Energy Futures

A quick guide to alternative energy.

By now, you’ve heard it in a thousand political speeches—the shopping-list-style recitation of newfangled-sounding alternative energy sources and technologies. Clean coal! Solar and wind! Switch grass!

Yet few people take the trouble to examine the energy technology field as a whole, comparing a cross-section of future sources across the same set of objective criteria, especially price. The following is reason’s attempt to rectify this gap, giving consumer and policymaker alike a quick guide to alternative energy.

Supercritical pulverized coal
Pulverizing coal is the predominant method for generating electricity in the U.S. and around the world. In a pulverization plant, coal, after being ground to the texture of flour, is blown into a furnace to burn. This converts circulating water into steam, which turns the blades of a turbine to produce electricity. “Supercritical” units heat up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and make steam at 3,600 pounds per square inch.

Technology invented: The first coal-fired electric plant was Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street Station in lower Manhattan, which began operations in 1882. Pulverized coal plants began coming online in the 1920s.

Federal research dollars since 1976: $27.4 billion ($5 billion on pollution control) for all coal technologies (all monetary figures are in 2009 dollars)

Carbon emitted: 0.86 metric ton per megawatt-hour

Cost per plant without carbon capture: $2.8 billion

Estimated cost with carbon capture in 2025: $3.9 billion to $4.7 billion

Production cost of a kilowatt-hour without carbon capture: 6.5 cents

Estimated production cost of a kilowatt-hour with carbon capture in 2025: 8.5 cents to 10 cents

Waste: The U.S. burns about 1.1 billion tons of coal annually, producing 125 million tons of solid waste, consisting of fly ash (fine particles), bottom ash (sand-like particles), slag (glass-like crud), and flue sludge. A 1,000-megawatt plant typically will emit 2,500 tons each of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, plus around 700 tons of particulates. Eighty percent of coal-produced slag is used for sandblasting or as grit on roofing shingles; 40 percent of bottom ash is used as gravel substitute; 44 percent of fly ash is used as a Portland cement substitute, and flue gas scrubber residues are converted into synthetic gypsum wallboard. Other waste includes rock removed from surface and underground mines and water drained from mines.

Advantage: Domestic supplies are abundant, at over 275 billion tons.

Disadvantage: Produces excess waste and greenhouse gas.

Representative example: The $1.8 billion plant in Longview, West Virginia, will produce a maximum 700 megawatts by 2011.

“Clean coal”

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  • Shannon Love||

    This is a good article but it overlooks the most important cost factor. It doesn't matter how much it cost to generate a watt of electricity at the generation source, it only matters what it cost to receive a kilowatt of electricity at the point of consumption.

    A good example of this would the real world cost of electricity from a portable diesel generator. You could calculate how much the generator cost and the average cost of diesel but that wouldn't tell you how much a kilowatt would cost if the generator was located in the wilds of Alaska and all the diesel had to be flown in. Likewise, the cost of hydroelectric power has to include the cost of transmission from were geology dictates the dam has to be to the point of consumption.

    Since weather-dependent generation cannot produce power anything close to 24/7/365, the cost per kilowatt at the point of consumption has to include all cost of increased transmission, any energy storage systems and (far more realistically) the fossil fuel and nuclear plants that will always have to be running in the background to take up the slack with less than a half hour notice.

    Electricity is not a luxury and it is not something we can do without. A modern economy is basically just a system for using electricity to turn dirt into useful things. We have to have electricity when and where we need all the time. Weather-dependent generation cannot provide that and has such it remain a toy for the foreseeable future.

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