29 May 2007

Coal Liquification Mandates Higher Electricity Prices

So the blog'o'sphere is abuzz with discussion of a New York Times piece by Edmund Andrews about proposed subsidies for Fischer-Tropsch production of benzene from coal in order to fuel oversize pickups. Call it the antithesis of demand-side management. Generally speaking the idea of large scale F-T coal-to-liquids is a program that makes corn ethanol look like a model of efficiency.

For one thing, I don't see how this adds to the USA's energy security. The F-T process is a net energy loser, and it's not like the USA is a major coal exporter. According to the Energy Information Administration statistics on coal the USA exports about 50 Mtons of coal, imports 30 Mtons, and produces about 1200 Mtons. This means the USA's net coal exports only amount to 1.7 % of total production. While the USA may have the worlds largest coal reserves, historically coal reserve numbers haven't proven to be very accurate and it certainly doesn't look like there's a lot of spare capacity.

This also puts paid to the fig leaf of carbon dioxide sequestration. While coal-fired electricity can claim they are working on sequestration, F-T fuel really can't sequester their product, only the inefficiencies in producing it. As such, they will make themselves even more vulnerable to acquisitions accusations that they are cooking the planet then they already are.

So it would seem that the proposal is to trade away the USA's self sufficiency in electricity production in order to slightly reduce oil imports. What's more important, fueling your car or heating your house? Of course, coal executives don't care about the average consumer, they care about their profits. However, I'm not sure why the American taxpayer should subsidize this. What do the American people get from this? A quote from the NY Times article is illustrative:
But coal executives anticipate potentially huge profits. Gregory H. Boyce, chief executive of Peabody Energy, based in St. Louis, which has $5.3 billion in sales, told an industry conference nearly two years ago that the value of Peabody’s coal reserves would skyrocket almost tenfold, to $3.6 trillion, if it sold all its coal in the form of liquid fuels.
So what's the obvious side effect here? Higher electricity prices, obviously. The cost of coal constitutes about 50 % of the cost of coal-fired thermal electricity generation. Hence, if the value of coal shoots up by a factor of ten as suggested the price of coal-fired electricity should go up 5-fold. The coal executives would be giveing a gift to their competition. Nuclear, wind, and solar power would quickly become more competitive and start to displace coal-fired generation. The last thing the coal industry should logically want is to encourage the installation of more wind and solar power; these industries have learning rates that will eventually push their cost below that of coal. Why would an coal executive hasten that? One can certainly imagine that if enough coal is displaced, the price will again crash. Hence they coal executive might in the end have all the coal they want to produce F-T benzene. This is assuming their corporations survive the roller-coaster ride they are setting themselves up for and don't go bankrupt.

Update: From the NY Times, Science Panel Finds Fault With Estimates of Coal Supply. -cough- Coal reserve estimates inaccurate? I'm shocked.


Fat Man said...

The answer is that the US should go 100% nuclear in electricity production and use FT (driven by electricity or other sources) to produce liquid fuels for transportation. Carbon can be derived from trash, waste, bio-mass and coal.

Robert McLeod said...

Yeah, I think we all know that's not going to happen. Realistically one might be able to replace 1 % of oil consumption from waste, and net 5 % from agriculture, which still leaves you with the remaining 94 % to be made up with by coal.

The obvious way to actually accomplish energy security is by moderating demand.

Anonymous said...

Is it the cough that carries you off, or the coffin they carry you off in that matters most?

Anonymous said...

Can you substantiate the 1% and 5% numbers, Rob?

Bill Davis (Ze-Gen) claims an 110 GW potential output from waste-to-energy efforts.  That's well over half of total US transport energy demand.

Anonymous said...

While I'm not familiar with the economic ramifications (i.e. wealth redistribution) of the specific subsidies being proposed, I do think Congress has a right (duty?) to promote the nation's energy self-sufficiency and economic power. I see CTL as only one element of a technology/operating portfolio the US needs to be focusing on to achieve this goal. Many such elements will be needed, including conservation and energy efficiency. One possible scenario is that wind power will continue its high rate of growth (higher than GDP) and subsequently displace more and more coal generated electricity, which can then be competitively utilized for fuel production using CTL at today's oil equivalent costs $65/bbl. With the reduced fuel demand, petroleum for chemical feedstocks will be available at lower prices for end-use product consumers. Note that this scenario (only hypothetical) would take 20-30 years to play out.

Krassen Dimitrov said...

Robert, coal is not 50% of the price of electricity, it is less than that.
Also, the claim that the "coal deposit will be worth 10-times more in the form of liquid fuels" is misleading. Per GJ liquid fuels are indeed 10x the price of a GJ of coal. However, that doesn't mean that only because there is a process to convert coal into liquids, coal will automatically become 10 times more expensive. First, CTL is only 15-20% efficient, so you need tons of coal to make a gallon of liquids (figuratively), then there is the capital and operational costs for the F-T plant, IRR, etc. etc. If coal became ten times more expensive, then the liquid fuel will too become 10 times more expensive, as F-T is barely feasible economically at today's fuel prices...