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Underdog gaining ground in Solar vs. Coal showdown

Avatar for Dave Llorens
Published on 10/14/2007 in
Updated 12/30/2014

This past Tuesday, American Electric Power Company agreed to a $4.6 billion settlement over pollution controls at its power plants. The company will also have to shell out $15M in civil penalties and $60M in cleanup and mitigation costs.

For the same price of cleanup and settlement costs, you could build 18.7 concentrating solar power plants, like the Nevada Solar One plant (pictured above) that went online earlier this year. 18.7 of those things could generate more than 1,196 megawatts – but without the additional carbon, natural capital and other pollution costs attributed to coal generation.

In fact, while a 1,600 MW coal-fired plant could run you about $2.9 billion upfront (based on the cost of Peabody Energy Corp’s new coal-fired power plant in Southern Illinois), the CO2 bill for an estimated 40-year lifespan will run more than the initial construction costs.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a typical coal plant generates 3.7 million tons of CO2 per year. Based on the December, 2008 contract price on the Chicago Climate Exchange of $22.88 per ton of CO2, you’re looking at a bill of $84,656,000 per year.

Multiply that by 40 years, and we can go ahead and tack on another $3,386,240,000 onto that original $2.9 billion price tag…giving us a new total of $6,286,240,000.

Now for $6,286,240,000, you can get either a dirty, 1,600MW coal-burning plant that will continue to be nickel and dimed for decades to come, or a 1,600MW concentrating solar power plant, 25 times the size of the most recent Nevada Solar One plant, in the middle of the desert, without NIMBY issues, but near transmission lines…and still have about $36,240,000 leftover.

And by the way, that $6.4 billion for the coal-fired plant is still being extremely generous.

There are a few more issues that still aren’t being accounted for.

For instance, a typical 500MW coal plant:

• Draws about 2.2 billion gallons of water each year from nearby
lakes, rivers and oceans. (That’s enough water to support a city of approximately 250,000 people)
• Generates 170 pounds of mercury. And it only takes 1/70th of a
teaspoon in a 25-acre lake to make fish unsafe to eat. Enjoy that
freshly-caught trout on your next fly fishing trip!
• Relies on the transportation of coal. A cost that will continue
increase as the price of oil increases. Funny how the two of these
things can not only screw us, but each other as well.

Thanks to Jeff Siegel of for the majority of the figures in this post

Last modified: December 30, 2014

9 thoughts on “Underdog gaining ground in Solar vs. Coal showdown

  1. Avatar for David Copensky David Copensky says:

    Solar is not the answer. Read Time March 9, 2015 Desert Sunlight and create a spreadsheet. To supply electricity to all America homes requires more that 2.5 times the land in the USA. That does not include electricity for business and industry.

  2. Avatar for EEnerEco EEnerEco says:

    This American Energy company could be missing the facts here! After reading your article they can get a clear picture that solar energy is the goal!!!!!!!!…….

  3. Avatar for EEnerEco EEnerEco says:

    Oh, this American energy compony doesn’t know about the facts….

  4. Avatar for EEnerEco EEnerEco says:

    Give me a break What’s the deal with this coal thing?

  5. Avatar for 3Phase 3Phase says:

    I feel I have a unique and fair view into this debate having furthered research and efficiency in both fields of power generation. I am an electrical engineer and I have participated in a number of cutting edge solar research projects at universities (most funded by power companies). On the other hand I currently work as an electrical engineer in fossil generation for a power company increasing the efficiency and longevity of coal plants.

    I couldn’t resist commenting on this post which is actually part of a larger article with the rambling omitted. There is no doubt that coal will eventually be phased out the only question is how long that progress takes. That question can only be answered by a delicate balance between technology, economics and what cost the public is willing to pay (public desire). There are many people who can blame stubborn coal plant managers and greedy power utility accountants for continuing to use coal as a cheap and available power source. However, maybe it’s our fault for not being willing to let or afford our power bill double. I know that there are occasionally some figures that loosely claim that it would be cheaper to go all solar but honestly can you imagine that every decision maker in every electrical utility company in the world, who are out to save money, would go with a more expensive and environmentally detrimental generation source for no reason.

