Wellinghoff, Adams, Obama; Is Hope Dangerous?

Just in time for ABC’s quote from environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. calling President Barack Obama an indentured servant of the coal industry (and Kennedy’s later retraction), comes the pronouncement from none other than the chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Jon Wellinghoff (who joined the FERC under Bush), that the U.S. may never need another coal plant. Or nuclear plant, Wellinghoff added, noting that the concept of baseload capacity (i.e., coal-fired power plants running 24.7) may become a thing of the past.

Wellinghoff seems to suggest that renewable energy can be used in a complimentary fashion; wind kicking in on cloudy days, solar taking up the load on calm days, biomass filling the interstices and technologically advanced energy storage systems balancing the load. Currently, the U.S. has more than 10 percent of its power mix in renewables – and that includes a whopping 6.6 percent in hydroelectric (January 2009). But throw in advanced energy efficiencies, demand-side management (DSM; think crowd control for delivery), and some truly revolutionary advances like molted salt technology, and one begins to see the possibilities.

Nuclear proponent Rod Adams’ ad hominem attack describes Wellinghoff as a “dangerous man”.  Wellinghoff, an energy law specialist on renewable energy, energy efficiency and distributed generation, seems more hopeful than dangerous, but perhaps this type of enthusiasm, however misguided, is what is needed to get us off our collective asses (or hobby horses) and moving toward a renewable but reliable energy future.

Wellinghoff’s optimism coincides nicely with an April assessment by the U.S. Department of Energy, which says that, at most, two new coal plants might be needed by 2025. This projection is presumably based on the fact that coal-fired generation fell by the largest amount, a full 5.5 percent, from January of 2008 to January of 2009. Coal is baseload generation in the U.S., taking up 48.9 percent of the mix.

Part of this is due, no doubt, to what the SET Energy website describes as “electricity emissions in freefall” as a consequence of the economic downturn. The downturn has seen energy production fall 2.3 percent between (January) 2008 and 2009. This, in spite of a 3 percent rise in residential energy consumption for January (a month during which average heating days were close to normal, so we can’t blame winter). In fact, residential energy consumption has been rising by 23 percent since 1998, largely due to electronics like computers and plasma TVs.

These rises are offset by a 10 percent decline in industrial production for the year, confirming economists’ worst fears. So the takeaway from Wellinghoff’s remark would seem to be that now is exactly the right time to push alternative energy as a larger part of the generation mix.

Environmentalists couldn’t agree more, but alternative energy proposals are often a Catch-22 with a strong NIMBY factor. RFK Jr. may be an environmentalist, but Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is blocking the Cape Wind project offshore of his Hyannis Port home, situated in the Kennedy Compound. 

In Canada, First Nations Cree and the Sierra Club both opposed the Rupert River diversion, which will send 2,000 megawatts of energy across the border to the northeastern U.S when completed. I sided with both groups; the Rupert River is an astonishingly beautiful ecosystem, but one has to ask, in the words of former USSR head Mikhail Gorbachev: “If not me, who? And if not now, when?” – a sentiment echoed by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who responded to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) objection to the Mojave Desert solar proposal by saying:  “If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don’t know where the hell we can put it.”

In Kansas, Governor Kathleen Sebelius just blocked two new coal-fired plants – the fourth coal bill she has rejected in two years. What tune will she sing when (or if) appointed as Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, since Obama has already expressed determination to see “clean” coal as part of the U.S. energy mix?

NIMBYism aside, I feel compelled to ask: what’s wrong with hope anyway? “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for?” Robert Browning observed more than a century ago. Though modernists might prefer Bucy’s Law; nothing is ever accomplished by a reasonable man.


minor nit: molted salt => molten salt

Here’s is a quote  from somebody, named later:

CCS also deserves R&D support. There is no such thing as clean coal at this time, and it is doubtful that we will ever be able to fully eliminate emissions of mercury, other heavy metals, and radioactive material in the mining and burning of coal. However, because of the enormous number of dirty coal-fired power plants in existence, the abundance of the fuel, and the fact that CCS technology could be used at biofuel-fired power plants to draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide, the technology deserves strong R&D support.”

Northern California uses almost no electricity from coal, and having grown up in Western Pennsylvania, and worked at the US Brueau of  Mines, I’d be happy to see coal go away.  (see Jeff Goodell’s book Big Coal).

However, I agree wholeheartedly with the above quote.

I really, really, really think you need to start distinguishing between:

1) Coal industry’s use of “clean coal” and mythical CCS as an excuse to keep on with business as usual, spending more money on lobbying and marketing than on R&D (I think, I’ve asked Kevin or Richard about that before).


2) Very thoughtful people, with strong climate change backgrounds, who understand that not every place in the world is California (or British Columbia), and if there are coal-dependent places where CCS can be made to work, it would really help, while we build improve efficiency, build better sustainables, and better grids, so we can eventually shut off the last coal plant.

For example, consider Stanford’s GCEP and look at the talks from 2008’s GCEP Symposium, of which several discuss CCS.  I attended that, I’ve  met some of these speakers then and other times, sicne I’m on campus once or twice a week.   From its President on down, Stanford puts serious resources into energy and climate issues.  They build very green buildings, use electric vehicles whenver possible, etc, etc. And yet, they think R&D on CCS is worth doing, because they look at energy sources and uses, and not just in California. Some places have a lot of hydro, sun, wind, geothermal, but some don’t, and telling the latter to just shut down all coal plants in their state tomorrow just doesn’t get very far.  Even with the best will in the world, it’s going to take a while.

Lord Ron Oxburgh is an old friend and very sharp guy. Among other things he used to head Imperial College (the UK’s ~M.I.T.). Later, while Chairman of Shell Oil, he said about climate change he was worried about the planet and he has said more about CCS

I know these folks understand the difference between doing R&D and saying “clean  cola, jsut aroudn the corner, so let us build a ready-for-CCS plant now.”

Sibelius (correctly) fought coal plants in Kansas, where the proposed coal plants were mostly going to feed Colorado anyway, and where wind resources are excellent.  Kansas is not, for example, Pennsylvania, where coal is ~40% of the power.  PA doesn’t have B.C.’s hydro, California’s solar/geothermal, or Kansas’ wind.  For wind, see: wind intensities in various places, by Cristina Archer @ Stanford. Western Kansas (where they keep trying to get coal plants) has some of the best on-shore wind in the US (see the yellow dots)

PA might put some turbines in Lake Erie, but otherwise, it has far less useful wind than Kansas, and it is lot better for a farmer to spend a few percent of their acreage on turbines than it is to cut down a lot of trees on hills in PA to build them. Hence, Sibelius’ views on US-as-whole can quite legitimately be different from those on Kansas.

And of course, there was the original quote:

That’s from James Hansen’s Letter to President Obama.  Read the whole thing for context of course, but I this is certainly what he says in person.  Do you think he is a coal-industry lover? I don’t.  I don’t think Stephen Chu is either.

PLEASE, start distinguishing between 1) and 2).  Doing otherwise is counterproductive and actually helps 1) …


On the whole, I tend to agree with your post. However, I didn’t feel the need to distinguish between coal and CSS, largely because I have word limitations and coal wasn’t really my focus. Nonethleless, an intelligent and worthy comment. Thank you for posting.