Sunday, June 16, 2019

Carbon in the Dale

"Rather than put back the coal mines, we should seriously think about putting back the forests."

My trip this week to Carbondale was to have been another stop on the book tour — a regional development conference and biochar masterclass — but it turned into a glimpse into why President Cobblepot may be elected to a second term by the abused and beaten citizens of Gotham.

The economic engine for Carbondale had once been coal (hence the name). The coal under this part of the world began as forest and swamp when the US Midwest was located near the equator. 250 million years later, Illinois was where the dark stones were encountered first by Europeans setting out to survey the new continent, in 1673.

An earthquake (lying along a precursor to the New Madrid fault perhaps) likely caused the terrain to suddenly go below the sea and the pressure of rock over millions of years created today’s coal and shale. Note the grey area on this state map. You can see that only a small fraction of those black rocks have been exploited over the past 300 years.

One of the most fascinating lectures I heard at the New Climate Economy forum here in Carbondale was provided by Seth Feaster, Energy Data Analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. I am going to include many of his slides in this post, with gratitude to Seth and IEEFA for making those available.

His first was a picture of what Peak Coal looks like for the US.

Then how this plays out regionally. Appalachia has been in steady decline since 1990, while the Powder River Basin didn’t hit the skids until 2008. Illinois is what they call the “Interior,” where production has declined about 40 percent over the past 30 years.

The arithmetic behind the U.S. coal industry is simple: 90% becomes thermal coal for things like making steel, producing electricity or heating homes. Exports of that are minor. The other 10% is metallurgical coal, most of which gets exported. Of thermal coal, 93% goes to electrical production.

However, since 2005, coal has been the second most expensive choice of fuels for electric generation, after heavily-subsidized nuclear, so naturally, utilities are moving away from coal and nuclear and into cheaper natural gas and renewables.

Today there are seven industry-disrupting technologies, none of which favor coal.

If you look at wind’s share of electrical generation, it is poised to become the dominant fuel across the Midwest.

Coal is no longer a “baseload” source because wind has turned out to be so reliable when you operate over a large enough area and have a smart grid that can shift power from where it is most abundant to where it is demanded. In only ten years, operating coal plants went from being on line almost 80% of the time to being off line 80% of the time.

Gas, by itself, is undercutting coal on price; and has a greenhouse gas emissions advantage. Wind, by itself, is undercutting coal on price with an even larger emissions advantage. Solar, likewise. Together, gas and renewables are complementary in managing variable demand; coal is not. Because it is no longer baseload power, it becomes even more expensive when its plants go offline and sit idle in off-peak periods. Together, renewables plus storage have advantages over gas, and storage is now disrupting the traditional market structure. “Baseload power generation” is becoming an obsolete concept. Storage is the base.

Preliminary figures show that in 2018, nearly 15.4 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity retired or was converting to natural gas. New announcements continue to add to the list of coal steam plant closures expected over the next six years. Another 32 GW (10%) has been announced as closing by 2024.

As the roar of a coal train pulling through town rattled windows, Feaster delivered all this bad news with sympathy but without pulling punches. For undiversified local and regional economies, the impact will be devastating and long-term. Carbondale is in the crosshairs. It can expect and is already experiencing:

Loss of power-plant jobs;
Loss of coal-mining jobs;
Loss of tax revenue and royalties;
Cascading bankruptcies, with loss of service jobs, health-care and pension benefits.

He told the crowd that all too often, responses by communities begin only after considerable deterioration or complete loss of their financial resources. Communities foolishly try to keep mines open with public ownership or by turning to Washington for bailouts and tariffs. They may even pass ordinances restricting alternatives. This is a fool’s errand.

The good news is that energy independence is becoming possible for larger consumers of power and homeowners alike. It can come not only from wind and solar but from biomass and a rebounding forest products sector. Unfortunately, Carbondale, like many towns, is not preparing itself to go this way. It has chosen, by default and inertia, to remain undiversified — wholly dependent on just two failing industries.

At the Fuller home.
The rapid demise of coal since 2008 is death by 1000 cuts to Carbondale. However, for the latter half of the 20th Century, economic vitality for the city relied more on a second industry — higher education. The city was home to Southern Illinois University, former teaching sinecure of R. Buckminster Fuller (his 1960 dome residence is now on the National Register). Every fall, 20,000 students would return to spend their money in the town, boosting the local economy.

Then, Illinois was struck not only by floods, fires, and furious winds (called “Derechos”), but by Tea Bagger politics. In the post-Millennium neoconservative political upheaval ironically engineered by the coal king Koch brothers, subsidies from state governments were pared away from universities, hospitals, water projects, and civic good. All across the Midwest previously thriving communities began to wither and die. SIU’s freshman class this year will number less than 1000, thanks to the double whammy of vanished state subsidies and higher tuition. No new professors are being recruited. Those that are working are termed, not tenure-tracked. There is barely enough money to pay the grounds crew.

