The Island of Doubt

The challenge posed by coal

Renewable energy advocates like to trumpet the rapid growth rate of wind farms and solar power plants, and it’s true. Installed wind capacity grew by almost 32 percent globally in 2009, according to on industry estimate. Capacity is now doubling every three years. That’s a remarkable feat, considering how sluggish the world economy has been. But it’s important to put such numbers in perspective.

All the wind farms in the world are capable of producing just 160 GW of electricity (let’s not worry about actual production vs theoretical capacity for the moment). By comparison, the total global capacity of all the coal-fired plants is a bit shy of 1,700 GW. And in 2010 alone, the coal industry expects to add 94 GW of generation — three times as much as wind.

Ninety-four gigawatts. None of those coal-fired plants are capable of capturing and storing CO2. And each of them will be expected to operate for three or four or five decades at the very least to justify construction costs to utility shareholders.

Now recall the arguments that James Hansen makes about the need for an immediate moratorium on non-CCS coal-fired plants and a phase-out of all existing coal plants over the next 20 years. Hansen’s case is solid, in the sense that there’s no realistic way to bring down carbon emissions fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change without shutting down most if not all of the world’s coal-fired plants. But how does one go about telling a utility that it has to shut down a plant on which they just spent upwards of $3 billion?