Architecture 2030 has a full page ad in the New Yorker this week asking “Think You’re Making a Difference? Think Again.” They note that “There are 151 new conventional coal-fired power plants in various stages of development in the US today,” and go on to compare the beneficial impact of major conservation initiatives against the negative impact of one coal plant:

Home Depot is funding the planting of 300,000 trees in cities across the US to help absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions… The CO2 emissions from only one medium-sized (500 MW) coal-fired power plant, in just 10 days of operation, will negate this entire effort.
Wal-Mart is investing a half billion dollars to reduce the energy consumption and CO2 emissions of their existing buildings by 20% over the next seven years. If every Wal-Mart Supercenter met this target… The CO2 emissions from only one medium-sized coal-fired power plant, in just one month of operation each year, would negate this entire effort.
California passed legislation to cut CO2 emissions in new cars by 25% and in SUVs by 18%, starting in 2009. If every car and SUV sold in California in 2009 met this standard… The CO2 emissions from only one medium-sized coal-fired power plant, in just eight months of operation each year, would negate this entire effort.

Their conclusion: No more coal.

Today, buildings use 76% of all the energy produced at coal plants. By implementing The 2030 Challenge to reduce building energy use by a minimum of 50%, we negate the need for new coal plants.

My conclusion: No more new coal, sure. How about no more old coal either? As I wrote earlier this year in Big Deal for Less Coal:

I’ve been thinking a lot about coal lately, musing about the financial strategies that would enable shutting down and writing off the entire industry. Why not buy out owners, employees and communities — and take the financial hit now, rather than over a century or two of continued subsidies and escalating environmental and climate damage.

Estimates of the global subsidy to the coal industry range from tens to hundreds of billions of dollars per year. (See Lester Brown, Herman Scheer, Green Scissors, and UIC for a few examples.) The market capitalization of the 25 largest companies is $52.8 billion, their annual revenues about $28.5 billion. Which is a better investment? Continuing to pour major subsidies (which according to some analysts may exceed the industry’s revenues) into to an industry with massive environmental impacts? Or using that budget to acquire, shut down and write off the industry; to pay decommissioning and cleanup costs; to provide transition investment and training to affected communities; and to invest in the renewable fuels and energy sources to fill the gap?
This would be a fascinating fall project for a bunch of MBA students. My bet is that this scenario generates an interesting ROI even without accounting for environmental and health costs, and a very attractive one with those included. Anyone interested in running the analysis?
As for the arguments that modern society couldn’t survive without coal, German parliamentarian Herman Scheer notes that “we are faced with a green washing of black energies.”

These attempts use existing mental barriers in peoples’ minds against Renewable Energy: Renewable Energies do not have enough potential to completely replace nuclear and fossil energies, their increased introduction will be too expensive and will require unaffordable subsidies, Renewable Energies technologies will need a long time to be fully operational.
These arguments are wrong.

(Scheer refutes those arguments here.)
“We should not wait for international treaties,” Herr Scheer advises.

Experience gained from international governmental conferences over the last 35 years shows that these events always follow the hidden motto: “Talk globally, postpone nationally”. Their participants always have to reach a consensus. But an unbridgeable gap exists between consensus and acceleration. In history, no example of a breakthrough of a new technology can be found which has been promoted by an international treaty. The common rule is: be faster than others, because the speediest will have most opportunities.

So, anyone interested in that “shut down the coal industry” scenario? I’m easy: I’ll take a team of MBA students or a modest contract from a smart investment firm.
But let’s run those numbers!

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