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This Land is Mined

Mark Nelson

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Chris Keefer  0:15  

Welcome back to Decouple. Today I'm joined by Mark Nelson. A Decouple favorite returning for I believe his 14th Episode We usually average ratio of about one in 10 episodes being with Mark and we're excited to bring you the second in a brand new Decouple series. The masterclass.

The Mark Nelson masterclass, we did the natural gas masterclass, which was just a catchy title. But that's led this brainchild to grow into something much bigger. And we're planning on an offering, including, of course, uranium, petroleum. But today, we're here to talk about an energy source that is fundamental to the industrial revolution that just won't go away. I think we're here to put some respect on the name of coal. as unpopular as it is, it's also hard as hell to replace. And despite a century of industrial progress and development of other fuel sources, coal is still accounts for one quarter of primary energy, and a third of electricity. Anyway, I'm giving you a lot of facts that Mark Nelson is better equipped to deal with as he's been spending his lifetime on on energy and such topics. So without further ado, Mark Nelson, welcome back.

Mark Nelson  1:44  

Thanks. Good to be here, Chris. But on a very dark topic.

Chris Keefer  1:49  

Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, what what got me interested in covering this is just seeing the, you know, this idea that coal is being marginalized, that it can be replaced easily. We're seeing that that is not the case right now. And Europe and really around the world, it seems like coal use, which has been steadily decreasing is making a bit of a comeback. And I'm really interested in understanding the reasons why. But as this is a masterclass, I think we're going to be painting a pretty deep time picture of the topic. I'm not sure exactly the architecture. We're going to follow here, Mark, but I'm wondering, why don't you just start taking it away. And I'll interject when it feels, right.

Mark Nelson  2:31  

Sure. Well, news headlines were dominated in recent weeks by the return of coal, that is, Germany is announcing to the world that they will be turning on coal plants that had previously turned off and entered storage, their strategic capacity reserve. And a lot of people said, Haha, you messed up your energy transition. But there's something that has to be said here, a bunch of other countries don't have enough coal plants to turn back on. And they're going to have an extremely dangerous winter. The way I'd put it with coal is this. You have to respect it. You have to understand what it gave and why we use it. Why we put up with some of the well known downsides of coal, the carbon emissions being just one. If you don't learn history, you're doomed to repeat it. I don't know if I always think that but definitely in the case of coal, if you don't love coal, you'll never get rid of it.

Chris Keefer  3:37  

Mark Nelson poetry has ever so let's, let's paint the scene here. Let's let's go back into deep time to understand cool, where does it come from? How is it formed?

Mark Nelson  3:47  

Sure, well, life has been going on earth for a lot longer than we have for hundreds of millions of years, or is several billion years old. Life started forming the very earliest, earliest life, hundreds of millions of years ago. And then, about 350 million years ago, an enormous amount of plants started growing in a very high co2 atmosphere. That's right in the great age of plants growing that turned in today's coal. The carboniferous era from carbon giving from coal giving the carbon infants era, co2 in the atmosphere was eight times higher than today's levels. And by the end of the Carboniferous era, several 10s of millions of years later, that carbon had been turned into trees. Those trees had been buried in the earth and had been trapped and the level of co2 Drop, drop, drop, drop, drop drop drop, until it reached levels similar today. And part of this process was a decrease of the greenhouse gas is a freeze drying of the earth biosphere in many ways much colder Earth, the average temperature dropped by something like 12 degrees Fahrenheit. And these forests, these rainforests, the coal forests collapsed as an ecosystem around the entire globe. But we should, we should look at what happens when those trees grow, die, and were buried. First thing I would say is that there's been some controversy about why the earth built up so much coal in this one particular geologic time period. And I was

Chris Keefer  5:39  

reading to, yeah, that, you know, 90% of the coal was deposited in just 2% of Earth's geologic history. Like, that's bonkers, right? So carry on.

Mark Nelson  5:50  

It's kind of a freak coincidence. Now a little weird to call a few 10s of millions of years of free coincidence, that's a long frequence. It's about what you basically had was plant life, that it evolved to be large and rapid growing. At the same time, that the organisms that break down that plant life couldn't quite keep up. Now, there's some there's some competing hypotheses. And one, you know, there are sets of scientists that don't agree with the theory that the evolutionary invention of lignin are tough, inedible to many animal and microorganisms substance, a complicated substance within plant life, there's the evolutionary appearance of lignin, which makes trees a lot harder to eat tougher and stronger, that this is what caused the trees not to be able to be broken down by the existing micro ordinate organisms at a time. But it seems to be the main theory now is that the funghi, and the single cellular and very simple multicellular life was just not up to the task of eating the quantity of trees that such a carbon rich, moist, warm, Earth was growing. And so trees grew, they fell on each other, and were buried, and eventually recovered and went into the earth. Now, that doesn't, by itself, account for what we're going to talk about next, which is the grades of coal, the different types of coal, because the different types of coal end up having very different uses, and different properties that change the way countries discovered them. It changes when those calls show up in history. And it's likely to change when the last uses in human society will be of those different types of coal,

Chris Keefer  7:53  

as as reverse this 60 million year long period of coal deposition in I guess, a few centuries. I mean, there's still a lot of coal in the ground, but right, it's remarkable. It's a remarkable it's a relative blink in the eye. And we'll discuss Anthropocene this, this geologic period of reversal, we'll discuss why suddenly,

