shiny metal boxes coming into Dover. That also really pisses me off.

I understood AGW and PO long before folks started using those acronyms. Studying earth history and geology made both rather easy to absorb. And I don’t think the public believes in bad policies or votes for poor political leaders because someone dupes them into it. They make the choices they do out of pure self-interest. Which is why I don’t think any plan to affect our environmental or energy path will do much good if it doesn’t provide an incentive to satisfy the self-interest of the public. The self-interest they see for themselves in the immediate future…not what most TODster see. Which explains why I see little chance of us coming up with any meaningful changes that will happen fast enough to make much difference. And I see no major VOLUNTARY course change regardless of who controls the Congress or Whitehoue.

My partner just came back to Canada from 15 years in Los Angeles. Her standard line about LA smog is that they try to maintain that myth to keep too many people from moving there. She moved there largely to get away from the allergens in the Northeast, and never had a spot of trouble with her asthma or inhalant allergies for a decade and a half. Now she's back on this side of the continent and the air quality is the main thing she misses about LA - well, that and Trader Joe's...

I went down there for a couple of weeks in 2010 (April and again in June) and LA had some of the best air I've ever breathed.

Regulations work for particulates and SO2. Not so much for CO2, though....

I live near the confluence of three freeways in the Los Angeles area, about 15 miles inland. I spend a lot of time indoors with my air cleaners running full tilt. Although the air quality has certainly improved in the last few decades, I find I get headaches outdoors. And the ozone level seems to cause dry eyes, mouth, etc. I can never seem to drink enough water. To be fair, I also suffer from hayfever, and there's plenty of pollen, etc. nearly year 'round here too.

So I find it amusing anyone would come to S. Cali for the air quality. Perhaps if you can afford to live by the sea, the only place I feel like I can take deep breaths safely! :]

She moved there largely to get away from the allergens in the Northeast, and never had a spot of trouble with her asthma or inhalant allergies for a decade and a half.

The allergens can make life near unbearable. When in my twenties I moved to the "Great North Woods." In spring early summer, when sleep became near impossible because I could barely exhale, I had the 'good fortune' of choosing a $5/visit doctor located on the south shore of Lake Superior . After a month or two of his asking me whether or not I had asthma (I'd never been told I had asthma as it hadn't been an issue in Chicago) I finally had a bad enough attack when with some friends that they drug me to the hospital where the doctor saw me and said "I asked you if you had asthma." I could have killed him if I had the strength--I was seeing him to find out what was wrong with me, if I'd have known I would have just asked for the meds I needed!!!!

Ends up I was allergic to golden rod and my house was in the midst of a yellow sea of it. Moved out west and the problem went away. Life under the ponderosa pines was therapeutic--if I recall they produce ozone which was supposed to be helpful--read that decades ago so won't bet on it.

Now I live in the far north and my little city suffers from air quality issues No doubt inversions trapping combustion gasses create breathing issues for many, though for me nothing like the golden rod sea did. I can tell that higher oil prices affect air quality as more wood and coal is burned to heat homes. Fortunately power plants are the big coal users, their emissions are regulated and their stacks are tall. But when the temps at the bottom persist in the minus 35-55º F range the inversion is so powerful that their steam stream, held together like a pipe by the dense cold air, can bend over and flow along the inversion boundary for days on end. I can't imagine how bad the air would be if everyone was burning dirty coal in their choked down stoves and the power plants were spewing 19th century quality smoke on top of it.

Some of you have forgotten:

China, the world’s biggest user and producer of coal, will limit domestic output and consumption of the commodity in the five years through 2015 to reduce pollution and curb reliance on the fuel.

Production and demand will be restricted to about 3.9 billion metric tons a year by 2015, according to a five-year plan for the coal industry released by the National Energy Administration at a briefing in Beijing today.

I'd also like to see an update of Rutledge's depletion analysis, and place this 'voluntary' limitation in that context - with the final tell being the import rates and total coal consumption which has already reached the limits set forth for the end of the new five year plan.

Hi energyecon,

I am afraid my work does not help much with a peak. My paper at

only makes projections for long term production, giving a range of 107-201Gt for China. This would include the current cumulative production of 59Gt.

The timing of the peak year in mature coal regions has varied from 43% of the eventual long-term production for the UK to 73% for France and Belgium. With these two ranges, there is not much definite that I would want to say about the timing of a peak for China.

Well if I look at the graph of Chinese consumption there is no sign of it starting to bend, and it already reached 3.8billion in 2011. I'll believe they level off, when we see it in the data.

"Some of you have forgotten" how many times a govt's plan has been abandoned when it suited the govt to do so. BTW this year I do plan to lose that extra 30# I've carrying around. Same plan I've had for about 30 years.

