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The energy debate - Merits of coal far outweigh negatives

Published:Tuesday | January 11, 2011 | 12:00 AM


I read The Gleaner's editorial of January 5 with great interest. The editorial made the case for coal for electricity generation in terms of the economics of energy raw materials. Coal is cheaper than gas. What is not as widely discussed is how the choice of an energy supply system can affect the nation's present and future physical and social security.

Coal is a widely available commodity and will remain so well into the future. Because of this and because coal prices are not driven by cartels, coal prices are unlikely to fluctuate as do prices of petroleum products, making long-term energy planning more reliable. Petroleum supplies may appear to be plentiful, but easily extractable petroleum is becoming scarce and extraction from deep offshore sources is both expensive and more risky, as the Gulf spills have demonstrated.

The major oil suppliers are in politically volatile regions of the world. Can we be sure that Jamaica will receive contracted supplies of LNG and other oil-based supplies indefinitely into the future? And as supplies become scarce, can we be sure that prices will not skyrocket?

Coal suppliers are near at hand. North America has large reserves of coal and lignite. South America also has significant resources. The nearest coal mines are in Colombia, just across the Caribbean Sea.

Coal is much less amenable to domestic interruptions in distribution. Until it is burnt in a power plant, it is more or less inert. It can be stockpiled cheaply and supplies can be purchased in a relatively leisurely manner as additional storage facilities are easily constructed. Supplies of coal can be stockpiled at little cost in storage facilities as a strategic energy reserve.

LNG requires relatively sophisticated and expensive storage and distribution facilities. It is not inert. It is potentially explosive if handling facilities are damaged, either by natural catastrophes or by domestic unrest or terrorist attacks, as is also the case with gasolene and diesel fuel. Coal can be transported islandwide by rail or truck (rail would be preferable). Any kind of truck can be used. Coal can be used domestically as a partial, even complete, substitute for charcoal, thus helping to reduce some of our deforestation problems.

cheap source

In summary, coal is a very safe and cheap source of energy, not requiring complex and expensive delivery and distribution apparatus. For a country such as ours, that needs an inexpensive and uncomplicated source of fuel for electricity, coal is the obvious choice until we transit to a power economy based on nuclear energy and wind- and solar-power generation.

Yes, coal is a fuel that produces relatively high levels of greenhouse gases. Yes, coal also leaves ash-waste products, although fly ash is recycled for concrete and waste handling is not dissimilar to that of bauxite waste. But in the present state of our economy, can we really afford the more expensive and potentially less secure alternatives?

I am, etc.,


Professor Emeritus