Mark Nelson  8:13  

we are stripping stripping away coal at a rate of approximately a few 100,000 years of tree growth per year. That's the approximate rate of coal usage at the moment. So first of all, coal grade is referred to as the rank of coal. And this rank implies a qualitative judgment, right? Maybe a quantitative and qualitative judgment on which coal is better. So if we want to start from the crappiest cold, the lowest rank coal and move upwards, what we're really doing is saying something about not how long the coal was buried necessarily, but the maximum temperature that that deposited plant matter reached before stabilizing in its current form. And in some cases, these coal, these coals are actively being formed as they're being mined. So let's start with the lowest rank. And you could say this is one step better than a tree standing right there in the woods or any other plant standing alive and that is recently dead, not decayed. And when I say recent, I mean, it has never gotten to either a temperature that would turn it into a higher rank of coal. And it has not yet been broken down by organisms into materials that would have either changed for them to never become coal or to be released back into the atmosphere as more gases. So that is Pete, PE A T, famously associated with Ireland and with preserving bodies sacrificed into it. peat is coal that has never gotten to a higher temperature, then about around 100 degrees or so it's basically stayed at room temperature. That's peat, and it's typically found on the surface, and it is heavy, heavy, heavy with moisture and other compounds that don't burn. Well. If you find peat, you typically find a lot of it and it's right there on the surface. But boy, is it ugly and hard to burn. You're going to find that if you try to burn peat, you're dealing with a co2 emission level that is significantly higher than most cold. It's burned today. So that's P, let's go up one rank. We have sub bituminous coal. Sorry, we have lignite coal. I'm getting my ranks out of order. We have lignite coal. I like to skip over that one maybe because that's the that's the one that Germany uses when it's claimed that it doesn't need nuclear power. So what's this lignite coal, lignite coal is peat that's been cooked a little hotter. It's coal that has not yet gotten above boiling temperature of water so under John you're 12 degrees Fahrenheit

Chris Keefer  11:15  

damn DAMN YOU and YOUR Farren heights hear me well,

Mark Nelson  11:18  

okay, then we can convert it what I need to do the calculations convert 212 to Celsius, but it must be right around around 100. So around 100 degrees and below is what will give you lignite coal, lignite coal is going to retain a lot of brown color and a weird crumb. You know, if we're on Great British cake bake off coal Bake Off, we'll see that this is a coal that is just not high enough rank to be in the most modern and efficient, clean burning coal plants. So lignite plants are going to have carbon emissions on that level of about 950 to 1300 grams of co2 per kilowatt hour of energy. Now, that's important, because the goal in energy systems is to get down to almost zero if if we're trying to avoid returning to the hothouse atmosphere that gave us the Carboniferous era in the first place. So let's go one better past lignite, you get above boiling either Celsius or Fahrenheit, and you get to the subbituminous coal that I jumped the gun on earlier. So So bituminous coal, and bituminous coal is also based on the word bitumen or bitumen, which is going to be a thick, dark, tare substance that you would be able to get from bituminous coal. So this is the coal that makes up a bulk of the coal traded and burned today, this coal is going to start approaching what we think of in our heads of the dark, you know, sort of matte, black, dusty material that we imagine going into big coal burning power plants and up into the atmosphere. Now, let's go up another rank, we get to the anthracite coal, the coal, most famously associated say with West Virginia, and with Pennsylvania. Now this anthracite coal for something to get a really nice name like that, you might imagine that it has more beautiful properties, in this case, it has a much higher carbon content, it does not guarantee that it's a higher energy density necessarily, because it can be lower density, and some of the some of the substances in vitro miss and subbituminous. Coal also burned. So the mere fact that it's been cooked at higher temperatures in the earth doesn't guarantee that it is going to give you more energy per unit mass when you harvest it and burn it. But anthracite coal is starting to get shiny. It's starting to get that I mean, it's so shiny that one of the early uses of anthracite coal was not burning at all. It was jewelry. That's right, you can carve and polish anthracite coal, and it will take a beautiful shine, absolutely gorgeous substance if treated in the hands of an artist, then you go one higher, and now we get to the ranks that aren't really found in the earth, you go above about 400 degrees Fahrenheit and are in our silly metric system, users can convert that for themselves. But above that level, those are temperatures you're going to have a very hard time getting in the Earth's crust, even really high temperature pressure from say, the sides of mountains and inclines and fault lines in the earth. They can't quite get to those temperatures. This is the realm of coke or coking coal This is coal that has been further heated without the presence of oxygen in order to drive off any of the volatile compounds that aren't pure carbon, and you're arriving closer and closer to it, we're not going to call it a rank of coal. But the final step here would be a 1% Pure carbon substance like graphite. And carbon burns, you can burn a diamond. It's just breaking the carbon carbon bonds because there's nothing else in diamonds. So we're graphite, breaking the carbon carbon bonds, oxidizing it with oxygen, producing carbon and oxygen together as carbon dioxide along with hydrogen plus oxygen as water. And depending on the combustion efficiency, or temperature, or range of other substances can be produced from burning the different ranks of coal that can end up having deleterious effects on our environment and our cities.

Chris Keefer  15:56  

No, I've definitely heard that it's possible to burn diamonds as a way to, you know, buffer the intermittency of renewables. That's, you know, it's possible anyway,

Mark Nelson  16:05  

it would certainly buffer the intermittency of the diamond market.

Chris Keefer  16:11  

So maybe we should move on to kind of the historic uses of coal you you hinted at one of them, which was, you know, artistic goods, statues, sculptures, that shiny anthracite, obviously, we're gonna, we're gonna get to the Industrial Revolution pretty quickly here. You know, a lot of what you've described, it reminds me of charcoal, and I guess charcoal is used a lot in early metallurgy. And that's what I'm guessing. Early coal was used for just the thermal properties. We hadn't quite learned how to convert it into kinetic energy yet, but I'm probably getting ahead of ourselves. So let's talk about some of the pre industrial uses.