I traveled with bridge players in China during the Fall of 2006. Pollution in Beijing was noticeable but relatively mild that week. Xian was worse. Some locals were wearing masks. Illegal burning of agricultural wastes was said to be a problem. Coal barges were common on the Yangtze. Arriving in Chongqing in the AM the pollution was so bad that the sun resembled a full moon.. Greater Chongqing is said to have a population of more than 35 million. It is hot. One sees many air conditioning in the windows of 50 story apartments.
-A few years back the business reporter Maria Bartiroma took her first business trip to Beijing. When she returned all she could talk about was the air pollution.

There are some other troubling aspects of China's booming coal use. One is that for Kyoto Protocol purposes China is still regarded as a 'developing' country. While burning half the world's coal? That status enables China to supply 730 million tonnes annually of cheap carbon credits to countries like Europe. Some believe these Clean Development Mechanism offsets are misguided and have a perverse effect. Google CDM. If for example the credit is the result of using slightly cleaner but still high emitting technology in China it increases global emissions while getting Europe off the hook. Some regard CDM offsets as government approved fraud.

I'm gobsmacked by the breathtaking hypocrisy of countries like the USA and Australia in exporting increasing amounts of coal to China while pretending to care about AGW. In Australia's case there is the nontrivial domestic carbon tax of $23 per tonne of CO2e. Thousands of struggling families face disconnection because electricity bills have gone up. Yet China and India can get all the coal they want from the same mines but will never face serious carbon penalties.

In fact a whole new coal province, the Galilee Basin of Queensland is being developed to supply China and India. Meanwhile the theory seems to be in both the USA and Australia that wind, solar and gas will see coal stations shut down at home. If low carbon is the way ahead for us why not for China?

In my opinion China has to lose half or 5 billion tonnes of emissions ASAP. The quickest way would be to put a punitive tariff of say 20% on goods imported from China. When they reach the emissions target the tariff gets lifted. After all a lot of this burning is to make stuff for the West. We have to share some of the pain by paying more for goods.

Actually, the U.S. does not even pretend to care about global warming as one of its major political parties still refuses to recognize its existence or, if they do, does not believe that man has anything to do with it.

I agree that the U.S. should impose a hefty duty on goods from China that are tied to carbon emissions. In that sense, we would be sharing in the sacrifice. However, I don't think that is appropriate until the U.S. is on a clear mandated path to 50% reduction by 2030.

One possible impediment to duties on carbon emissions might be the rules of the World Trade Organization.

I would be interested. How much does electricity cost in Australia and how much has it gone up. If this is truly onerous, some provision should be made for some minimum level of electricity. Calfornia has incredibly high electricity prices at the highest tier but if one can manage to stay within the first tier,it remains affordable. The more you use, the more you pay per KwH. That makes sense as it rewards low users and encourages solar PV because you can lower your tier by using PV.

Your post reinforces my belief that it is not sufficient to have cap and trade or taxes on carbon within one country. To have a real impact in places like Australia, one must simply prohibit the mining of coal. Australia wants it both ways and you are right. They are pretending to care about global warming.

Its politically difficult not to have it both ways. In the US domestic coal consumption is on the way out, due largely to natural gas. But the political forces associated with coal, including miners in coal states have to be mollified, so much of the coal we aren't burning ourselves is exported.

In California, we do frequently have subsidized CFL sales, and programs to help poor people cut bills, at least we are trying. I know a few poor people had PV system installed at state expense -but I expect it was only a handful of houses.

There is plenty that can be dome to mitigate effects of mitigation policy on the lower classes. But the effects of the poor are always trotted as as a means to continue BAU.

Natural gas will eventually put us in the same place as coal, climate wise. That place is over the edge. It is a carbon based fuel. It will just take a while longer. In the long term,ie geologic time, the difference for climate is inconsequential. Gas can only make a difference if there is a real and dramatic attempt worldwide to leave carbon based fuels - there is, apparently, enough of it in the ground to serve as a bridge to a carbon free economy. But we, especially in the US, do not have a government that is able to take the steps needed. There is a fundamental flaw in how we as a species govern ourselves - no need to go into detail - everyone who has an understanding of how government works understands part of both the good and the bad.
I think we will likely burn until we are forced to stop by processes that are outside of our control - same end result whether it is oil, gas, coal, biomass. I don't want to be an energy bigot. This is not necessarily how it will play out, it's just my take on government and human nature. We certainly have the available energy to avoid this fate, but until we as a species are able to separate truth from convenient fiction (and we certainly won't be able do do that without widely available good education and a media that can be held responsible for accuracy of the info it disseminates), we will not avoid a harsh reset of our relationship with that which provides for our well being.
Gas does not even produce the particulates that help reduce climate forcing in the short term.
"Clean gas" is another cultural fiction, a way to avoid the truth that will slap us silly given time. I wonder how many people in the general public think if we replace all coal with gas it would solve most of the carbon problem, when all it would do is slow down the accumulation of atmospheric CO2 and give us a bit more time to adapt before methane from thawing clathrates and tundra forces climate to an alternative stable state, whatever that may be.

