Coal and Sustainable Energy: An exciting essay topic

To the CEO of Solid Energy:

Dear Sir,

I understand that your corporation is sponsoring an essay competition for schoolchildren in Southland, West Coast, Canterbury and Waikato.  The essay, up to 1500 words, must address “The Role of Coal in Sustainable Energy Solutions for New Zealand.”

I am not sure if there is an age limit this year, but as a mature New Zealander I am excited at the chance to participate and would be most grateful if you’ll allow me to submit.  Any opportunity to stimulate young minds – any old mind – towards sustainable thinking is a priceless contribution to this country’s future.  It should be appreciated for what it is – a selfless act of communal service on your part.  I plan to alert the Minister of Energy to this example of corporate supererogation. I know how pleased he will be.

I shall keep my contribution under 1000 words – discounted for age, as it were.  Here is my submission:

In this essay I consider the role of coal in sustainable energy solutions for New Zealand.  As an aspiring young leader, I shall summon people – future followers of whom I know many – to support my vision.  To do that, I must combine intellectual rigour with emotional appeal.  So I begin with a definition of the main concepts in the essay title.

Sustainability is the capacity to provide for our present generation’s needs whilst ensuring that future generations can meet theirs.  An eco-centric perspective requires that we humans act as custodians of the planet for the sake of all species.  But the prevailing anthropocentric view is that other species are here on Earth to serve human needs, and if they appear not to be doing so, they become dispensable.  This applies particularly to those of small size – snails for example – but it can apply equally to larger creatures, including all higher primates.

A solution is defined as an answer, a ‘key’, to a problem.  In this essay, the problem would appear to be the implied lack of sustainable energy scenarios for New Zealand.  This excludes the rest of the world.  I am having difficulty with this since we have traditionally been import-dependent on heavy oil from overseas.  So it comes as a relief to know that the Government is encouraging the exploration of oil here, both on-land and off-shore, and that it sees one future scenario of New Zealand as a potential net oil exporter.  Bravo!

I suggest that oil and coal should not be seen as mutually competitive.  Each draws from past solar activity and remains predictable in its proven reserves.  If peak oil is as early as 2014 – the latest IEA report – then we must rely further on its older sister whose reserves are believed to last for several centuries more.  This will give us time to successfully deal with any climate change, and adapt to whatever extent we may need.

The emotional appeal of coal is, I submit, self-evident.  My grandparents used to speak wistfully of cosy evenings of times past with the open-hearth fireplace casting a warm glow around the living-room, generating human conviviality and good cheer on a dreary night.  Today’s clinically-modernised global community could do with some of this.  If the ensuing heat-loss of 85% warmed the heavens, then surely this was a cosmic good.  I do not begrudge my ancestors their simple pleasures; in fact, we should seek to recover them.  Solid Energy has a moral role here, I believe, in uplifting our flagging spirits.

But, it must be asked, is such a role sustainable?  I realise that the world’s coal reserves are finite, so at some future stage we must switch to renewable energy resources.  But in the meantime, there is more coal to extract and consume than any other fossil fuel source.  Oil and natural gas are, together, insufficient to double the carbon concentration in Earth’s atmosphere – with the goal of 800 ppmv.  We can only achieve this through coal-burning.

That is estimated to result in an average global temperature increase of some 8 to 10°C and a sea-level rise of 5 to 15 metres over the next two centuries.  Some timid souls may see this as a negative consequence of my energy solution.  But several qualifying considerations are, I think, relevant here.

First, a global average does not mean that New Zealand will necessarily share in those figures – our temperature increase could well be lower, at a congenial level perhaps, particularly for those of us in Southland.

Secondly, the time-span of two centuries raises the question of how far out the concept of inter-generational justice that underpins sustainability just has to stretch.  For my part, I think it is sufficient simply to worry about one’s children and theirs.  Beyond that, our mokopuna are just gleams in a fossil-burner’s eye.

We can, moreover, be confident that human ingenuity and technological prowess, of the kind that has generated such an economic miracle over the past 250 years, will see us through.  In the same vein, we should believe that humans will have learnt, over the next 3 billion years, to take leave of the solar system on which we currently rely, and bid our dying Sun adieu, when the time comes.  Nothing is beyond us, now that technology has allowed us to break free of Nature’s primitive grasp.

New Zealand has its part to play in all this, punching as always above its weight.  A hungry China is installing two Huntly-sized coal power stations each week.  GHG emissions are correlated with GDP on a per capita basis.  Ours are about 17 tonnes per annum.  Theirs are 3.5.  They have a right, and must be encouraged, to reach our level.  We must help.  It is our bounden duty.

Besides, if we do not supply them with the coal they need, someone else will.  So let us compete.  Solid Energy has a role to play in meeting China’s needs.  The export income we earn from this will allow us to focus here on climbing out of the economic recession and making our national economy grow again, as it has in the past.

Annual growth of 5% – surely a credible aspiration – enables us to double our economy within about 12 years.  As our population grows to the projected 5 million and Earth’s to 9 billion, we shall need all the coal reserves we possess.  Meanwhile, our Government will ensure that we balance economic opportunity with environmental responsibility.

Some are terrified that an atmospheric carbon concentration above 450 ppmv and a modest temperature increase above 2°C will spell disaster for humanity.  But I say, we have nothing to fear but fear itself.  We shall balance economic opportunity with environmental responsibility.

A sustainable New Zealand is a wealthy New Zealand.  A wealthy New Zealand has the capacity to ensure that we are sustainable.  Wealth thus equates with sustainability.  Coal and oil equates with wealth.  It follows that coal and oil equate with sustainability.

