First a caveat: When it comes to electricity generation, I (Jason) am an agnostic. In other words, I try to evaluate energy sources on their own merits, from cradle to grave, and I try my best to keep ideology out of the analysis.
When we're talking about our energy future, it is essential to look at the big picture. We should evaluate each fuel source -- its pros, cons, and its potential for the future -- in light of all the geopolitical, economic, and environmental challenges we face. We should develop a comprehensive plan that maximizes energy potential, minimizes risk, and makes room for new technological developments.
There are two things we absolutely must not do:
- turn reactionary decisions based on short-term situations into long-term policy, and
- base our energy future on wishful thinking. Speaking of coal and CO2 sequestration ...
In the early 1970s, this country had about 12 percent of its generating capacity in natural gas-fired power stations. Then the OPEC embargoes hit, and we legislated against using natural gas in power stations (the Fuel Use Act of 1979). The gas share of electric generating capability dropped to around 7 percent.
Then, after the Fuel Use Act was repealed in 1986, we went on a gas-fired power construction binge in the late 1990s. Today, we have more gas-fired generating capacity than we have coal-fired! However, because the price of gas is so high, those plants only account for about 12 percent of actual kilowatts generated. Hmmm ... 1970: 12 percent. 2007: 12 percent.
Also in the '70s, we were on a path to replace a significant amount of coal capacity with nuclear. Then Three Mile Island occurred. All the planned nukes were canceled, and we were back to relying on coal. Not only that, but the economics of the Clean Air Act of 1990 encouraged utilities to switch to western coal, because even though it had less energy per unit weight (a lower-quality fuel than most eastern coal sources), it was low in sulfur and less expensive, even when transportation costs were factored in. Power plants representing tens of thousands of megawatts switched to western coal, because it was cheaper in the short-term (based on regulated utility economics) than adding sulfur dioxide scrubbers or other alternatives.
So now we not only use much more coal, we use lower quality coal, with poorer efficiency, that emits more CO2.
The result of all these jumps and starts is that despite some interesting cycles in the trend lines, our energy source mix today looks remarkably like it did forty years ago.