It isn't entirely inconsequential. Not every pound of additional carbon humanity adds to the environment actually ends up in the atmosphere. By chasing gross carbon reductions, we at least slow the process and open up the possibility that a larger percentage of our emissions can be captured by natural sinks.

Scientists are aware of this "missing" carbon. They cannot account for about 15 to 30 percent of anthropogenic carbon emissions amounting to about 1 or 2 gigatons of carbon. The assumption is that land vegetation absorbs it, but nobody is sure where, how much, and for how long.

Still, carbon was sequestered in the form of fossil fuels in the past and, while more recently evolved lifeforms such as lignin-eating fungi make it unlikely some forms of fossil fuels, like coal, will ever be replaced on this world once we consume them, this doesn't rule out the numerous other biological, chemical, and geological processes that allow for carbon to be sequestered in the Earth in some form. Indeed, prior to human industrialization, the general trend for carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere was, for millions of years, to decline in overall concentration. This suggests that there is some mechanism that slowly and naturally removes this carbon from circulation.

It stands to reason, then, that we've got a pretty good chance of being able to emit that 1 or 2 "missing" gigatons of carbon without causing lasting ecological or climatological damage. Ergo, to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations, we need only reduce emissions to around that threshold. If we were to reduce further, the balance would naturally reduce carbon concentrations in the planet's atmosphere.

It is of consequence, as a 70% to 85% reduction is much more salable, and more technically feasible, then trying to reduce emissions to zero.

Brown you sound like an AGW denier and probably are.
The oceans are the main "carbon sink". They are getting warmer and less able to absorb CO2. Just one of many positive feedbacks. We have far, far less forests and jungles than even fifty years ago and humans have been deforesting for thousands of years.

It stands to reason, then, that we've got a pretty good chance of being able to emit that 1 or 2 "missing" gigatons of carbon without causing lasting ecological or climatological damage. Ergo, to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations, we need only reduce emissions to around that threshold. If we were to reduce further, the balance would naturally reduce carbon concentrations in the planet's atmosphere.

I haven't any idea here as to what you are talking about. "without causing lasting ecological or climatological damage".
That sentence says everything about you.

I don't think hes so far of. It is entirely possible (assuming the sinks don't go away), that cutting total global emissions to that level might stabilize atmospheric CO2. Note this is a smallish fraction of present emissions. So the question then becomes, do we gotta cut emissions by 85% or 100%. He is not saying, well nature will eventually reabsorb the stuff full speed ahead BAU.

I suspect we will engage in some amount of carbon sequestration type geo-engineering (bio-char, enhanced rock weathering, re forestation, etc)., so it seems there would be a good chance we could engineer the planet to reabsorb CO2 at say 10-20% of the current emissions rate. That would reduce the longterm warm spell we are causing (from several thousands to several hundred years). Not a reason to be complacent, but research worth doing anyway, our grandkids (and their great-great-great grandkids may be implementing this program).

As noted, the oceans are serving as a massive carbon sink; without that sink, our current atmospheric level of 394.28 PPM ( could be well over 500PPM. One price is ocean acidification: ocean pH has decreased from 8 to 7.9, about 30%. This increase in acidity already affects pteropods and other organisms by impacting skeletal structure growth; e.g., expected increased acidification levels will impact krill due to nonuniform acidification layering and the krill lifecycle ( Most aquatic life forms with calcareous body parts/structure (coral, oysters, etc.)will be negatively impacted, as already noted in the Pacific Northwest ( The entire oceanic ecosystem could sustain extreme damage not seen since the PETM. ( So much for not "..causing lasting ecological or climatological damage."

Tom – Not disputing his science but: 394.28 ppm…LOL.

He must be an engineer. Question: 2 + 2 = ?

Lawyer – What do you want it to be?
Hooker – How much do you want to pay?
Engineer – 4.0000

And geologist: somewhere between 3 and 5

..and that's after rounding up ;-)

BTW, for comparison atmospheric CO2 ranged from 200-280 PPM for 400K years prior to Industrial Revolution (ice core data)

As an engineer (as probably many here are), I take a bit of umbrage to that. Of course, I will admit that 90-some-odd % of engineers either don't really understand or can't be bothered with significant digits; however, it's the other 10% that really get stuff done.

