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Nothing can replace coal for baseload power needs

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Bob Cain is a resident of Lumberport. He is a freelance journalist and an operations steward for the Utility Workers Union of America.

Coal has been the fuel of America since the industrial revolution. It's been the source of jobs, power, industry and national security for well over a hundred years.  It's no stretch to say that coal is as American as apple pie. Yet coal is under attack as never before, despite current and emerging technologies that allow coal to burn cleaner than ever before.

The opposing forces of coal tout cheaper-than-ever natural gas. Environmentalists insist on a combination of renewable and conservation, while large utilities insist that there is a "nuclear revival" just around the next bend. Each of these philosophies has its flaws.

The natural gas market is what set electricity prices so high for years. Market volatility kept power prices in a constant flux. The shale gas revolution dropped the bottom out of the power market with promises of abundant and cheap supplies of this resource. Growing concerns over well fracking and the need to grow a supporting infrastructure is poised to reintroduce price volatility back into that sector. New regulations against fracking as well as other laws to govern an industry that seemed to spring into existence less than 10 years ago also threaten the long-term investment in natural gas.

Renewables are fun to talk about and theorize about, but you can't base civilized society's future on fanciful dreams no matter how entertaining they are or how much people wish it. Wave power, wind power, solar power and geothermal power are only a fraction closer to reality than is cold fusion. 

Stated simply, the electricity we use is not produced until we actually use it. It can't be stored in great quantities, so it has to be produced the moment the customer, whether it be industrial or residential, needs it.  This fact is what makes America's electrical grid the marvel it is. It balances out the supply and allows power to move to and from where it's needed when it's needed. All power stations have to do is raise or lower the capacity of their generators to keep the juice flowing at the right voltage and frequency to keep  the grid stable. This is called "dispatch." 

Renewable energy can never be constant enough to act as "base load" units of power. Renewable energy is not dispatchable. It can only augment existing base load units. Until there is a technology that allows us to store energy created by renewable sources of power and then put it on the grid at sufficient levels required, all the windmills and solar panels  in service don't mean much, except their existence warms the hearts of those uninformed but well-meaning protectors of all things green.

Then there's the nuclear revivalist, preaching the gospel of how safe, clean and environmentally sound nuclear power is. Trouble is, every time these fortune tellers start prognosticating about a bright, happy, wonderful future all powered by nuclear reactors, a nuclear power plant explodes.

"The China Syndrome," starring Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas, was hailed as a prophetic piece of work having been released only weeks before the Three Mile Island disaster (many thought it was based on events at Three Mile Island, but the timeline makes that assumption impossible). 

In all actuality, the movie may have been more inspired by events that occurred just outside of Athens, Ala., at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Station.  On March 22, 1975, a fire started when a worker using a candle to search for air leaks accidentally set a temporary cable seal on fire. The fire spread from the temporary seal into the foamed plastic, causing major damage to the control cables that put the No. 1 reactor in jeopardy of losing control.

Only recently have there been any new permits issued for new nuclear power plants to be built in the United States since the TMI accident in 1979. There was talk about a revival of nuclear energy just before Chernobyl, and a small revival was gaining steam just before the tsunami destroyed Fukushima. These factors add up to an aging U.S. nuclear fleet. 

One conveniently ignored fact about nuclear power is the billions if not trillions of dollars wasted on the financing of projects that never got off the ground. 

Marble Hill was to be a two-unit nuke plant in Indiana capable of producing over 2,000 megawatts of electric power. It was proposed in 1973 and terminated in 1984 after a cost of an estimated $2.8 billion. 

Bellafonte was another plant proposed in Alabama by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1974. Construction was halted in 1988, after 14 years and $6 billion dollars invested. TVA partially defunded construction to finish a second unit that had also been halted decades ago at its Watts Bar facility.

One of the most glaring examples on the failure of nuclear power in this country is the Shoreham plant on Long Island. The project was announced in 1965 as a 540MW unit to be online by 1973 and cost $65 million to $75 million dollars. Plans changed in 1968 when it was announced the unit was being changed to an 820MW unit, and the price tripled to $217 million dollars. Construction finally began in 1973 and completed amid huge anti-nuclear protests that grew out of the TMI accident. Shoreham was finally finished in 1984, but was never put in service. 

There are other examples across the nation, from Washington State's SATSOP project to TVA's Hartsville/Phipps Bend projects, but the reality is that no one knows how much taxpayer, ratepayer and government, as well as private money went up in the smoke of the promise of the good life with nuclear power.

If there is one viable alternative to coal, it would be hydro power. Hydro dams are still presently in service over 100 years since they were built. Hydro is probably one of the most neglected and overlooked nonemitting sources of power in our country. Not to be excluded from controversy, hydros have been accused of interfering with the natural migration of certain species of fish that migrate to spawn. Hydros have quietly installed "fish gates" to satisfy those who pal around with Woodsy Owl.  

This brings us back to coal. Technology such as scrubbers for sulfur dioxide (SO2) control and selective catalytic reduction (SCR) to remove nitrous oxide (NOX) make coal cleaner than ever. 

On plants deploying NOX removal equipment, they've even recognized that the de-NOX-ing process helps remove harmful mercury too.

Emerging technologies such as carbon capture and coal gasification are paving the way for coal into the 21st century. 

Coal is safer than nuclear, more reliable than wind, solar, or other renewable generation currently available and, remains the most stable and reasonably priced fossil fuel available in our country.  

The really ironic thing is that the people pushing to close coal-fired power plants are, in the end, going to drive up electricity prices for themselves and everyone else. This will in turn enrich those in the utility industry who've fought against them all these years: the same utility executives who refused to install any type of pollution control equipment on their smaller plants, and who only reluctantly did so on their largest units. 

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