While in Carbondale I rented this 3-bedroom house for $27 per night. Eighty percent of the homes on this street are for sale and/or for rent. Same for surrounding streets.
In the elementary schools, surveys of children reveal that 40 percent of residents are now underfed, as their parents — those that managed to keep their homes — are buying groceries paycheck to paycheck. Local schools have begun to give children take-home junk food like power bars on Fridays to get them through the weekends until the federal program gives them a choice of Fruit Loops or Captain Crunch at the school breakfast on Monday. And this is not just in Southern Illinois — the same scene is being replayed across the heartland.

If Adolf Hitler were to come through on a campaign swing and tell these people their days as victims were over if they will support him, they would all don brown shirts and fall into rank.
President Cobblepot merely promises to reopen the coal mines.

“Howard County, Iowa voted by 21 points for Obama in ’12 and by 20 points for Trump in ’16. That’s a 41-point swing. What’s up? That’s what Democrats have to figure out.”
— George Will, on Real Time with Bill Maher, June 14
My mission in town was to get everyone to look up to the sky. I had the audacity to tell them we can take carbon from the atmosphere, make energy, transform CO2 into coal, and profitably employ people burying it back in the ground. While the crowds are yet small, they are listening.

I am telling my audiences on this tour that when biomass is heated to 400 to 1200°C in the absence of oxygen it volatilizes all the elements save carbon, and it alters the molecular characteristics of carbon, such that it bonds to itself with very tough bonds that are difficult for normal weathering or hungry microbes to break. As a result, it becomes very long-lived in the soil or other structures and is unlikely to bond with hydrogen or oxygen and return to the atmosphere, typically for thousands of years. We have the example of 250 million-year-old biochar derived from ancient forest fires to prove it. We also have Buckyballs (Buckminsterfullerene).

Where does that biomass come from? Before the Industrial Revolution, and before coal mining stripped the forests from Southern Illinois, there were 6 trillion trees on Earth. Today there are 3 trillion. There is a lot of room there to put them back. India showed how it could be done by planting 50 million in a single day. At that rate, we could plant 1 trillion in 50 years. But that is just one country. And, unlike the artificial trees being crafted in laboratories that will require billions of dollars and gigawatts of energy, the actual tree, on the other hand, pays for itself, no taxes or coal mines required.

Forest economies, of course, supply much more than woody residues from forest industries. They provide oxygen, clean air, coolth, and biodiversity. They tick many more of the boxes for sustainable development. They provide, as we heard in the conference, “thriveability.”

Look at just one part of that new landscape — biochar for concrete and asphalt. In concrete, biochar replacing sand or aggregates will decrease weight, increase compression, tensile, & flexural strength, resist spalding and cracking, improve flame retardance and fire resistance, provide infrared and electromagnetic shielding, regulate humidity, serve as insulation, and remove odors, smoke, pollen, dust and mold spores from the air. Under the roads and sidewalks, it cleans air, cleans water, feeds tree roots, and reduces the urban heat island effect.
When you sequence the carbon, you can boost the bottom line and have a very fast return on investment. So, for instance, biochar can start by filtering water and then become a compost accelerant and then become fertilizer. Or biochar can start inside bricks and later, when the building is torn down, become a mine reclamation filter media and soil builder. It can filter sewage and then go into roads or bridges. Because of the heavy metals and pharmaceuticals in municipal wastes, they are unsuitable to make biochar intended for farming or gardening but are okay to make biochar for tires or fuel cells. These are what Kathleen Draper and I called “carbon cascades.” It is the foundation of a new climate economy. It places new value on forest products, and since we will need a lot more forest in the future, it provides a way to pay for that without taxes.

The emerging market for this is enormous. Almost beyond cataloging. It is entrepreneurially target-rich. Biomass-derived biochar is a valuable tool for everything from storage batteries to refrigerants to fuel cells to electric vehicles. For places like Carbondale, this can be a development driver for the coming century, with Cool Lab biorefineries serving as enterprise hubs upon which the entire community is supported in meeting its transition and development goals.

While actions by governments in support of these changes are important, the real initiative must come from the bottom up. It must be community-led innovation. This can only be accomplished by financial incentives that meet basic needs, permit rapid expansion of the industries and are ethically based in community values.

That said, there is no avoiding a very significant redesign for our global civilization. In a very short time, that change will require a shift of global industrial economies no less profound than that which transformed Western and Soviet manufacturing in 1940. For the owners of factories, steel mills, mines, and myriad enterprises, a paradigm shift would have to transform their holdings from carbon-polluting to carbon-trapping almost overnight. In 1940, entire industrial economies switched instantly from producing consumer goods to providing war materials. It was a rational response to a visceral threat.

It is going to get warmer. Here in the Midwest, winters will be harder, and summers will be brutal. We are in a period that anthropologists call liminal, or between paradigms. It is a period of great uncertainty, malaise, and strife. We need to provide the calm, strong influence that perseveres to the next stage. We will need to bring a lot of our home food production indoors to be sure we have enough in the worst years. We have to stop denying that seas are rising and weather is getting worse. We have to stop marching to the tune of snake oil salesmen and Cobblepot politicians or their media minions.

Hang in there. Be the future you want to see. Go there and live it, now. It is already here if you know where to look.

Rather than put back the coal mines, we should seriously think about putting back the forests. That is the way to put the Carbon back in Carbondale.


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