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Alaska Editorial: Cheap, plentiful coal will power the Interior for decades to come

Posted: June 6, 2014 - 12:04am

The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

Few would accuse coal of being the fuel of the future. It’s out of step with trends toward alternative energy, relatively dirty to burn, and an old technology. Coal, after all, is what fueled the initial industrial revolution 200 years ago, a time not noted for its efficiency or kindness to workers or the environment. Though coal has few arguments for its future as a source of electricity and heat, the arguments it does have are powerful. Coal is cheap, plentiful, and in the Interior it’s close at hand.

It’s for those reasons that nearly every power plant or generation facility in Interior Alaska runs on coal, and that even utilities and organizations who are eager to add renewable fuel sources to their mix still use coal.

The most recent cost-benefit analysis of coal-fired power in the Interior was completed a few years ago by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, as they took a hard look at options for replacing the aging coal-fired boilers at the heart of their combined heat and power plant. Among power producers in the Interior, UAF has shown a strong organizational commitment to sustainability, as evidenced by their Cold Climate Housing Research Center.

UAF has a Sustainable Village project that attempts to make as little impact as possible on outside resources, and the south-facing wall of its Student Recreation Center is covered in solar panels. Yet, they ultimately chose to commit to coal for heat and power needs over the next several decades, for the straightforward reason that no other energy source comes anywhere near coal’s affordability. When errant squirrels in power generation equipment force the university to switch over to petroleum-fired options, as happens occasionally, UAF’s cost of power generation multiplies by a factor of six. The university rightly realized that more environmentally sustainable power sources are nowhere near economically sustainable — and barring unforeseen advances in technology or yet-unfunded megaprojects like a natural gas pipeline or the Susitna-Watana hydroelectric dam, they won’t be for decades to come.

Fortunately for those concerned with what burning all this coal might do to the local air, soil or water, emission control for coal power plants is an area where new technologies can be added to old generation facilities. Power plants like Eielson Air Force Base have seen bag house facilities lead to a marked decrease in airborne pollutants. While coal can’t rightly be considered a clean technology when compared to wind, solar, or even most other petroleum-based fuel sources, it’s certainly gotten cleaner in recent years. There’s reason to believe it can continue to do so.

Ultimately, there’s a distinct positive aspect to being locked into coal for the foreseeable future. The massive coal deposits in Healy are sufficient to match current demand in the Interior for decades — and as Fairbanks residents are well aware after half a century waiting for the arrival of natural gas, the presence of a fuel source that’s stably priced, abundant, and readily available is an asset that can scarcely be overvalued.

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dimitra Lavrakas lavrakas
dimitra Lavrakas lavrakas 06/06/14 - 09:31 am
It was a stupid commentary when it appeared in the fdnm

It was a stupid commentary when it appeared in the fdnm

Haily George
Haily George 06/06/14 - 10:59 am
200 years ago we started

200 years ago we started using coal. 200 years later we are still using coal.

I think we have sociopaths/psychopaths posing as politicians, people that don't have or don't even try to cultivate "higher emotions" like love, kindness, compassion, self-control etc.. instead these people have amoral behavior, no ethics. Think of Hitler.

Something is truly wrong when "one in every six babies in the U.S. are born with harmful mercury levels in their blood," and we have members of congress working to block the regulation of these poisons: coal, fossil fuels... I say "something" is truly wrong with those people.

Look after 200 years we should be off fossil fuels. This stuff should be left in the ground where it belongs. If we didn't have members in congress blocking attempts to get off fossil fuels we all know that after 200 years we would be off fossil fuels.

Just say NO to sociopaths/psychopaths posing as politicians.

Steven Rosales
Steven Rosales 06/06/14 - 06:40 pm

Thats crazy! 200 years is nothing! Truth is we are the only country on earth that actually is semi-green. There are other countries who pretend to be only. I say use fossil fuels. Why not? One major volcano emits more poluttants than all man kind combined. Haily just to inform you every item in your life and around you at this second is somehow a product of fossil fuels. Even your solar panels are made with petroleum products. Electric car batteries are far more dangerous to the world than normal batteries. Even your plastic toothbrush is a product of petroleum. Grow Up! Go live in a cave and see how you like it!

Karl Ashenbrenner
Karl Ashenbrenner 06/10/14 - 10:00 am

that some folks think that the US is greener than the rest of the world....actually many countries are ahead of the US in green technology including China! Never saw that coming did you? Most of these folks that think that fossil fuel usage will not destroy mankind are the same ones who also believe that if it does happen "I will be dead by then so who cares". I for one would like to leave an Earth substantially better for our grandchildren and later generations. Call me sentimental.

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