In any case, I agree that 394.28 ppm is ridiculous, particularly since it varies by +/- several percent from summer to winter. If one said 394, that's probably still too precise; rounding it off to the nearest 5 (395) would probably be about right, but then some would complain that it's not there yet. All things considered, I would call it 390+ ppm; when it averaged at least 402 (probably in 4.0000 +/- 1 years ;-), then I'd call it 400+.

But, then having been trained as a scientist 394.28(+/-)4.5 is a lot better than 395.

alto - Geologists have it easier than engineers. We are considered a descriptive rather than hard science. Thus we have different and simpler units. The is a SL (sh*t load), a RBSL (really big sh*t load) and, of course, the RBUSL (really big unbeleivable sh*t load). And if it doesn't fall into one of those categories it ain't worth mentioning.

same end result whether it is oil, gas, coal, biomass

Not sure biomass quite fits in that group since it decomposes and much of the carbon does end up back in the atmosphere in the short cycle. Not sure how that breaks down for various forest types, crop stubble etc.

In warm moist areas it decomposes, in dryer climates it just sits until it eventually burns.

Biomass in and of itself does not add sequestered carbon to the carbon cycle. However, burning biomass at a scale sufficient to make a difference in a world of increasing economic and geologic limits to fossil fuel extraction is also sufficient to largely negate the most obvious way to sequester the CO2 that is already in the atmosphere, which is to let forest biomass increase as quickly as possible. It represents a lost opportunity to let the regeneration of forests scrub some of the CO2 out and perhaps slow change down. Biomass appears to be a good choice on the individual level so long as deforestation is avoided, but on an industrial level, in the short term,I think it will net out the same as fossil fuels - if you are near a tipping point, the physics do not care where the last 3 PPM come from.
Biomass can be used from a commercial forest for it's hydrogen content, I would assume, and the carbon, roughly in form of charcoal, could be largely permanently sequestered, while the forest can continue growing, pulling carbon out of circulation, for something that I imagine is probably closer to cost - effectiveness than any other carbon scrubbing scheme (other than simply allowing land to revert to forest) that I have heard of. But no one will do that when a buck can be made burning everything, like at the woodchip powerplant 5 miles from my home. This is the sort of thing that would need government support.

Long term your golden when you don't add fossil carbon to the carbon cycle in a world that doesn't already have either too much CO2 or darn close to it. We don't live in that world though.

Some folks are making a buck selling charcoal which is a better deal than most of the woodchip powerplants that aren't making any money.

Its not at all clear biomass harvesting can/will be done in a manner that is long term sustainable (the soil won't slowly degrade, including the soil carbon). Biomass, plus Co2 sequestration would be one form of CO2 negative geo-engineering we may contemplate doing in the future.

No argument with your main points but I'm not quite following you here,

Biomass can be used from a commercial forest for it's hydrogen content, I would assume, and the carbon, roughly in form of charcoal, could be largely permanently sequestered, while the forest can continue growing, pulling carbon out of circulation, for something that I imagine is probably closer to cost - effectiveness than any other carbon scrubbing scheme

are you talking producing hydrogen fuel from trees, burying the carbon while harvesting the wood in sustained yield fashion? First I've heard of such a plan.

I'm not sure how crop stubble etc work out, that will be returning to the air in most circumstances - virtually all biomass around here is ground wood that would need to be left alone for another 225 years or so to be considered old growth.

Household electricity prices have roughly doubled in Australia 2002-2012
More of those price rises came from network charges than carbon tax. Until the recent heatwave and high aircon demand cynics called the network charge increases 'gold plating'.

Tiered pricing doesn't appear to be used as much in Australia as the US. I have a single rate 24/7 in Tasmania. In Adelaide residential day rates are as high as 34c per kwh. I agree with the idea of cut price basic allowances. That could restrict utility company profits so is likely to be lobbied against.

Yes the problem of carbon tariffs is let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Even if the US and Australia stopped coal exports Chindia could go to Africa or Indonesia for coal supplies. That won't change until depletion or the West makes it unrewarding. It's a tough call but right now everything else (like domestic carbon taxes) seems inadequate.

I think the comments above are naive about how bad the smog in China really is.

I live on Jeju Island in South Korea.
The Chinese mainland is only a few hundred kilometres away.
The Smog blew over us for a few hours on Jan 13th.
It is unpleasant indeed. - high levels of arsenic, lead and selenium.

For a current map of the pollution see

I looked for a report with the number
of deaths caused by air pollution in China. The WHO estimate for 2007 is
656,000. Pollution this year is worse.