Sir, I trust these thoughts meet with your approval.  I hope to win a prize for this essay from Solid Energy that allows me to consider a career in your company.  Give me a child of seven, as they say, and I will show you the man of seventy.  That will be around the year 2075.  I foresee a bright future for New Zealand, with coal as the Key to its sustainable energy needs.

May Solid Energy grow from strength to corporate strength, delivering power and happiness to the people of New Zealand.

21 Comments Posted

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  2. Oil, gas, uranium and eventually coal will run out even if we cap our population unless we switch to renewable fuels. If we do burn all our oil and gas and most of our coal, then the CO2 levels will rise to levels that will cause AGW and ocean acidification and so far no one is sequestering the CO2 from power stations, let along other sources of CO2 such as vehicles, ships and aircraft.


  3. Mabey the easiest answer lays in controlling our population rather than the types of resources we use as we go about our lives.

    Set population limits for countries and review them annually, think of the possibilities

    – enough resources to go around
    – enough food to go around
    – enough jobs for everyone
    – enough land for everyone
    – lower impact on planet

    We dont need to ditch our cars, stop burning oil and coal, we just need less people on earth doing those things.

    Surely this is possible if something as expensive and complex as setting the ETS scheme is possible.

    Although as with most things a ban on something will always result in a black market and illegal trade.

    Which one would have the better benefit to the planet ?

  4. My contribution to the essay competition would be well under 1000 words. it would read

    Coal has NO place in SUSTAINABLE energy solutions for New Zealand.

  5. Well sprout @ March 16, 2010 at 9:41 AM, thank you for that slight correction..

    Until then in this day’s read-up I’d gotten to wondering about such things. And when, pray, those sources excluding the NZME, had become so ‘intellectual’ in their pr. Happen to mention this, did they.? The when..?

    Like 2000, 1980, 1993. 1983, 2003 – golly do I have a pref for 3s !

    As to the essayist himself – he’ll accept and excuse my referring to him as master eiron I hope – I’ll add how the prose is pretty solid and should find acceptance at the elder levels of that particular energy. Oops, no, the elders are not involved are they, a panel is solely determinant. They wish

    IN which case it could script and make a movie. Better chances than a play. Anyway.

  6. Very funny Kennedy – you could have been the comedian on the Titanic

    Your wit is as dry as the Canterbury Plains will be in 2050

  7. A slight correction: Although Solid Energy’s own web site was mention during the radio interview the actual websites listed in the competition information are the World Coal Institute, The Australian Coal Association and lastly the New Zealand Ministry of Energy.

  8. I listened with a mixture of dispair and amusement to National Radio this morning. The CEO of Solid Energy was castigating secondary teacher, Chris Henderson, for daring to suggest to students that coal may not be part of a sustainable future. “Let the students think for themselves!” he demanded. Of course the key resource recommended by the competition was Solid Energy’s own website.

  9. Wickedly funny, Ken.

    Shame that so many of them will read this as an acceptance of their role in bringing ‘resource wealth’ into the GDP bottom line for the next decade, being totally deficient in irony detection.

    Toad –
    my money’s on Kiwiblog running with it.
    Wanna keep an eye on the fat guy for me? 😉

  10. I am certain that most rational people in NZ and indeed elsewhere know where the powers that be (Governments) are taking us. To Hell.
    But we voted for them, didn’t we.
    Change of attitude towards climate change can only come from people themselves.
    Your letter to solid energy on this blog only reinforces the converted.
    Why not publish the letter in the Herald and other daily papers.
    We have to convince other people and sceptics to change their idea’s and way of life.
    It is no use hoping and waiting for new technology to save humans, yes humans. The planet earth will always be in the same place it is now.
    It just won’t have many humans on it.

  11. Well, April 1 is just a couple of weeks away and it might take that long for the trolls to get their knickers in a twist.

  12. Let’s hope the right wing media don’t take this story and report on it as if it was literal. I can just imagine it:

    “Green Party MP Kennedy Graham announced today that we have nothing to fear from an atmospheric carbon concentration above 450 ppmv, that China should be encouraged to reach New Zealand’s emission levels of 17 tonnes per annum of CO2 emissions. He also stated that ‘Solid Energy has a role to play in meeting China’s needs’.

    The marks a major shift in the thinking coming from the Green Party. One political commentator we spoke to today said: ‘The Green Party is seen by many as campaigning for a better environment. If they are now flip-flopping on that position, I would be surprised if they make the 5% threshold needed to get into parliament'”.

  13. And you didn’t even need to mention the use of our top-quality coal to make the steel needed for renewable energy generators like Pelamis and wind farms.


  14. You really have to wonder about a CEO who would try such a stunt and think no one would notice. Perhaps he really does think that all publicity is good and doesn’t care how bad he looks.

  15. Thank you, Ken, for your explanation of sustainability. As a Southlander I am excited about the great potential of our wonderful lignite reserves. We already have our booming dairy industry contributing to our collective wealth and with the support of lignite mining we shall more than pull our weight in achieving the continued growth of our economy, and supporting the people of China in attaining western levels of GHG emissions.

    I’m sure we can sustain high levels of production of the white and black substances for at least a generation before our water resources are totally compromised. By that time I’m certain we would have reached that laudable goal of matching Australia’s economic success. Also by that time I’m sure Australia would have solved their water crises and we could use their initiatives to fix our own degraded rivers and aquifers.

    It is rather stormy and cool down here at present so I’ll put another shovel full of coal on the fire and feel comforted that Solid Energy is doing its bit in ensuring a susaintable and wealthy future for us all.

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