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Coal energy inequality

Published on April 4th, 2014 | by Tina Casey

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Hey, Peabody: Stop Trying To Make “Energy Inequality” Happen!

April 4th, 2014 by  


The phrase “energy inequality” has popped up now and then without gaining much traction, but when the world’s largest privately held coal company, Peabody Energy, decides to make energy inequality a thing you’re probably going to hear a lot more about it. So, let’s take a look and see exactly what Peabody means by this somewhat vague phrase.

The energy inequality reference appears several times (we lost count after five or six) in a Peabody press release that went out over PR Newswire late yesterday, which summarized  a recent public interview with Peabody Chairman and CEO Gregory H. Boyce.

Peabody Energy touts energy inequality

Peabody Energy (cropped) by Paul Sableman.

Energy Inequality Is A Thing

In terms of access to electricity, Boyce is on familiar ground with the relationship between energy, public health, and economic development.

He throws out the following numbers in support of the argument that energy access is a significant global issue:

Globally 3.5 billion people lack proper energy access, and 1.2 billion are children.

About half the children in the developing world attend schools without electricity.

Some 1 billion people receive substandard healthcare because of a lack of electricity.

The global population is expanding by more than 200,000 people each day, and by 2050, the world’s population is forecast to exceed 9.6 billion, with over two-thirds living in cities.

As for energy inequality itself, we mentioned previously that the phrase is rather vague. In terms of affordability and raw kilowatt hours of consumption, there is a significant degree of energy inequality right here in the US.

That’s patently obvious even to Boyce, who states:

More energy is needed to create energy access for billions, to sustain growth for a new global middle class and improve access to low-cost electricity.  Too many families in developed nations face the tough choice of paying for food or energy.

We’re picking nits here because when you are trying to make buzz words happen, words are important. The numbers Boyce initially cites deal with access, not necessarily with inequality.

While there is some overlap between energy access and energy inequality as a general concept, the two are not equivalent, and we’re still not sure exactly what Boyce means by energy inequality.

Global Warming Is Not The Problem

Now, here’s where the seams start showing. With a thinly veiled reference to the latest warnings from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change), Boyce positions energy inequality as the “greatest environmental crisis we confront today.”

No, for realz. Here’s the money quote from the press release:

The greatest environmental crisis we confront today is not a crisis predicted by computer models but a human crisis fully within our power to solve.

Okay, so now we’re finally clear on where Boyce is going with this. For Boyce, energy inequality is the equivalent of lack of access to low cost energy, and the solution is obvious:

Boyce called for driving policies and actions that increase access to reliable, low-cost power using today’s advanced coal technologies that extends lives, builds economies and improves natural and indoor environments.

Clean Power Is Not The Solution

As a corollary to Boyce’s argument, alternative energy including wind and solar are not solutions because they are more expensive than coal:

Policies that force use of more expensive, less reliable energy push costs throughout the economy and place the heaviest burden on the world’s poor and low-income citizens.

Boyce seems to be a bit behind the times because grid upgrades, smart technology, distributed energy, and advanced energy storage technologies have knocked the stuffing out of that “less reliable” argument against wind and solar power, to which we assume Boyce is referring (why doesn’t he just come out and say what he means?).

However, let’s give the argument the benefit of the doubt. Since Boyce has taken the whole global warming issue out of the equation, we’ll follow suit, set aside the already observable impact of global warming on developing countries, and consider Boyce’s about concern for the world’s poor and low-income citizens.

Even without considering climate change, it’s no secret that conventional coal technologies drag quite a bit of economic and public health baggage behind them throughout the lifecycle including impacts on communities that host mining operations, transportation routes, power plants, and ash disposal sites.

Boyce asserts that “advanced coal” is the solution, but if he means the next generation of lower-emission coal power plants, that involves greater costs. Coal plants in the US are already shutting down mainly due to cost-competitive natural gas, along with greater availability and demand for wind and solar power.

Given the rapid drop-off in wind and solar costs there is even more competition in store for coal (our friends over at Israel’s Arava Power are probably looking at that right now).

In short, Boyce’s call for greater reliance on coal could lock developing countries into massive investments that will leave them holding the bag while the US and other developed countries race ahead with increasingly cheaper, cleaner forms of energy.

It’s also important to consider that the true cost of sustainable coal has yet to be determined. Take a look at just two recent coal-related disasters in West Virginia and North Carolina, and you can see what’s in store for developing countries that bet the ranch on coal.

But — But — Poor People!

As for Boyce’s concern for the world’s poor, hey, with friends like these, who needs enemies? Those of you familiar with labor issues may recall that Peabody spun off its destructive mountaintop removal operations in Appalachia into Patriot Coal in 2007, before it could get stuck holding the bag for environmental lawsuits.

Patriot filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and petitioned to release itself from $1.5 billion in pension obligations to more than 20,000 United Mine Workers of America retirees and their beneficiaries in five states.

Keep in mind that in addition to the financial crisis that any retiree would face in that situation, many coal industry retirees are dealing with major health issues directly related to their employment.

Things looked pretty dark for the retirees early last year but at a partial settlement was reached last fall, which according to at least one theory had more to do with face-saving for Patriot and Peabody than a sincere attempt to help 20,000 people avoid poverty in their old age.

Make #EnergyInequality Happen!

Well, if you feel like giving Peabody a hand with this energy inequality thing, there is already a #EnergyInquality circulating around the tubes from a while ago, but from the tweets it’s gathered there seems to be a focus on clean, distributed energy, not the problematic, centralized juice you get from coal, so my guess is that Peabody is not trying to trend on Twitter. Yet.

Have at it.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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