Mark Nelson  16:44  

Sure, well, call floats. This is really important because it means it can float to people who otherwise would not be digging it. So see Cole, s. E, a sequel, ocean, floating coal was one of the earliest sources of coal for any purpose for ancient civilizations. Now, of course, petroleum products, float oil floats, a slick of oil on a spring would get you in big trouble with the law if you did it as a human. But there are many places in the world where the oil naturally seeps at the surface. Now, it's quite noticeable. Quite it impacts water quality quite a bit. So most places where oil came to the surface have already been discovered, and the oil reserves there are likely greatly depleted. An early case of this is when Alexander the Great was traveling with his armies into pass the modern Middle East, into Central Asia. And you had historians who noted the presence of oil coming out of the ground, but it by its nature, it wants to escape and mix with water and just be hard to gather up. Coal keeps itself together, right. So cool, is something that if floating up to you, you can gather it up and put it in a pile and have a supply. That's big enough that you can start doing things regularly with it. That's a theme that we'll come to in just a little bit with industrial revolution. Coal, should you get enough hints at its own uses because of its ability to burn? Here's one thing you mentioned charcoal. Well, charcoal is made by doing a sort of synthetic version of this heat treatment of coal in the earth, right? It's heating up the fresh undecayed would driving out the volatile compounds, keeping the oxygen levels very low, and then converting this gnarly fuzzy mixture of carbon and long complicated molecules that like the lignans we mentioned earlier, converting that to a much higher pure carbon bearing mineral. So why is that important? Because then it can burn if you provide enough oxygen like you blow on it, it can burn at higher temperatures, with fewer noxious substances besides the combustion products, carbon dioxide and water. So Okay, that brings us to the age of metals, because you can get hot temperatures regularly and you can start to cook other rocks heat up other rocks and crazy things start to happen. We can imagine that the earliest experiments with metallurgy came about because of seeing things happen accidentally. Substances that in fire pits or near fire pits or caught in natural fires, wildfires seem to be attracted to the AI shiny and you know, we've always been about as intelligent as we are. You can imagine that the human Those who made big breakthroughs in history were at least as smart if not smarter than the vast majority of people today. And so eventually, people found certain rocks have good properties. And through a multi 1000 year trial and error period, we've gotten more and more coal gathered up to heat, different types of metal bearing rocks together and combining metals in different ways to get the properties of the built world around us. So that's the major use of coal that most people think about before thinking about the modern society and harnessing the heat itself, not to break down rock and purify metal, but to do useful work.

Chris Keefer  20:45  

And this is where this kinetic transformation comes into extra somatic energy. Beyond the windmill Beyond The Beyond the waterwheel,

Mark Nelson  20:53  

you're such a nerd, Chris. Yeah. So extra somatic, its energy from condensing millions of years of effort in the in the biosphere into this substance that then you can release quite rapidly without having to have gone through the hard work and discipline of growing it first. Right, right. Right. Right. So the Industrial Revolution was both powered by and inspired by coal in many ways. So the UK, England, specifically was an area where the humans outgrew the forests really rapidly, especially as, as it goes for energy usage. So in order to make the things of society, especially ships, trees were removed rapidly. Now, this is where we're up to about the 14th 1500s. Now, a great deal more trees were removed for that. Not so much for metal or for ships, but just to make land for industrial agriculture. We're gonna leave that aside in this episode. But the UK ran what is now the modern United Kingdom ran out of trees extremely rapidly. It was one of the first places to have books on Forestry and Forest Management, along with fairly rigorous if not even oppressive systems of keeping people out of the forest, because there were so few left. Another country where this happened was Japan. The difference is Japan did not have coal, in any quantities worth mentioning. And the UK did England did have coal. So this coal was in several forms, one being the sea coal we've already mentioned. But what was interesting about England is that there was coal sufficient quality and quantity high enough up on the surface, that its presence and utility was compelling to humans to dig down into the earth and gather it up for the rapidly multiplying uses of coal and early modern good. So let me let me mention one of those uses. If you take coal and you heat it, say in the process of making Coke, which again, as we said is very high carbon purity, cooked coal for use in metallurgical applications. If you're able to trap the gases that are driven off, as you're cooking coal to turn it into Coke in special structures called coke ovens, then you'll find that many of those gases burn now this is important because you lose about a third of the volume of third of the mass of subbituminous or bituminous coal in order to turn it into coking coal. So clearly, you're driving off something and if you can capture that, then you have the earliest handy form of natural gas. So skipping ahead a few centuries, there's an entire historical area era that some technology writers talk about the Gaslight era, where coal was heated up to drive off the volatile gases, systems for capturing that and piping it into towns were created and then lamps were installed to burn that cold that cold gas and it ushered in the first highly efficient lighting systems in in human civilization.

Chris Keefer  24:32  

brought about nightlife I

Mark Nelson  24:34  

guess. Yeah, it brought about nightlife. So you can already see where you could write a glowing report of the of the new world brought on by artificial light at night and quantity sufficient enough for novel social uses. But you can also see how that would be associated with immoral behavior or dark, dark morals if not darkness This. So the Gaslight era was then replaced eventually by natural gas and especially by electricity, which is a lot more convenient than building the another set of physical pipelines that can leak and explode. And taking coal and distilling it is the correct word here for that purpose. Which brings us to some of the modern uses of gold that people might not think of the tar the complicated. long chain hydrocarbons, and various other compounds that form in the lower ranks of coal, actually have an astonishing array of uses as well. Here's one, if you keep cooking that tare substance that will be driven off in the process of coking coal, you'll find that it makes interesting colors if you can distill it far enough. So the first synthetic dyes, as in not coming from, say, smashing up bugs or grinding weeds or using rocks, the first synthetic dyes came out of messing around experimenting with coal tar. And these synthetic dyes were found. Some of them are better, some of them are worse, but they were found to be a tiny fraction of the price to make a brilliant array of colors. And that's not all. Die chemistry, weirdly enough, is closely related to a lot of the important medicines, natural medicine functions that some point people saw that the same substances that were making dyes are either medicines themselves or precursors to other medicines. So that's right. Modern drug manufacturing is closely related to the dye industry that came out of coal tar.

