Electric power worldwide is over 40 percent of total global carbon dioxide releases, and it is the fastest-growing portion (in terms of human-released greenhouse gases). India, China and other countries are rapidly industrializing and bringing basic electric power services to their peoples. Their development, like U.S. electric power, follows least-cost options.
Our least-cost electric power options--coal-fired power plants--are by far our most destructive and dangerous ones. Coal burning directly kills hundreds of thousands of people worldwide in particulate, sulfate and mercury releases, thousands of tons of radioactive emissions yearly, and emits over twice as much carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour (kWh) as any other form of power generation. The coming costs from worsening droughts from Africa to Indiana, intensified storms, and rising sea levels will bring misery to billions.
To achieve these goals, we must provide services that consumers want and prefer over their non-sustainable fossil competitors, while at the same time be profitable for business.
Nevertheless, U.S. utilities and their banking partners are planning to build about 150 new coal-fired power plants in the U.S. over the next five years, and China is building roughly 60 large plants every year. (The recent TXU settlement is a step in the right direction but will probably not make a dent.) Electric power is an engine of economic growth, bringing light, cooling, and communication to billions, but every coal-fired power plant is a ticking slow bomb.