Why don't we just stop burning coal?
Why don't we just stop burning coal?

Two reasons. In the short run we can't stop burning coal because of the capacity crisis. We have no capactiy to spare and most of what we have is coal-fired. So we have to burn coal to have electricity. In the long run, ten years or so, we could switch to other forms of energy. But they are all much more expensive -- that's why we burn so much coal; coal is cheap and cheap electricity is good for everybody. (See Fossil Fuels for more on the benefits of cheap coal.)

People get a lot of benefits from cheap electricity. The cheaper it is the more benefits they can afford. Look at the Cost Versus Use Charts. Where electricity is expensive people use a lot less of it. This means they can't afford a lot of the things cheap electricity provides.

Now look at the Coal Scenarios Chart below.

The first scenario is growth. We can let the use of coal grow with our economy, to keep us supplied with cheap electricity. This means building new coal-fired power plants.

The second scenario is to level off. Keep using our existing coal-fired generating capacity until it wears out, but use some other kind of energy from now on. The third scenario is to cut way back on burning coal for electricity. The Chart uses 50% as an example, but it could be more or less depending on how we decide to do it. This means either replacing a lot of our existing coal burning power plants with new, non-coal plants or switching them to another fuel, probably gas.

The fourth scenario is virtual elimination of coal burning. Again, the Chart uses a 90% reduction as an example, but it could be more or less. This is an extreme scenario, one that would require replacing o rfuel switching on almost half

of all the electric generating capacity in the country. And this would be on top of building the new capacity we desperately need to meet the crisis.

Replacing all our existing coal-fired capacity with new gas-fired plants would cost perhaps 150 billion dollars. If we built nuclear plants instead, it could cost as much as 1.5 trillion dollars. In addition, we still have to finish paying for the coal plants we have stopped using. To replace even a large fraction of our existing coal plants would simply mean the end of cheap electricity for a lot of people. Switching the coal plants to gas is less expensive, but gas costs about twice as much as coal. So the price of electricity would almost double. Again, the end of cheap electricity for a lot of people.

For details on alternatives to coal and their cost see:
Energy Information Administration: Analysis & Forecasting.

Four Coal Scenarios
It shows four ways we can go in our use of coal in the next ten years or so. Each of these ways, or scenarios, is advocated by some people for various reasons, including the possible effect of coal burning on the earth's climate. Since we have to start building a lot of new electric generating capacity right away, we have to decide now which scenario we want to follow.

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