Chris Keefer  26:48  

I knew there was another way to tie my budding interest in energy into my professional career. So thank you for making it yet another link.

Mark Nelson  26:54  

Yeah. So I don't know. Have I converted you yet to coal? Because we haven't even come to the great age of power. We've moved past it there started that chronologically, but we haven't come to the subject yet.

Chris Keefer  27:07  

You Yeah, I think I think my son's a big fan because of the steam locomotive, obviously. So I think that's where we're heading. That's

Mark Nelson  27:13  

where we're heading next. Okay, right. So if you're digging up coal, in England, and you have lots of purposes for it, you're going to find that a bunch of coal is located in the ground where there are natural aquifers, your minds are going to start filling with many nasty things, but one of them a real showstopper is water. You can't you can't send people down to mine coal underwater. So what, what do you do, you need to scoop out the water faster than it's flooding in from the ground. That is back breaking work that especially when you're getting further and further down, starts to be completely absurd, you're not going to actually get the water out unless you can make a machine to pull the water out for you. Now, engines have been known for a long time Greek inventors were messing around with engines, the principles of steam propulsion and getting energy out of steam were known for quite a while. What happened that really exploded coal use around the world is that we significantly improved the efficiency of using the heat from steam to get motion. And that motion, we use to do things like haul water out of mines pumping water out of mines. Now when I say improvements in efficiency, I mean, radical improvements. So it's not really well known, we don't use that much more energy than pre modern civilization. I mean, so a high energy, Northern European climate, you're gonna have people, you know, middle, I say middle class, reasonably self sufficient farming families are going to be using, say, a fourth or a fifth of modern day energy. And I'm talking with flights and with electricity, and heating and cooling homes and hot baths and fancy foods, maybe even too much of them, that all of that takes only a few times as much energy per person. As we were using in times where you had seven or eight kids, a number of them died. And if the food shortages came on, you know, huge numbers of people died. It's kind of shocking what changed was the efficiency with which we were able to harness the coal to do motion work motive work. And that harnessing came with higher combustion temperatures, more energy per particle of steam from boiling water, tighter seals and higher pressures. And then a big breakthrough was figuring out that at the at the end of heating up water, boiling it into steam, you really needed to condense it back into cooler water. so that you could get it back to high pressures to boil it at high pressures and to have the steam come off at high pressures to do the most amount of work per moving molecule. That's the basis of the energy change the radical change in energy, the the three orders of magnitude improvement in energy harvesting, per molecule of steam or per unit of fossil fuel burned. That's the real basis of the explosion of industrial civilization. And it requires, at least it did and many people think it still does a supply of the energy. In this case, we're talking about coal, that's assured enough that you can spend an immense amount of time effort and ingenuity constructing the ultra high temperature containing devices, the ultra high pressure containing systems at a sufficient scale, to make it worth it to make that a map of motive energy. So that brings us to the history of coal power plants from tiny, tiny little things

that are just big enough to power a few buildings, all the way up to immense power plants that are being built to this day, the modern coal plants, Chris are simply astonishing marvels of engineering. The first large power plant I ever went to was back when I was a mechanical engineering student at Oklahoma State University. We took a trip up about 20 miles away to see a relatively modern coal plant built in the 80s. And some of the sights that I saw on that plan were wondrous. I had a brief, a brief poll at my heart, I was almost thinking that I should be considering coal power as a career. But of course, to do that, I would have to start ignoring what we're hearing about climate change, I would have to ignore what we know about about the the pollution coming off of even very clean, relatively speaking coal operations. I mentioned that that range that 1300 to 950 grams of co2 per kilowatt hour for lignite. Well, the highest efficiency subbituminous bituminous and anthracite coal burning power plants today can get down to almost 750 grams of co2 per kilowatt hour, with combustion temperatures up around 600 degrees Celsius over 1000 1100 1200 degrees is that is where we're headed. With the high temperature at the hottest part of these plants. When I went to that plant in northern Oklahoma, the sooner Generating Station, the site that really stuck with me, sure the size of the plant was amazing structures that were two 300 feet tall, that containing the boiler and that and the flue, flue gas system. And then the flue gas exits the the smoke stacks, even though you can't really see any smoke the smokestacks of this plant or 500 feet or so and are by far the tallest presence is for an immense, immense distance, almost 100 miles on this on this vast plane of northern Oklahoma. I was really impressed. But the site that stayed with me was the furnace itself. So coal arrives at this plant, it's about a gigawatt capacity. So one gigawatt can power, you know, approximately five 1000 to a million people depending on how frequently you run the plant. And the coal train that I saw coming in. When we stood on the roof high above the prairie a coal train was coming in. And I said to the tour guide, one of the plant directors I said how fortunate we are that we got a tour on the day when a coal train is coming in because it just stretched off for over a mile is just as fast train bringing in coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming one of the vast coal beds that's most easily and cheaply. Mind today. So this cold train was coming in and the plant manager looks at me and he says no, that's that's not a lot of luck. We need one of these trains every day. And I said excuse me, he said, Yeah, it's about 120 hoppers of coal, we need one per day and use that giant pile of coal there that the train is unloading into. said, yeah, he said that's going to be, you know, several, several weeks up to occasionally a few months of coal in that pile. So we make sure we never run out during the time that were you burning the most for the most power. And it blew me away. So then when we went into the plant, and we saw the end result of this process, the train brings it in, it's unloaded, it goes up on a conveyor belt, it's drowned into a fine powder, and then goes into the plant and then this powder is pot sprayed straight into the furnace. And when I got my turn to look in this little glass porthole, it was an astonishing sight both horrible and wonderful all at once. And when I say respect for coal What I saw Chris was a swirling hurricane of fire like a like a flame like it felt biblical, like I was looking into the presence of God, this flame that wouldn't stop this bright, you could tell that if you didn't have a lot of light attenuation from the glass that it would just be blinding you how much light was coming off of this. And it was this whirlwind it was moving like this. And you could see the spray of coal coming in and just you'd I wasn't you couldn't see the dust, you just saw the white hot heat, as this. And this is not even an extremely modern plant. This is this is a plant that's now technology that's 45 years old, right. And I saw that and it was it filled me with wonder. It didn't shake my desire to see a world that did not have carbon dioxide, carbon dioxide entering its atmosphere it as we've said hundreds of 1000s of times the rate at which it went into the earth. But I at least had to respect the hustle, I had to respect the engineering behind what I was saying.