12,000 deaths out of 50,000,000 in UK in 1952 =.024% (one in four thousand)
656,000 deaths out of 1,200,000,00 in China in 2007 = 0.054% (one in two thousand)

Any rational risk assessment clearly shows that the supposed risks of nuclear are trivial compared to the benefits.
Actual confirmed deaths from all civil nuclear are of the order of 100 or so - and that is since the second world war.

It is mindblowing that this is supposed to be 'risky' compared to the annual slaughter from fossil fuel use, let alone the possibility of climate change causing mega-deaths.

By around 2020 however it is plain that the Chinese are likely to have mass production capabilities for nuclear reactors, including the modular pebble bed reactor.

No doubt we will still have endless coverage of the supposed risks of deployment, in spite of the new designs such as this, the ESBWR and others being enormously safer than the older designs which actually killed such a tiny fraction of the annual casualties from fossil fuels.

Stupendous invention will also be placed into generating large numbers of hypothetical long term deaths, although of course calculated on the same basis all the 'goodies' in coal etc like arsenic and mercury would if anything increase not reduce the discrepancy.

The anti-nuclear movement is roughly as soundly science based as the Children's Crusade.

Speaking of Children, nuclear power economics work passably well as long as you discount the long term maintenance contract we (China included) are imposing on our Children.

Put that burden back in your equation and renewables, even the more expensive PV, win hands down.

Speaking of Science, many (including yours truly) will find your dismissal of nuclear consequences to be naive at best.

Nuclear, like coal, is strictly optional, given our choices today. I opt out of both.

Ten years ago, there were ~30,000 workers in nuclear and renewables in Germany. Today there are fewer in nuclear and 300,000 working in renewables. Claims of jobs threatened by cutting coal or nuclear therefore hold no weight.

Germany is able to buy power from France. That is where the most of the nuclear workers are now.

The Chinese are working on a thorium reactor. With fast breeders, we can have more than 100 years of energy without mining more uranium. With thorium the world can have 1000 years of energy without CO2, sulfur, mercury nor mountains of coal ash.

The term "sustainable" implies longer than 100 years... Or even 1000. The USA (as of July 4th last year) is 236 years old. Are you suggesting we fold our tent as a nation after your scheme runs out?

We can start now on a sustainable path with renewables or we can bequeath a legacy of nuclear waste on many generations of our descendants.

We have passed a cooked and ravaged planet on to our children. Shall we also further handicap our children with the nuclear option?

Dave- nuclear is a direct competitor for coal - and there is a lot of coal money in Washington, and no shortage of the suckers that take it.
This link to an article in The Nation describes the financial links between The Sierra Club, Conservation International,NWF (which I used to regularly give to), The Nature Conservancy (which I used to regularly give to), etc and Shell, BP etc. It is an excellent article and an example of the good that journalism is capable of. Many I think will refuse to investigate the corruption that money has brought to many NGO's in our environmental movement.
When the fossil fuels are all burned, we will go nuclear where there is need for industry and no hydro available, by then it will be for our survival. Until then it is only common sense for the energy industry, worldwide, to quietly feed the anti nuclear fear to the. Even Russia, who is far ahead of the US in lead bismuth reactors (and successfully used them in their most advanced subs) will not be producing the modular reactors we need for a real stab at preventing climate disaster while it is so dependent upon gas sales to Europe. It will not compete with itself. China is another matter though, maybe there is a chance. We badly need the technology. It is in my opinion capable of replacing coal for both electricity and process heat, and in a time frame relevant to the climate crisis. That is it's danger to the fossil energy stakeholders. Hence the support to the antinuke industry.

Not so fast, nuclear enthusiasts. There's a flag on the play.

Nuclear Power and the French energy transition: It's the economics, stupid!

The praise of nuclear power in France has been delivered by foxes watching the hen-house. The financial condition of EDF and Areva bring into question the economics of the nuclear option, even before considering the inability of the sector to mobilize in time to replace France's aging nuclear fleet.

Deep efficiency measures and renewables represent a much more plausible response on all counts – GHG emissions, capital and operating cost, scalability, timing, employment... except politics. In France the political will for nuclear is capsizing as the citizenry has wisened up to the shenanigans behind the scenes.

We could take a lesson from the French and save billions if not trillions.

China Fog Masks Factory Fire

A factory fire in eastern China raged out of control unnoticed for hours Monday, after local residents were unable to distinguish the smoke from the dense smog that has filled the region.

The official Xinhua news agency says the furniture factory in Zheijiang province burned for nearly three hours before residents noticed the blaze. It took 10 hours to extinguish the flames, which destroyed a large amount of furniture.

Stephen Colbert remarked on this on one of his shows something to the effect of the Chinese noticing the fire because of "plumes of clean air billowing into the sky from the fire."

