This argument has always been illogical. Just because alternatives to coal are expensive now does not mean they always will be, and a major national push would soon bring down costs through economies of scale. But a new study goes even further, showing the "technology not there" argument to be not just illogical, but factually incorrect. In fact, the United States could replace nearly 100% of its coal-fired power generation--and do so almost overnight. How? With natural gas (which emits 50% less CO2 than coal). The Financial Times reports:
The shift from coal-fired generation to gas- fired generation sounds like something that would be lengthy and difficult to accomplish. But a new report by PFC Energy, the consultancy, indicates it is anything but. The report says US gas fired power plants average about 25 per cent utilisation, compared with 70-75 per cent for coal.
So operating existing plants at 72 per cent utilisation would theoretically increase gas demand by 30bn cubic feet per day - a rise of about 50 per cent - and displace almost all coal fired capacity. In doing so, carbon dioxide from the power sector would be cut 50 per cent, according to PFC.
Note that this is referring to existing power plants. In other words, we could completely eliminate the use of coal in this country without building hundreds of new power plants.
Also note that this is a recent development. Just three years ago, the idea of abundant natural gas replacing coal actually was ludicrous, and coal's defenders at least had a point. But that's no longer true. The difference is new technology that has unlocked previously out-of-reach shale gas formations such as the Marcellus Shale in Appalachia.
Providentially, much of the nation's most promising gas potential is in the very states where coal is currently strongest politically: West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
All of a sudden, coal miners who fear job losses from shutting down coal mines now could have gas fields in which to work. Looks like King Coal could have some competition for its most supportive Senators. (Indeed, last month The Hill reported that the natural gas lobby is "pushing new incentives to encourage utilities to switch from coal to natural gas, [and] in doing so, the sector is starting a lobbying fight with the coal industry." All I can say is, go get 'em boys.)
The bottom line: any time you hear someone say that the technology isn't there to switch from coal, you're being fed PR dog food. We don't have to wait for solar and wind costs to come down before abandoning coal, because natural gas is already cheap and abundant - and we can make the switch overnight. All that's needed is political will.