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Renewable Energy on Coal River Mountain

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Wind vs. MTR for Coal River Mountain: Energy and Climate

"The world must move to zero fossil-fuel emissions. This is a fact, a certainty. So why not do it sooner, in time to avert climate crises? At the same time, we halt other pollution that comes from fossil fuels, including mercury pollution, conventional air pollution, problems stemming from mountain-top removal and more....

Coal, specifically the prompt phase-out of coal emissions, is the one critical element in a solution of the global warming problem, in preservation of a planet resembling the one on which civilization developed." -- Dr. James Hansen, NASA Climate Scientist



[Photo extracted from here, courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.] 

**Click on the Earth image to hear Chuck Nelson talk about the two energy development options for Coal River Mountain (and think about the Earth as you listen)**

The focus of this page is to take a look at the comparison between Wind Power and mountaintop removal coal mining on Coal River Mountain in terms of how much energy each option would produce, and what impact on climate change each option would have.  This is important because while energy production often arises in conversations about the wind campaign, the deeper questions related to energy extraction and consumption are often ignored.

These questions are important because they require a consideration of where our energy comes from, and what the long-term impacts of our energy consumption are.  In thinking about and answering these questions, you may then have an easier time understanding the deeper issues being confronted through the Coal River Mountain Wind campaign.


Energy Production Comparison: Wind vs. MTR

Annual Energy Production

As on the Economic Comparison page, this section will focus largely on the results of the Downstream Strategies study.  As is expected, the amount of energy generated by a 328 Megawatt wind farm each year would not equal the amount of energy generated by the 2.22 million tons of coal produced from the mountain each year for use in electricity generation.  In fact, as a direct Wind vs. MTR comparison, the amount of total energy coming from the MTR coal would be over six times as much energy as would come from the wind farm. 

Even when we include the new underground mined coal that could be produced if Coal River Mountain were preserved for wind power, the energy coming from MTR each year would still be 2.4 times greater - on average - than that from the total electricity that would be generated by wind power and underground coal. 

[Above chart taken from the economic study conducted by Downstream Strategies. See page 44]

There are some important issues to consider, however.  First of all, 80% of the coal produced by any method of coal mining in West Virginia is exported to other states or countries to be burned either for electricity generation (68%) or steel-making (12%).  The states of Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia - in particular - import alot of coal produced by mountaintop removal mining.

Of the remaining 20% that is mined and burned in West Virginia for the generation of electricity, 67% to 75% of that electricity is also exported to other states for powering homes, industries or businesses outside of West Virginia.  When it comes down to it, out of every 16 tons of coal mined in West Virginia, only 1 ton of that is actually burned for the energy benefit of West Virginia businesses and residents. 

So, when thinking about the negative impacts of mountaintop removal mining, that brings a whole new meaning to the Appalachian coal lyric:  "You load Sixteen tons and whaddya get?"  The answer? One ton, and the loss of land, water, history and culture for the production of the other fifteen tons.  And of course, another day older and deeper in debt...

A large portion of the energy generated by a Coal River Mountain wind farm would also likely be exported, as that energy would go into the same electrical transmission grid as the coal burned at West Virginia's power plants would.  However, comparing just the energy generated within West Virginia, a new comparison can be made between the wind farm option and the mountaintop removal option. 

In this case, the energy generated within West Virginia from the mountaintop removal mining of Coal River Mountain would be 25% greater than that coming from the proposed wind farm.  However, add  in  the new underground mining, and the energy from wind power and underground coal (taking into account the same export factors) would amount to nearly 10% more energy for generation in West Virginia than would come from MTR mining. 

**It must be noted that this last comparison was not made in the study by Downstream Strategies, but rather by the author of this web page.

A final thought on the fact that 15 out of every 16 tons produced be either underground mining or mountaintop removal in West Virginia is exported by rail, by river barge or by transmission line to nearby states and even foreign countries:  Is it "just," moral, ethical or fair for the residents of the Appalachian coalfields to have to bear the costs of our energy consumption?  

Discussion question:  How do you feel about the fact that up to 40% of the electricity you consume (depending on where you live) - by using your microwave, your hairdryer, your toaster, your TV, your iPod, your computer, your cellphone charger, your bathroom lights, your air conditioning, your ceiling fan, your water heater, your washer and dryer, or even your alarm clock - is provided to you as the result of the strip-mining of mountains, the loss of highly biodiverse hardwood forest and wildlife habitat, the burial and contamination of water,  the destabilization of the global environment, and the further impoverishment of the land and communities in Central Appalachia?? 


 [Photos courtesy of Rory McIlmoil]


Cumulative Energy Production

The comparison between wind power and mountaintop removal in terms of cumulative energy production follows the same trend as it did for cumulative economic benefit, meaning that while more total energy would be produced over the short term from mountaintop removal mined coal, that coal and the energy generated from it would only last for a total of 17 years, whereas the energy from the wind farm could last forever.  The following chart illustrates this point.

[Above chart taken from the economic study conducted by Downstream Strategies. See page 44]

As the chart shows, it would take over 100 years for a wind farm on Coal River Mountain to generate the same amount of energy as would be generated from the coal produced by mountaintop removal.  However, this chart fails to take into account the export of the coal and where the energy is generated and consumed.  In any case, the flattening out of the dashed red line in the chart shows where the energy production coming from mountaintop removal on Coal River Mountain would end. 

The question then becomes, what could the states that import the coal and electricity coming from MTR in West Virginia do in order to reduce their demand for MTR coal? 