From some of the pictures I actually wouldn't be surprised to find that the air coming out of new-car tailpipes was cleaner than the air going in - do Chinese cars even have catalytic converters?

With the recent revelations about the effect of lead on violent crime is China creating a time bomb of violent crime?

Lead in gasoline did not cause the huge spike in crime in the 80s, the crack epidemic did. Motherjones is nonsensical. The lead idea is old and has been trotted out before.


The idea of stopping coal mining altogether is best, but unlikely in both Australia and the US. An alternative is to apply carbon taxes to all coal both domestically used and exported (this may also be unlikely, but the likelihood is higher than the first option.)

Some would argue that China and India will just get their coal from other places (Indonesia and South Africa), but before long the supply may be inadequate and China and India may begin to move more aggressively to renewable power.


Aussies All:

Well, America is not exactly leading the way on far-sighted climate policy, but somehow I thought
those of you under the Southern Cross would be putting 2 and 2 together, or at least talking about
their union.

It's my understanding, could be wrong, that Australia has been clearly visited by AGW and that its future
in a warming world doesn't look that great.

Thus, one might expect that there would be some discussion of limiting coal exports, even if you go
ahead with the LNG exports.

Not casting stones, just looking for a glimmer of smarts in a world of dumb.

Coal exports seem to touch a raw nerve in Australia. It comes up in public discussion every day somewhere. The trouble is that it has helped keep Australia out of recession for a record time. Then again we had record temperatures last month. Recall when GWB said the Katrina cleanup people did a heckuva good job. Well Prime Minister Gillard recently said something similar to coal exporters. They have been repeatedly told their future is rosy.

I'm not sure east coast LNG exports will go so smoothly with a lot of heavy hitters saying we should save gas for later. Both LNG ships and coal carriers will scrape perilously close to the Great Barrier Reef with a major accident sure to happen. On the other hand Gillard could lose the September election to a climate change denier who may try to dismantle the carbon tax. No biggie as it's almost irrelevant.

Good article here

Australia can export their coal then build thorium reactors. They have enough thorium for hundreds of years with no emissions. That is better than Australia AND China BOTH burning coal.

I fear the rationalising by our Australian cousins goes like this: The Chinese burn the coal so the emissions are theirs. Nothing to see here, we aren't responsible.

Followed by; if we don't sell it to them someone else will, etc.

Not quite on the page with the global part of Global Warming, but there you have it. I understand. It's why I think it's better not to have the resource at all than the dilemma. Damn hard to leave it in the ground when there's a willing buyer.

Yet tragically very few are employed in the mining sector in Aus; enormous operations in inhospitable places with a high degree of automation. Mile long remote controlled coal trains across parched deserts. It's the tourism sector that keeps Queenlanders in jobs, but climate freakery is already threatening that. Oh and of course the high Aussie dollar (South PacificTexans of 21st century) caused by what, oh yeah, that'll be the mining and attendant financial services boom. Cute, ain't it? Be careful of what you wish for......

I think its the Karma theory of climate change. The bad Karma sticks to the consumers who burn the stuff, digging it up is karma free.

Too bad Ma Nature, doesn't follow the karma theory.

I fear the rationalising by our Australian cousins goes like this: The Chinese burn the coal so the emissions are theirs. Nothing to see here, we aren't responsible.

It may seem harsh, but its true enough (if we don't supply it someone else probably will).
I think there is arguably a case for a complementary carbon tax on imports into Australia from countries that don't have their own domestic carbon tax, but I don't see that getting anywhere anytime soon (particularly not in an election year).

BTW: before we sink the boot into China

Australia's top 5 Coal Export destinations are:

Japan: 115 Mt
China:  42 Mt
Korea:  41 Mt
India:  32 Mt
Taiwan: 26 Mt

A lot of the coal to Japan is metallurgical coal for steel making.

Tech Talk - Coal Power and Air Pollution

China can use thorium reactors to convert coal fired power plants. Steam turbines use heat, that is what reactors create. Thorium produces much less plutonium, which remains harmful for 100,000 years.

I suspect even China has wealthy people that own coal, and know how to bring it to market. They will do what is possible to sway a government to act to their benefit. They will try to make a benefit of coal to the individuals that together comprise the decision makers in their government. The question is whether the government of China can act in a fashion that benefits the people as a whole, whether it can withstand the quiet, often fully legal corruption that is money in politics. An open question.

Coal is cheap, humans are an expedient species. If it works, is available and cheap, we use it. Externalized costs like adverse health effects are not considered, but should be.

