Coal Fold 2: One-Two Punch (Plus…)

I wrote previously that coal is just not that hot of a fuel.  Compared to natural gas, coal isn’t logical for electric generation, and getting less and less logical with time.  Meanwhile, solar power is getting cheaper every year, with grid parity on the way in a few short years (maybe one).  In some places, parity has already been reached.  Coal pushers still try to tell us that they’re the reliable, American energy.  The claim is that solar (like wind or other renewables) varies, and cannot keep power grids stable and consistent in the face of demand.  What they conveniently forget to tell you is: Coal isn’t too hot at that, either.

As solar prices keep crossing parity, along with the rest of the portfolio (gas, nuclear, hydro, wind, etc.), there will soon be no credible pitch for coal.  My advice: get out.  If you’re exposed to coal financially, sell.  If you’re actually looking at a coal seam, get out via the nearest exit ASAP, and find a new career.  Of course, nothing ever really goes away, as I’ve stated multiple times.  There’ll be a transition period, and even after that the grid will cling to legacy plants.  However, there is no coal growth on the horizon; it’s a matter of coal staying level or contracting, and at what contraction rate.

Electricity use varies through the day, and today’s grid does “load following” to match supply with demand.  In a few situations, usage ramps up strongly, and utilities call on “peaker plants” to fulfill demand.  It is thus desirable for generation to be throttleable, or in grid terms “dispatchable.”  This holds when you can’t find ways to smooth out usage (“peak shaving”), or store electricity on these large scales.  Coal lobbyists then claim they are dispatchable, but no, coal really isn’t. Continue reading

Coal? …Fold

For all the issues with gas via fracking, at least it’s not coal.  Whine all you want about some “war on coal,” it’s just a lesser fuel, from both a chemical and financial standpoint.  Natural gas has been displacing coal since the Eighties- oooh, that tree-hugging Reagan!- due to Wall Street hassles, not so much today’s environmental movement.  I’ll get to Wall Street, though.

People who do physics, and in particular thermodynamics, become familiar with condensed matter issues, separate from the rest of the field.  Solid-state physics (and to a lesser extent true liquids) have issues versus gases and plasmas.  Namely, their enthalpies of fusion, and of vaporization.  In street terms, it takes energy to melt a solid into a liquid, and still more energy to vaporize that liquid.  Lots of energy.

This matters because only gases burn.  Yup, hard for people on the street to understand, but coal itself does not burn; neither does wood or any other solid.  Liquids, neither (technically).  Condensed matter must be heated to produce volatiles; only then do those volatiles mix with oxygen and burn.  That volatilization energy isn’t free, of course- it had to come from the previously-burnt volatiles.  This is partly why campfires are hard to light.  Coal, wood, and other solids are like land animals, trying to tread water before they can even start paddling forward.  Gaseous fuels, though, are like fish, swimming because… they’re fish, and they swim rings around land animals without a thought. Continue reading