More specifically, if the states using MTR coal are capable of generating energy from other sources, is it really necessary to blow up Coal River Mountain for only 17 years' worth of coal when the mountain could generate 328 Megawatts of clean wind energy forever?

Some states are already taking steps to reduce or eliminate their consumption of MTR coal, either by passing legislation that would ban the import of MTR coal, or by developing/selling more renewable wind energy and investing in energy efficiency - thereby reducing their demand for coal, as well as their emissions of greenhouse gases.  West Virginia itself is already developing wind energy, but so far that has happened only in the northern part of the state, where mountaintop removal operations are small and rare.   


Climate Change

The final question relates to the greater issues surrounding energy production, the impacts of our energy consumption, and the displacement of the external costs of our wasteful energy use onto communities and populations situated far away from us:  Climate ChangeThis section will address climate change in terms of how the two options being considered on Coal River Mountain compare in their relative emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases

 [Wind turbine photo on left courtesy of Rory McIlmoil.  Coal power plant photo on right taken from here, no credit available]

As mentioned on the "Coal River Mountain Wind Campaign" page, a wind farm on Coal River Mountain would help to reduce West Virginia's carbon footprint and contribution to climate change.  Throughout the lifecycle of coal, there are various ways that carbon dioxide is released aside from the burning of the coal.  Mountaintop removal operations have an even greater carbon impact than underground mining operations as well.  The carbon process begins when diesel fuel is burned to transport the bulldozers to the mine site, and then again as the bulldozers tear down the forest and tear away the soil. 

Carbon is then released as the trees are burned on-site and the carbon in the soil is slowly released to the atmosphere through decomposition.  The loss of the forest and soil has a lasting carbon impact since they are no longer capable of absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, so each acre of forest lost to MTR results in one less acre of long-term carbon sequestration.

More carbon is then released as the coal is transported by truck (diesel fuel) or conveyer belt (electricity, from coal) to the processing plant to be pulverized and cleaned.  Processing plants use carbon-based energy in order to process the coal, and carbon is again released during the process and then again in the pumping of the sludge into coal sludge impoundments.  The coal is then either placed on a train and/or coal barge, both of which use energy, and sent to the power plant, where it is burnt for electricity and where most of the carbon dioxide is released to the atmosphere.

So, mountaintop removal mining and the coal that is produced generate a significant amount of carbon dioxide throughout the whole lifecycle.  These gases then remain in the atmosphere for one to two centuries, acting as a greenhouse gas and serving to trap radiation from being released back into space - thus helping to warm the Earth. 

The warming of the Earth also leads to what are known as "climate feedback loops" that themselves contribute to climate change.  Some examples are the melting of the glaciers - which reduces the amount of reflective area for bouncing radiation back into space -, and the warming of the oceans, which results in the release of more carbon dioxide.  So overall, the burning of coal is only one part of the process of releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and contributing to climate change. 

 [Image credit to The Wilderness Society, extracted from their website here]


Developing wind power is not without its carbon emissions either, however.

To manufacture wind turbines, you need steel, and to make steel, you have to burn coal (however, the development of wind power stands with nuclear power as the two sources of energy with the second-lowest carbon footprint).  Also, the turbines, once constructed, have to be transported to the place where they're going to be sited, and that also requires diesel fuel.  Then the turbines have to be constructed and erected, which requires heavy machinery that also burns fuel.  At this point, however, the carbon footprint of wind power basically ends.  Neither the blowing of the wind or the spinning of the turbines to produce electricity causes the emission of carbon dioxide, and so nothing is produced from this point on that will contribute to climate change or the onset of positive climate feedback loops. 

Since the burning of coal for electricity serves as the greatest contributor to climate change throughout the lifecycle of coal, the fact that wind turbines generate zero emissions as they're generating electricity suggests that in order to curb our carbon emissions, wouldn't we do better to choose developing wind power rather than extracting or burning coal?


Preventing Emissions on Coal River Mountain

[Mock illustration of what a wind farm on Coal River Mountain would look like (though the turbines in this picture are bigger than actual scale).  Photo courtesy of Dana Kuhnline of the Alliance for Appalachia; mock illustration courtesy of Rory McIlmoil]

The construction and operation of a wind farm on Coal River Mountain would result in the direct prevention of, at a minimum, over 19.7 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the first 20 years of operation by generating clean, emissions free wind energy.  The prevention of the proposed mountaintop removal operatons and the extraction  and burning of 39 million tons of coal would prevent another 111.5 million tons of CO2. 

So, in total, the proposed wind farm would prevent over 130 million tons of CO2 from being released to the atmosphere over the first 20 years.  That reduction would amount to 7.6% of total West Virginia carbon emissions related to electricity generation, and 5.7% of total state carbon emissions. 

It is generally understood that in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we must reduce our emissions of all greenhouse gases 80% by 2050.  So, if West Virginia were to strive to achieve that goal, then preventing the mining of Coal River Mountain, and supporting the development of the proposed wind farm, would go a long way toward moving to 80% emissions reductions.

And, as James Hansen says, preserving Coal River Mountain for wind power would not only save the mountain for future generations and help reduce our contribution to climate change, but "At the same time, we halt other pollution that comes from fossil fuels, including mercury pollution, conventional air pollution, problems stemming from mountain-top removal and more..."[8]



  [Photo credit to the Clean Air Task Force,  Link to the source document is here]

For more information on sources used in this theme, please see the Notes on Sources page.