First I want to say that I am a long time lurker here and how much I have enjoyed and benefited from every post here. Co-incidentally I am now researching on Chinese energy investments at the University of Leeds and it is now a beautiful place. Having done politics and economics at Berkeley, I have learned so much here about the scientific side of energy policy. I told my professor/boss now about reading this site everyday during my interview and I am simply amazed by the level of co-incidence that is happening here, which motivated me to open an account and maybe start posting my stupid questions in the future.


Welcome Kingsley. As most here will tell you there are no stupid questions. Just rarely less than brilliant answers.

Chinese Academy of Science leader Mianheng Jiang showed a great slide of London/Beijing air pollution before/after coal burning. He led the effort for China to invest $350 million in developing the liquid fluoride reactor there. The slide is at 9:02 of this video,

The book THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal describes the technology, http://www.thoriumenergycheaperthancoal

And how many Thorium Reactors do we have working on a commercial scale?

Lets see--- hmmm- none.

A friend went to India 6 years back, working on Thorium, convinced this was less than 2 years away.
I'm still waiting.

The obvious answer is you have none until you build the first one. China will probably lead the way, then others may wonder why they are behind. It seems to work out that way for many things.

China is already working on the solution, just not fast enough ... Nuclear Power. The bunglers in Japan slowed things for a bit, but that is over. The ridiculous costs of Nuclear in the West are not being duplicated in China. Every project there (there are 28 reactors under construction) is on-time and on-budget. We once knew how to do this. France virtually eliminated fossil fuels from electricity generation in 20 years. Here is a comparison of what is happening today with construction of France's EPR reactor.

Finland: Olkiluoto 3 - First concrete Aug 2005, begin operation in 2016?

France: Flamanville 3 - First concrete in Dec 2007 begin operation in 2016

China: Taishan 1 - First concrete Oct 2009, begin operation in 2013

Heavy construction is really China's strength right now. No one else is even close. The Taishan power station is planned for 6 X 1.7 GWe EPR ... a 10GW station.

China is still in the process of building out the supply chain for reactor construction. This year they will begin construction of the prototype of the Chinese variant of Westinghouse's AP1000 (1150 MWe) an uprated version called the CAP1400 (1400 MWe). As a price of allowing Westinghouse to build 4 reactors they turned over 70,000 pages of documents on the AP1000 design. They will build a hundred of these. They are already working on a 1700 MWe variant.

China is also working on liquid-metal (sodium) fast breeders and high-T gas reactors, as well as molten salt reactors ... they are not leaving a stone unturned. In the immediate future though it will be Westinghouse-type pressurized water reactors that will be the bulk of the new build. I think the speed they build these, once they get rolling, is going to astonish the world.

When they are done their economy will leave ours in the dust. It will be their time.

China is going to learn the hard way about rapid climate change. The ice pack on the Tibetan Plateau is rapidly melting away, which means a dry future for China (and India, Indochina) and their formerly mighty rivers. They'd better hurry up and perfect that molten salt coolant for their new nukes, as cooling water could be hard to come by anywhere inland from the coast. Coastal nukes = tsunami sitting ducks, as Fukushima demonstrated, plus you can only install so many before the sea surface temperatures start affecting each other's plants. Globally, nukes are ticking time bombs because they depend upon a stable grid (and advanced, peaceful society) for cooling. Yet, grid failure is what is in store, thanks to fossil fuel depletion. See Richard Duncan (2006) and a new paper coming out this year. It's easy to predict that France will be in trouble soon, as they are already having grid power problems, plus climate change/drought effects on inland rivers and groundwaters, where they've scattered their nukes. Flash floods can also be an issue, thanks to climate change, e.g., those two Nebraska nukes in trouble on the Missouri River in the US "heartland" breadbasket. Once the French start losing nukes, they'll contaminate all the arable land in western Europe, plus send radioactive plumes across the Northern Hemisphere. Maybe China will get lucky because they're so far away.

Just thought an alternative view might be in order.

The ice pack on the Tibetan Plateau is rapidly melting away, which means a dry future for China (and India, Indochina) and their formerly mighty rivers

Not quite so cut and dried. Rainfall could increase on the windward slopes of the giant range. But since it is mostly a monsoon season thing that water will race down the hill in a big rush unless a well designed regional system of catchments moderates the flow. No doubt that even the windward region will miss the dry season time release from the glaciers. Of course China sits on the leeward side of that little ridge...

The only good news I've seen on that front: the IPCC's original report had faulty facts and it will take 150 rather than 50 years for the glaciers there to disappear...a little more time for us algae to fill the pond...some of which looks to be getting a little deeper.

I have just been to Antarctica [Ross Island] and the news from the ice core drillers there is not good. And anecdotally the old hands at the bar were all stunned by the balmy summer there currently.... Sorry this isn't hard data of kind that is favoured here but it really does look like the vast experiment we are running on the planet is well and truly underway. Fascinating, except we're inside it, not dispassionately watching from the lab!