Chris Keefer  36:06  

I'll tell you a story that that made me respect it to some degree. My triple great grandfather was a was a renowned Canadian engineer. And he was commissioned to judge a number of plans to secure the city of Hamilton's water supply. And it's pretty fascinating because color it used to be endemic just to the Bay of Bengal. But those nasty Brits ended up spreading it around the world, to most port cities, most estuaries and bays in the 1850s and 20% of the population of Hamilton died as a result of the first cholera epidemic that that came through. And it was because they were drinking water where the food basically right. And so they were looking for solutions. They were thinking of diverting rivers, there was all kinds of harebrained plans. And my my triple great grandfather was the judge of this contest. And he said none of this is good enough. And so they they finally commissioned him. And he built a massive coal plant coal fired boiler that ran a huge pump, pump water from the middle of the lake, Lake Ontario up into the escarpment quite an engineering marvel but you know, saved 1000s and 1000s of lives by delivering that clean Lake Ontario water to a city. And you know, it's just interesting visiting this museum, you know, my ancestor had been been so involved with get the red carpet tours to Keefer. But you know, it's interesting, because, you know, Alex Epstein has got a new book out fossil future. You know, he's a very divisive character in the energy circle, particularly amongst those who are climate concerned. But he does bring up this interesting point around, you know, judging fossil fuels purely by their side effects and not considering any of the net benefits. And this was a bit of an awakening for me. And I think that's part of why we're talking about developing a respect for this energy source that will hopefully guide us towards looking at what the alternatives are, what the replacements are. But first understanding the services that are applied. So what are we going to move on to next Mike, that was I love I love these kinds of on the ground descriptions of of energy infrastructure, it's, it's almost as good as visiting them. But I share your wonder, you know, having visited Bruce Bruce Power, the largest operating nuclear plant in the world, I mean, these are just incredible feats of, of, of human ingenuity, and accomplishment. Well, when I don't want

Mark Nelson  38:23  

to say a word, I want to say a few words of what we're getting out of these mass, energy capturing facilities, these machines for doing work for us what's really going on in the background constantly. If you want to think about it, life for the average person a long time ago was a lot of really hard labor, multiple hours per day until you broke down, in which case you hope that you got lucky during life so that you may survive for a little bit longer when you can no longer work, right. So we have a world where in the background, even the poor who are living in a high energy society, are having the equivalent of 100 men back, they're doing backbreaking labor 24 hours a day, to provide their share of the various services that maybe don't get you the respect of being rich in the old days, but get you many of the material comforts, that would have only been available to those who commanded many men and many women and many children under their authority to do services for them as as ruler either over a country or a local lord. So we have a bunch of machines doing what for humans would be immense back breaking labor all the time. And there's something else that does besides the quantity there's this quality of knowing for sure it's gonna be there. I mentioned the what 30 to 60 day supply of coal that can be on hand At this coal pile at this plant in Oklahoma Well, in the Texas blackouts in February, it's only a few minutes of interruption of the gas pipelines before a gas plant runs dry of gas. That's because the energy density per volume of coal, if we're taking natural gas at standard temperature and pressure is in the hundreds to low 1000s. So what that means is, the lowest ranks of coal are about 500 times as energy dense per unit volume as natural gas before you compress the gas. But that takes work takes a lot of really concentrated work to compress natural gas to improve that number. And then the highest ranks of coal are up to about 1000 1100 times as much energy in the same volume, you can you can help out the gas by liquefying it that takes an immense amount of work. So some large percentage, then 15% of the work that you could have gotten out of the gas itself would be required to turn it into a liquid that then is very difficult and tricky to keep cold and to move. But that liquid within start to be on the same order of energy density per unit volume as the middling to lower ranks of coal. So that's quite, that's quite impressive. That ability to know for sure, not just the 100 virtual men out there breaking their backs for for your daily bread, but also the assuredness the certainty of that coal, because of the ease of moving it itself stores. I mean, I'm not saying stuff isn't coming off. Certainly, coal puts out methane when you dig it up both as you're mining it. And as it rides in a car. It also puts out dust dust from coal trains, is an environmental concern of some importance in towns located near coal transportation facilities. But that Billy to know where your energy comes from, is very close to knowing where your dinner comes from, knowing where your doctor comes from, and knowing for many people where your purpose in life comes from. So that's bringing us now to why we're seeing coal coming back. Coal was disrespected for those two qualities, its density, and its its its power, right? That a large amount that can be stored in a small space without any special equipment, just shoot scuttle shovels and hoppers and then the fact that we find it in giant quantities, and combine it with large efficient machines at a rate that again puts us on a path to using several on the order of 100 hundreds of 1000s of years of trees per year of current society. We use around the world about 8 billion or so tons of coal each year. And during this crisis, this energy crisis of epic world bestriding portions, what we're finding is that in a pinch, coal is there for you if you're rich enough to outbid other countries for it. What Germany is doing when they're returning to coal, is rediscovering the reasons they started using it in the first place. Because you know, it's going to be there. And because there's a lot of IT

