A Free-Market Energy Blog

The Energy Race Is On (improving fossil fuels vs. political favorites)

By Greg Rehmke -- August 28, 2018

“Regulations and foreign aid policies restricting low-cost coal power, intended to reduce CO2 emissions, drive up costs and reduce the availability of electricity. In poor parts of the world, this leaves millions more still exposed to much denser and more dangerous indoor air pollution.”

The energy race is on, with separate lanes for teams advancing wind, solar, gas, coal, and oil sands technologies.

Across the world enterprises race to discover and develop new energy-rich places and raw materials, searching for pathways to lower costs, reduce waste, and boost yields. For energy, the master resource, engineers from solar to oil sands test new materials, chemicals, and processes for transforming sun, wind, water, and earth to energy.

Windmill teams design ever larger, more efficient blades, more efficient power transformers, and hopefully more resilient to storms and corrosion. Hopeful articles are published regularly reporting cost and efficiency advances in wind, solar, and energy-storage industries.

But these wind and solar technologies, government-dependent as they are, face stronger competition from teams advancing various hydrocarbon technologies.

Cleaner, Greener Fossil Fuels

Hydraulic fracturing firms drive technology frontiers forward at an astonishing speed, reaching further and drawing ever more oil and gas from deep underground. Other entrepreneurs advance new systems to reduce and recycle wastewater (see, for example, The Next Big Bet in Fracking: Water: Investors sense opportunity in companies that handle drilling wastewater (Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2018)

Technological advances have cleaned-up coal emissions. “Coal-fired electricity generation is far cleaner today than ever before,” states one summary by the Institute for Energy Research. “Modern coal plants, and those retrofitted with modern technologies to reduce pollution, are a success story and are currently providing 30 percent of our electricity.” IER explains:

According to the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), a new pulverized coal plant (operating at lower, “subcritical” temperatures and pressures) reduces the emission of NOx by 83 percent, SO2 by 98 percent and particulate matter (PM) by 99.8 percent, as compared with a similar plant having no pollution controls. Undoubtedly, air quality will continue to improve in the future because of improved technology.

“Clean coal” technologies, in separate “green” and “clean” flavors, have separate goals of reducing CO2 emissions and reducing particulate pollution. A 2017 Popular Mechanics article, How Does Clean Coal Work? describes it as “Capturing carbon dioxide and sending it below the Earth’s surface.” This technology might feed carbon-consuming microbes deep underground, but up here on the planet’s surface, forests, fields, farms, and ocean phytoplankton breath in CO2 to green the Earth, feeding creatures up the food chain from zooplankton and fish, to animals and people.

The New York Times draws from recent research to make the case that all this new green (today’s conversion of 30% more CO2 to green) is actually bad. ‘Global Greening’ Sounds Good. In the Long Run, It’s Terrible: Rising carbon dioxide levels are making the world greener. But that’s nothing to celebrate (July 30, 2018) offers four reasons more CO2 and photosynthesis are or could be bad. But critics quickly responded at WUWT:  NYT: Global Greening, Faster Plant Growth, is Bad (July 31, 2018). The traditional view is what the Times originally concluded: Global Greening in the New York Times (CO2 benefits contradict SCC).

Poor-Country Coal (vs. Cleaned-Up Coal)

Other clean coal technologies look to reduce particulate emissions. Popular Science weighs in with its 2017 article There’s no such thing as clean coal: It’s not an industry we should save. Popular Science readers learn that the science and engineering technology needed to remove particulate emissions from burning coal apparently doesn’t exist, can’t exist, is too expensive, or at least isn’t popular… The article reports:

… coal powered plants emit a host of noxious pollutants. For example, each year, coal fired plants pump out 146,000 tons of PM2.5 pollution, a form of particulate matter roughly 40 times smaller than a grain of sand. They also pump out 197,000 tons of PM10 pollution, a form of particulate matter or dust that’s 10 microns big. That’s small enough to slip through your typical mesh filter.

Because PM2.5 and PM10 pollution are so small, when we release these particles into the atmosphere they don’t just stay there; we breathe them in. The pollution lodges deep within our lungs, which haven’t exactly evolved to handle this kind of invasion. As a result, PM pollution causes health issues ranging from asthma to heart attacks.

A study released earlier this year found that every year, 3.45 million people worldwide die an early death due to PM 2.5 pollution alone.

The Popular Science article claims our lungs “haven’t exactly evolved to handle this kind of invasion.” However lungs might have changed over time, they also “haven’t exactly evolved” to resist indoor pollution from burning wood, dung and kerosene. According to the World Health Organization in 2018:

Each year, close to 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to household air pollution from inefficient cooking practices using polluting stoves paired with solid fuels and kerosene.

People in poor countries who lack electricity can face a trade-off between outdoor (or ambient) air pollution and indoor air pollution. A coal-fired plant can provide the least expensive electricity but also releases particulate pollution.

Regulations and foreign aid policies restricting low-cost coal power, intended to reduce CO2 emissions, drive up costs and reduce the availability of electricity. In poor parts of the world, this leaves millions more still exposed to much denser and more dangerous indoor air pollution.

Oil Sands

Oil sands,  the last team in our energy race, may be gaining steam for a come-from-behind victory. Recent stories profile new technologies in Canada that bypass water requirements and tailing ponds. See, for example: ‘Revolutionary’ new oil sands mining process eliminates tailings ponds, lowers emissions by 40%, cuts costs:

IPEP extracts from the mine face, separates some of the bitumen, drops the sand behind it, and generates dry, stackable sand,” that remains in the pit, said Romero. “That is a gigantic step forward.

She notes that IPEG significantly lowers the company’s tailings pond liabilities, which must be reclaimed 10 years after the facility closes operation. Improved technologies have already reduced CNRL’s tailings ponds footprint by 50 per cent and water consuption by over 30 per cent, according to Romero. (Source: EnergiNews)

And in oil sands news from Utah: A Plan to Unlock Billions of Barrels of Oil From Utah’s Sands (New York Times, August 21, 2018) reports on a new team and their new “cocktail of solvents that can separate oil from rocks at little cost and with no water or air pollution.”


In the ongoing energy race, new oil sands tech could be yet another game-changer able to:

unlock billions of barrels of oil in Utah and surrounding states, and from other shallow oil sands deposits around the world. They say they are talking with companies in Australia, Colombia, Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago about joint ventures or licensing agreements.

The race is still on to offer cleaner, lower-cost energy, especially to the billions around the world still living under Hans Rosling’s “wash line.” Rosling in his famous 2011 TED talk, The Magic Washing Machine, (now watched over 2.5 million times), makes the point that even though billions more now have access to enough electricity for some light, some five billion still live under the “wash line”: they lack enough electricity to power a washing machine that we in the developed world take for granted.

So, across the world billions still wash clothes by hand. Rosling calls the two billion poorest the “fire people” still heating and cooking with wood with their families inhaling the smoke each day.

The energy race is about finding pathways to generate and deliver more electric energy to these billions under the wash line, and to reach still further out to connect the last couple billion people “fire people” to the global electric economy.


  1. Ed Reid  

    Markets are certainly not perfect, but they are demonstrably far superior to the next best alternative when measured not by what they promise but by what they deliver.


  2. End Ethanol/Biofuel and Fossil Fuel Subsidies – Economic Thinking  

    […] more, see The Energy Race Is On (improving fossil fuels vs. political favorites) (MasterResource, August 28, […]


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