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Coal's outspoken enemy and his uphill battle

NASA climate scientist James Hansen is anti-coal. And he states his case firmly wherever he goes.
Written by Harry Fuller, Contributor on

NASA climate scientist James Hansen is anti-coal. And he states his case firmly wherever he goes. He cites coal-burning as a major contributor to greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and a spur to global warming. Hansen was in Britain to testify on behalf of protestors there trying to stop further coal plant construction.

"If we were to have a moratorium on coal-fired power plants within the next few years, and then phase out the existing ones between 2010 and 2030, then CO2 would peak at something between 400 and 425 parts per million. That leaves a difficult problem, but one that you can solve."

China, of course, is the leader in coal plant construction. There are no reports of coal plant protests there. But there are signs of a coal production and delivery problem: China needs even more coal than it can dig and deliver. Problems range from a filled-up rail system to the Chinese government controls on electricity prices. Chinese power generators burning coal lose more money the more electricity they produce because coal prices are not controlled and have risen sharply in recent years. Electricity prices remain static because the regulators fear inflation. China's road from communism to free enterprise is not an easy one, it seems. Meanwhile, they burn lots of coal, though government officials are beginning to speak of conservation and alternative sources. I've blogged about the world's first solar billionaire, in China.

Hansen's hope: save, renew, go nuclear

Hansen: "The first thing we should do is focus on energy efficiency. The fact that utilities make more money by selling more energy is a big problem. We have to change those rules. Then there is renewable energy — in order to be able to fully exploit renewable energy, we need better electric grids. So those should be the first things, but I think that we also need to look at next-generation nuclear power."

Clean Coal?

In Germany they've just opened a privately owned "clean" coal plant that makes almost zero CO2 emissions. There were plans to build such a test plant in Mattoon, Illinois, but federal support has been withdrawn. So we shall wait and see how the German experiment turns out. The modest-sized German plant can produce electricity for about twenty thousand homes. It uses carbon capture and storage, putting the CO2 into porous rocks underground.

Meanwhile, Canada is planning to build an even larger clean coal plant in the next few years. With major coal reserves Canada has a great vested interest in finding ways to keep using coal to make electricity as long as they supply of coal lasts.

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