In the 1690’s, a mass panic at Salem, Massachusetts, led to 20 people being executed for witchcraft and 150 being jailed. Then in the 1950s, another mass panic gripped the United States and thousands of lives were wrecked as many were falsely accused of being communists. Yet another in the 1990s wrecked the lives of many preschool teachers with false accusations of sex abuse in the classroom.
Having written about of these sad episodes in an engineering journal a few years ago, I would be pleased to think that such irrationality is a thing of the past. But that is not true for we have a mass panic in much of the western world that likely will cost annually trillions of dollars and millions of lives.
Based largely on interpretations of computer models that have proven notoriously unreliable, this irrationality is the assertion that the carbon dioxide emissions of coal-powered electricity is causing climate change that will soon make our planet unlivable. This is no less false than the earlier panics. Yet, this vilification of a molecule we exhale every moment of our existence — and which is a crucial plant food — does enormous harm to our economy and our lives.
Today’s coal-fired power plants are blessings of modern technology capable of fostering prosperity and health across the globe. Nevertheless, the hysteria over carbon dioxide is undermining this contribution to the world.
The irrational treatment of carbon dioxide as a pollutant — and by extension coal plants as dangerous polluters — will be reviewed by the Supreme Court February 28. At question is whether the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate the gas without congressional authorization. A finding that the agency has no such authority could help unleash the potential of coal-fired electricity.
Modern coal plants are wonders because of technology developed in the United States. The boilers of such plants heat water to “ultra-super critical” temperatures — hundreds of degrees above its boiling point — making the conversion of heat to electricity much more efficient — 40 percent versus 33 percent. This efficiency — combined with highly effective pollution controls that reduce emissions to mostly water vapor and carbon dioxide — results in electricity that is economical, reliable and environmentally friendly.
The first such plant is the John Turk facility in Arkansas, which came on line in 2012. There are now hundreds of such plants in the world. Long gone is the dense London mixture of fog and coal-plant effluents that made the city nearly unlivable in the 1950s.
Coal is still the cheapest and most abundant fuel for generation of electricity, providing about 40 percent of the world’s power and used in 80 countries. Moreover, coal’s supply chain is less vulnerable to interruptions since enough fuel for many weeks — or even months — is typically kept at plant sites.
Coal promises to be the salvation of more than half of sub-Saharan Africans — the number who labor daily with inadequate supplies of electricity. The people do their cooking, heating and lighting with a combination of wood, charcoal and dried animal dung. The World Health Organization estimates that about half a million die each year from the results of this indoor air pollution. Don’t African lives matter?
The U.S. could be selling Africans modern supercritical plants — and working with them to set up their own plants — except for ridiculous prohibitions due to the anti-coal mass panic. These could be a solution to both their indoor and outdoor air pollution. Instead they will be getting much dirtier technology from China and others. There is no stopping Africans from installing and building large numbers of coal plants, just as India and China are doing.
Let us hope that the Supreme Court forbids the regulation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant and that the anti-coal mass panic subsides just as other “witch hunts” did in the past.
Wallace Manheimer is a life fellow of both American Physical Society and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. He is the author of over 150 refereed scientific papers. He is a member of the CO2 Coalition, Arlington, Va.