Chris Keefer  43:26  

security of supply and and they have the lignite pits, but they also they also import a lot of coal. And you're saying that they're they're competing on the world market now. Well covered this a little bit with no one or in our last episode,

Mark Nelson  43:36  

but I want to say something that night pits when I was a young man back in 2017, I took a research trip with the other staff of environmental progress, the environmental nonprofit, founded and run by Michael Shellenberger. So he wanted us to go to Europe, and find all the different energy facilities, including nuclear and figure out what's going on, talk to people explore them, take pictures if we can just go experience them, right. So he took ill and returned back to America after giving a talk in Berlin and us young intrepid explorers went forth into the deep Eastern coal mining regions the lignite regions of, of Brandenburg and Eastern Germany. So, one of the astonishing things that happened was after a long day of driving around finding Observation Towers, seeing vast pits all across the earth, you know, 30 meters deep and stretching for mile after mile after mile until the far horizon of the end of the coal pit was small and hard to see. After seeing all that and traveling to try to find one last glimpse of the heavy machinery before sunset, we saw a beautiful mansion, a Schloss a manor house, and it didn't seem to have a gate so we drove our van up parked in front of it. We went up to it not and an old man came out a beard. And a you know, kind of loose burgundy sweater seemed like a very nice grandpa. And we asked politely what this place was. And we're informed that this was a, this was a sort of art gallery and museum celebrating the coal mining being done in that area. And we asked if we could go in and he said, Sure, why not, hadn't had any other visitors. So he invited us in, we saw an amazing array of exhibits on the coal mining culture, what do I mean that the people, their clothing, their equipment, the development of the larger and larger and larger powered shovels up to some of the largest single machines on planet Earth are these immense spinning bucket shovels that go along the face of the earth and just dig out almost a train car at a time of coals this brown lignite low grade low rank coal straight out of the surface of the Earth, dumping it right into waiting train cars that take it out of the coal pit straight to a waiting coal plant to be processed into bricks, and then burned in the power plants nearby. And, you know, there were people in that group that started to feel a little bit of the tug of the power and the sheer achievement that we were witnessing. And we had to brace ourselves and say, We are here to decarbonize, we're here for clean energy. Were here for reversing the nuclear phase out because the things we saw were astonishing. And certainly this older gentleman explained patiently that nuclear is dangerous, and what do you do with the waste and it's just unnatural and it's maybe not suited for the German people. And then he turned and said, what you have to understand about this lignite mining is that my grandfather came to this region from the East to mine, this lignite my, my father, mine was lignite. And I mined this lignite until I got to my age. And he said that it's provided for the people, that the people were okay with having their village scooped into the earth and moving to a new village, new village, right nearby, same name, just with new on it, and that they accepted this as part of the cost, but benefit because the new houses were really good of living in the lignite mining region of Eastern Germany. And he said that this mining this coal for the Germany, it's it's part of the Heimat as part of the, the homeland, right. It's part of the German people. And he said, Yes, we understand the young people, they're worried about the carbon and I can see that too. I'm an old man, I won't live to see the effects of that carbon. And I understand there's pollution. But I think our leaders will come to understand in a few years that it's simply necessary to have this energy, and boy, was he right? Yeah, Seyfried was right. Yeah, everyone else seemed to be wrong. Seyfried was right. The armies invaded, again, from the Far East, not all the way to Germany, but they might as well have right, the gas supply was cut off, and there was a panicked return, not even just to the lignite burning, which had barely abated in recent years, except for a brief downturn during the Coronavirus lockdown year. But actually the hard coal mines which had been shut off and are no longer producing in Germany, Germany has turned mostly turned to Russian coal. What are the great coal exporting countries of the world, you have the United States, you have Russia, you have Australia and you have Indonesia, they produce the great majority of the exported coral that the world uses the great quote consuming and producing countries that weren't mentioned and that were China and India. To the fastest growing largest economies. We'll see if that's true after the upheaval with the most recent year. But India and China are building brand new spanking coal plants that are likely to be in use for a number of decades. So for those who count carbon budgets, this year is horrifying. There's going to be a lot of soul searching, or on the other hand, a lot of panic, anger nihilism, we're likely to see strange results, Chris, of the mood at the Climate Conference this year cop 27 and Egypt because the countries that were loudest, most moralizing last year, who were already last year, meeting up behind the scenes and mostly out of the news to find more hydrocarbons to burn. They are openly and without just nakedly pursuing everything that will burn for just make it through the winter. Here's the lawyers that one of the most grotesque things I wanted to mention before you before we come back to

South Africa had a very loud boisterous announcement with Germany that took up headlines on the day on near the end of cop 26. in Glasgow, we were both there for that, where they announced that South Africa one of the great coal using developing nations was going to fail is out coal quite rapidly with German help? Well, here's the nasty little part of the story. One, South Africa doesn't have a replacement for those qualities of coal that we said that is its availability its certainty and its, its, you know, its power density if we must use that term. Instead, what they're going to do is sin that coal to Germany to keep Germans alive through the winter, as Germany turns off its world class worldleading nuclear plants. And then in South Africa, they're going to eat blackouts. That's what they're going to have, we're going to let them eat blackouts, load shedding. It is a panic, almost every South African that I know, is concerned about getting out of South Africa. And there's this great rage and pain that settling in cynicism that settling in where I've heard people say, black South Africans say, at least the whites built beautiful things, you know, at least they built something for us to, to power our country with. And then compare that to their current leaders who they see as doing these deals and destroying one of the great technological civilizations of that continent. And at the same time, Germany, I've heard from Germans in the last 24 hours. I've heard German say to me on Twitter, we don't need Russian coal, we can get that South African coal. Well, at that very moment, South Africa was having loadshedding blackouts, and a diminishing of the ability to ever to ever finish the process of modernizing their land. That is still there.