    According to the EIA only 2.3% of energy produced in 2008 came from wind and solar combined. We are making big adjustments quickly but to think that we can turn a switch and instantly convert from a power source that began our modern age to other emerging technologies in their infancy overnight is not fair.

    I absolutely agree with EPA regulations and fines but not as punishments to the big greedy companies but incentives. There are still a slew of engineering and physics issues that need to be addressed before any of these other renewable energy sources can compete with what we already use. I am glad that society has such great faith and total confidence in electrical engineers and scientist but there is a great deal of hurdles that need to be crossed. One example of an issue being addressed is that we have to produce electricity at exactly the moment it is needed by the load (city). This means that at night, cloudy days, dust storms, etc, an entire cities power needs to be have the capability of being produced another way, burning coal or gas (gas being only marginally cleaner). The power load requirements for a city not only change with weather conditions and time of day but also time of year. The power demand for a Phoenix home quadruples during the summer month. There are currently no feasible methods to store large quantities of energy and if there were then someone would be using them.

    There are a lot of people coming together to progress the technology to a point where is feasible to use. We constantly see funding for research from investors, utility companies and taxpayers.

    Essentially it is the general public of this generation’s willingness to sacrifice that will reduce our dependency on coal for our children. Simple economics will explain that the trillions of dollars spent to reduce our reliance on coal, in the forms of fines, research, environmental regulations, is passed down to anyone who pays electric bills. If the cost to produce electricity increases by 30% due to regulations and fines then it follows that our bills have to eventually increase by 30% as well. I can tell you from experience that the markup of electricity is not high enough to absorb the increased regulations without passing it to the consumer. If the price of coco beans increases so will the cost of a Hersheys bar. If the electric companies essentially aren’t paying the fines and we are then whose responsibility or blame is the speed of our reduction on coal dependence?

    Public opinion and willingness to sacrifice is the key to the speed of independence. The amazing technological advances related to Smartphone’s, flat screen HD TVs and gaming are all tied to an increase in consumer interest. The speed of overcoming technological hurdles to improve clean energy production is directly proportional to consumer interest as well. If nobody cared or was willing to spend more in taxes to cover research grants, donate to a renewable energy interest group or pay a higher electrical bill to pay for environmental power plant controls then we obviously wouldn’t get anywhere.

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  6. Avatar for Fred Mars Fred Mars says:

    Combining solar and wind on the residential and business level will do more to make us all energy independent. We need to stop thinking of energy has something we buy and start looking at energy as something we create ourselves.

    Those diesel/electric locomotives that deliver the coal to all those power plants, are missing the one component that can reduce the cost of transportation, and that is the storage cells.

    Hybrid electric vehicles need to be re thought also. Having full-time electric drive with storage cells for electric will reduce the need for the fuel burning power generation. Adding solar/wind onboard the vehicle will further extend the range between charges. But if our roads were equipped with wireless power transmission via RF or induction, the power would not have to come from fossil fuels at all. Sun and wind will produce the power, and silicate salt batteries will store the electric.

    Using solar and wind can also provide the energy required for desalination processing plants that can covert sea water into potable water to meet the demands of modern society. Recycling gray and brown water will also help reduce the scarcity of clean drinking water.

    We don’t have to wait for breakthrough technology to solve the environmental and energy crises that face the world today. Just some out-of-the-box planning to sue what we do have to its best advantages. The main problem we face is the corporate influence on government that protects the corporation under the guise of economic stability instead of the public which elected them to protect our interests and allow us to participate in the economy.

  7. Avatar for Ray Ray says:

    Water needs to be a bigger part of the discussion. That is one of the next big crisis here in the west.

    Great post!

  8. Avatar for Hubert Hubert says:

    Drilling for natural resources in our country would provide clean burning natural gas for our energy needs. While well-heeled envirofascists push their agenda, we wait for Venezuela and Iran to tell us what to do.

  9. Avatar for Uncle B Uncle B says:

    Funny how kernel capital and a proven operating system is always the easy way out. Hitler kept pushing into Russia and we keep pushing coal. The people in control are blind. The voters think only on a personal inward looking level. The politicians work on ‘grease’ We are doomed!

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