The other take-away is that the changes are anomalous and it is very hard to model the likely outcomes, especially with regards to timing.

I came back feeling lucky to have seen what's there now and wondering just how long the human presence there will be maintained; hugely expensive business especially with regards to FF use. Rather than mining or drilling taking place down there, my pick is that these bases will be quietly abandoned as unaffordable luxuries sometime this century...? Peak Base? Way more inaccessible than the Arctic.

FYI, some travelogue and a bit of cross cultural analysis between two styles of engagement with this fascinating place here:

A despatch from the edge of Empire: Pax Americana as viewed from a friendly outpost on Hadrian's Wall....

I always wanted to see the place (but I wouldn't go as a tourist). Career didn't work out that way however. So congrats are in order.

Yeah, your observation would be dismisseddescribed as anecdotal. The thing about humans, is personal stories resonate with us, data analysis -you have to be a scientist to appreciate. The problem comes when one disagrees with another (which is the case with AGW), then popular will can prevent sensible action.

Fine blog page, quite the contrast between the stations. Curious about the precast concrete set into the permafrost for the wind turbines. Done some work on permafrost in these parts, we try to insulate away from it and sometimes even add passive radiator systems to keep the ground cold. Possibly not warm enough at Scott to be a problem or the permafrost is basically frozen rock with no real settlement concerns. The insulated sheathing panels are pretty much standard commercial fare in these parts. Structurally insulated panels are popular as well.

Worked around some of the McMurdo Toolik Field Station a bit north of the Brooks Range. Those seasonally migrating folks don't see much night time ever. Great people up there.

The simplest argument against nuclear is that it involves enormous costs exactly at a time when it is no longer producing any surplus - after a facility is retired from service, there are huge costs for proper decommissioning and disposal for many years after, and then significant costs for proper storage of wastes for thousands of years. During all of that time, the actual output of the facility has _already been spent_. While all these technologies leave uncovered costs after the fact, nuclear is by far the most extreme example. At least when you shut down a coal plant, it doesnt continue visiting _further_ damage- whatever damage was done during its operation, has been done. With nuclear, the damage only really gets started when the facility is at end of life. There is no way around this aspect of nuclear.. and it should be _the_ showstopper.

Moreover, we already know that future generations will be a lot less affluent and a lot less prepared to handle their charming inheritance from our nuclear (as well as all out other industrial) adventures. When we in the peak of our wealth and power can't even manage to get it right, how will an impoverished world a generation or two from now expect to fare?

our children and grandchildren will curse our names as they look over the ruins of our cities.

If nothing is spent on nuclear decommissioning I imagine something like this; bad people ride their bicycles way out of town and attack the 50 ton fuel casks with hacksaws. Those hacksaws will have been made in a solar furnace. Then with 'hot' material in their backpacks they ride back into town to wreak havoc. There can be no other way.

Maybe? Maybe shoddy construction will cause a catastrophe of such proportion that the results (politically and economically) might be unpredictable. Just like shoddy operating procedures by Tepco have caused an ongoing power crisis in Japan.

Well, I guess we'll just have to see how they do. As in, there ain't much we're gonna do about it anyway.

Nuclear looks to fade away in the West. I still think it has a lot of potential as a technology, but we sure haven't had a lot of luck with it lately, and I have my doubts there'll be much interest in developing the Gen IV reactors that would really be necessary to make it a reasonably safe, closed-loop system. Perhaps China will figure it out. Who knows? I'm a bit nervous that their idea of a good design is a knock-off of the AP1000. Gotta start somewhere, I guess.

In the meantime, back to wondering how the folks who built my house managed to do such a lousy job of insulating it, and what the best way will be to remedy this minor oversight on their part...

I love the idea of a full-screen infrared scanner for detecting air leaks, but they're kind've pricey.

Might be worth renting one.

Yeah, I'm thinking renting might be an option. I've been brow-beaten into sitting on our homeowners association. An onerous task, I'm sure, but it will probably give me access to some of the brighter members of our conservation community up here north of Chicago. I'm thinkin' one of them just might have such a device. ;)

It seems to me that infrared cameras ought to be a cheaper option, but I haven't had the time to research it.

I'd also like to see sensors designed to work with iPads...

I believe that the pollution in the air all around the world is a worse problem than we think it is. It is causing illness in our children and affecting our climate. We need to utilize the use of public transportation in order to reduce the output of pollution into our environment. If we cut back on car use and take the bus or train instead, we can stop the expulsion of up to 600 gallons of evaporated gasoline into the environment each year from a single car. We can also use more of our resources to look into alternate sources of energy, like solar, wind, and hydroelectricity.