Chris Keefer  51:35  

Yes, there are some sort of theories of change here in terms of how how can coal can be replaced, and you'll hear feverish headlines about you know, the dropping price of solar and how it's cheaper than coal. Now, there's, there's been this sort of sense of inevitability that it's going away. Let's talk about some examples where coal has been replaced. I mean, I'm, I'm speaking to you from lovely Ontario, where we're very proud of having taken coal rate off of our grid, we made it illegal to burn coal in our province, it used to be 25% of our grid. We use nuclear for 90% of electricity to replace that. And we were confident enough in that, that we actually demolished our coal plants. And there's some beautiful footage of the smokestacks coming down. You know, in talking with Noah Rettberg. Last week, it seems like the Germans carefully mothballed many of their coal plants and are indeed going to be bringing a number of them back online. The US certainly has had a certain amount of success, I think replacing coal with fracked natural gas. But let's let's just expand upon that. Some historic examples of coal being wound down and replaced. Obviously, that's not happening in China or India yet. And, of course, he's examples of coal making a comeback?

Mark Nelson  52:45  

Well, of course, for sure coal is growing slower than it would have without other fuels being available in some form in India and China to be sure, and congratulations to you and Ontario. Good job, Chris. You, you have successfully driven out the coal but I want to talk about, I want to talk about what I might call the fake transitions, where a country moved from coal to a mix of energy sources that seemed as good as coal until it really counted, and then it was revealed. It's not the same thing as coal. Let's take the UK for example, the UK, under a Conservative government was making incredible progress on climate change. coal, coal towers were imploding and falling left and right, these incredible facilities from the perspective of the men and women who built them and fueled them. Were being dynamited. And what I find interesting is some of the same people, some of my same friends in Britain, say we could say a fairly far left persuasion, who lionized coal miners who were crushed in their organizing efforts under Margaret Thatcher. And that's the great Satan in all British history for them. These coal miners were crushed, the coal pits were closed. That is the worst thing ever to some of the same people who think that the destruction of the coal power plants is the greatest thing ever. Now we can nitpick and say Oh, well, what they mean is if we had kept the coal, we maybe would have had a just transition that use those same workers in some way. But you know, you can, you can say a lot of things about that not being a fair point to make, but I think what we're seeing is that the UK got out of coal so fast that it forgot that a diminishing supply of domestic gas a steady supply until a crisis hit of imported gas, and weather dependent renewables are not the same thing as coal and certainly Britain is a place where coal piles don't freeze up as they did all across Texas during the unusually cold temperatures that lead helped lead to the blackout in that state but in the UK The gas production has been going down that scores you well on ESG. It makes it makes your metrics on Decarbonization and your metrics on what parts of your society are making money doing what kinds of activity, it makes that look really good. But it leaves you extremely vulnerable to a disruption in the natural gas, which suddenly tells you that natural gas that comes in from foreign lands on ship or by pipeline is not the same thing as a coal pile sitting next to the plant. And you can say, well, having up to half the co2 per kilowatt hour decrease is worth it, you can say that. No one is going to say that if there isn't enough power, and certainly the UK is scrambling, only months after hosting cop 26. With all these grand statements about the need to decarbonize the UK is scrambling to put whatever old coal units that has left back into service, the ones that weren't blown up, right, they're going to put those back into service. Chris, it's not going to be enough. It is not clear to me how the UK makes it through a cold winter. I don't quite see it happening. I see very ugly rationing and mortality rates that probably haven't been seen in many, many decades over the next winter. And I mean, look, there are there are various accomplishments and other countries that are a little more durable say the switch from higher sulfur anthracite and sub bituminous and bituminous coal in the eastern United States for the Powder River Basin, low sulfur coal, plus, both voluntary and and involuntary programs limiting sulfur emissions, sulfide emissions, certainly stamped out, almost completely stamped out acid rain, a problem we don't even think about now. Acid rain, right? Ironically, that same sulfur was decreasing the greenhouse effect, it was reflecting more of the sun's energy back to space. But so there was some boost in global warming potential of the atmospheric mistakes that came from decreasing sulfur. But I think it's easily easily worth it to not have your rain slowly degrade your your structures, your trees and your animal life. So that determine and that seems to be quite durable.

Chris Keefer  57:24  

Right, right. One of your recurring themes here is this ability to store fuel on site and nuclear has this maybe unfortunate habit of being lumped in with other fuel sources, as we saw in the EU Green Taxonomy as London with gas. I remember, under Trump, I think it was Rick Perry. They had some legislation, which subsidized in some way, both nuclear and coal. But again, this seemed to be based on their properties of you know, security of supply, being able to store fuel on site, which is I think one of the things that you're pointing out over and over again that coal delivers. Let's let's talk a little bit about nuclear in that light. We're obviously going to cover uranium in an upcoming masterclass, you're mentioning, you know, this 500 to 1000 fold increase in energy density over non pressurized gas, it's it's pretty phenomenal to hear that that uranium or nuclear has, again, a million times on top of coal. You know, you talked about these 120 car trains rolling in. And I guess the equivalent amount of uranium to a to a similar sized plant is a couple truckloads. So let's talk a little bit about the prospects of nuclear to replace coal. And I think we'd be remiss not to talk about coal, replacing nuclear in Germany as well. So maybe I can roll that into one sort of final question for you

Mark Nelson  58:44  

Sure. What's failing in the UK is that that property of fuel, being there, already there, knowing you have it, and then being almost completely assured of being able to use that fuel over a predictable time period? All of those are properties that seem irrelevant until you need it's like the jokes about oxygen or sex aids, you know, it doesn't matter until you're not getting any goes to the jokes. Well, that's a lot the way stored energy is. And Rick Perry was very early. Certainly we had environmental progress. And Michael Shellenberger and I were extremely early compared to the speed of discourse and saying that that mattered, and that if electricity market conditions from temporarily low natural gas prices, were driving in this competitive environment, that doesn't make any sense in terms of protecting society, or even having cheap, secure energy in the long run. Well, this competitive market was driving both coal and nuclear out of the system at the time I maybe didn't have the same respect for coal than I do. I'm getting this winter. But we were saying, Look, any coal plant that stays alive because of a law that helps with coal and nuclear can always be turned off later. And you can run a coal plant to very low levels of frequency as long as it's getting enough money per time period that it runs to stay alive. But a nuclear plant goes from pretty much near 100% usefulness risk about 90 95% capacity factor down to zero immediately. And we can't really get it back. We haven't seen many cases in the world of nuclear plants going offline for an extended period and then returning onto right, so we had a situation well, there you go, but you also lost a few. So it's, you know, a bit of an edge case for me in terms of celebrating that. So you had a situation where there was this asymmetry. a coal plant saved today can always be turned off tomorrow, if we replace it, a nuclear plant, lost today cannot be returned. And we were just, you know, people tried to humiliate us for going along with what was a completely imperfect policy in terms of carbon. But it turns out an important policy in terms of protecting society from at minimum, the higher price now that gas is expensive, and at most shortages themselves, if there's not enough gas to go around, especially in different regions of the country, because it's hard to transport takes up a lot of space. Chris, it has to keep flowing constantly. Well, it's now looking like a little bit more of a sensible policy, as it is coal burning is quite a bit up and natural gas that we can spare, shall we say, is being liquefied in the golf court coast and sent over to Europe on an emergency basis at extremely high prices to replace pipeline gas, much cheaper pipeline gas that Russia is cutting off? So I think we I think we were right there. If you can leave carbon aside in a much more difficult health crisis and the immediate life or death crisis of shortages of electricity, potentially in the worst possible weather conditions, then I'd say that we were probably right on any kind of law that would have protected both nuclear and coal, if you couldn't have a law that protected nuclear alone.

Chris Keefer  1:02:15  

Just nuclear alone. Yeah, yeah. So let's talk about a jurisdiction where the laws not only failing to protect nuclear but sabotaging it. And again, this is you talked about the the way in which coal does something within within the the German psyche or German national identity, it's so tied into it. We have a German governments with a significant green coalition, who are adamant that we can restart coal plants, but that the German nukes have to come online on schedule. I mean, this this is, again, I'm repeating some of the things from the last episode with Noah. But It's extraordinary to me that, you know, in the midst of this, this horrific energy crisis in the midst of the the butchery in Ukraine, that these Anti-nuclear zealots wouldn't even consider postponing their phase out for a few months. No, it's gotta happen. End of 2022 it's got to happen deadline Hell or High Water

Mark Nelson  1:03:10  

I have. I have lovely German friends. So I'm not germaphobic to tanah phobic. But what you can say about the Germans is, however foolish or even downright creepy, they are in choosing their ideological aims. They can be as irrational as you want for choosing ideology at the point that they're chosen their ideological direction, they are ruthlessly brutally pragmatic and pursuing it. Germany, despite its rhetoric, and its actions around the world, going after developing country after developing country kneecapping their their power systems and wanting to tear them apart and install a few Siemens wind turbines or whatever they think they have to offer. Germany in itself has been meticulous in maintaining and keeping as much of its coal capacity as possible. It has a lot of subsidy programs for keeping coal plants from closing way beyond other countries. So you know, you had several years in a row of a German coal plants sometimes operating at 0% capacity and not going out of business as a whole. In the COVID year of 2020. German coal plants operated at an average of it was around 20% efficiency or 20% of their maximum capacity. And the lignite was a little bit higher than the mid 20s. And the and the hardcore was down at 17 18% usage rate for a year and then only barely recovering last year, and somehow they didn't go out of business. The Germans know that coal is life. If energy is life and you can't get what coal gives you from other energy sources. Germany is practically admitting that coal has properties that if you can't get from nuclear you have to get from coal

Chris Keefer  1:05:00  

Mark, I think that's probably what we're gonna have to leave it. This has been a lot of fun, far ranging conversation. And again, I think coming back to that central theme of, you know, putting some respect on the name of coal in order to understand the challenges of replacing it is really key. There's just so much energy literacy out there. And hopefully we've done a little bit mostly you here, of course, to serve as an antidote. So thank you again, for this this masterclass mark. And what's next for us? Are we are we going to do uranium?

Mark Nelson  1:05:34  

We could, we could go right to Uranium but I'm tempted to talk about oil. It gets it gets a short shrift in electricity conversations. But it's worth mentioning as a connector is an intermediate source and many of the properties we talked about between coal and gas, and one that that is interlaced in between him and many other parts of the economy.

Chris Keefer  1:05:58  

Okay, all right. I think that'll be the next stop and we'll have to save uranium as a teaser. You did just have a pretty amazing tour of I think the cigar Lake mine up in in Saskatchewan. I think a lot of people are a lot of energy Twitter nerds out there pretty excited for that but they'll have to wait one more episode. Mark, thank you for joining us on this late night Sunday episode here. I think we're gonna get this out tomorrow morning. So for all you out there and in podcast land as Robert Bryce says it more great stuff to come here on Decouple

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