Firstly, coal power never left. New coal power went from almost 95% to 50% but it never went away.
The December, 2006 issue of Discover magazine has an article about the dangers of a return to coal power and the Independent talks about what we can use to replace oil the way oil replaced coal.
People talk about future power but the technologies of the past like coal still have a firm grip on our world and our economy.
The Discover magazine article has a couple of things that I will note:
1. 7% of the Appalachian forest has been obliterated by mountain top-removal mining.
Images of coal mountain top removal are all over the internet, here is one example.
9-15 men using explosives and massive bulldozers remove a mountain top in about 14 months then scoop out the coal. The alternative is mine shafts but that has deaths rate that are 10-100 times higher.
2. 2.5 billion tons of carbon are put into the atmosphere every year from coal. Included with that are 20,000 tons of radioactive uranium and thorium and thousands of tons of mercury and arsenic. The best of newest coal plants (Futuregen) on the drawing board only capture 90% of the carbon and would not clean up the other pollutants. It costs $100/ton to sequester the carbon. So if we keep the existing coal plants it will take $250 billion/year to store the carbon. The carbon scrubbers do not get react to get the other material. So we would still get the radioactive material and other poisons. It will take decades to convert over to carbon sequestering and cleaner coal plants. We are looking at 9 new IGCC (integrated gasification combined cycle plants) which wold help reduce emissions over the next decade starting in about 2013. That much carbon is not good for the environment. Even without talking about global warming the most anti-environmental must recognize the actual deaths from coal mining, significant pollution deaths, and environmental damage. The greatest global warming doubters must accept that global warming as a risk is increased by the 2.5 billion tons of carbon and global warming would be a bad thing.
As has been noted Coal causes 178000 premature deaths in major Chinese cities every year. Adding in rural Chinese areas would increase this to 400,000. 27,000 premature deaths in the United States as noted by the American lunch association.
Coal provides about 2 terawatts of global electricity every year and we are adding about 100 gigawatts every year in new coal plants. Coal power is a mid to late stage cancer that is killing the world, animals, plants and hundreds of thousands of people every year. Even the doubters cannot say that the mountain forests (plants) have not been removed. The doubters cannot say that ten thousand do not die each year digging up the coal around the world.
We need an aggressive nuclear energy program to help accelerate the removal of coal power. Just using solar (1.7GW added in 2005), wind (12 GW added in 2005) and hydro is like saying let us take some drugs to slow the growth of cancer tumors by 5% each year. But let us not take the nuclear capsules which can also slow the growth because we are scared the capsules could break. A three mile island nuclear "capsule" breaking caused no deaths and the Chernobyl "capsule" was the worst but it only caused 1/10,000th of the deaths in that year compared to coal. 100 capsules each year would stop the coal tumor growth and an additional 2000 capsules replaces the existing coal power cancer. We need the whole treatment cocktail. (conservation, biofuels, solar, wind, and nuclear.) Using everything gets to a cure within 20-40 years. Leaving big parts of the solution out means it takes decades longer to stop the coal tumor growth and decades more to get rid of our current tumors. Meanwhile the coal tumors kill over 1,000 every day and are already making planet sick and could kill the planet at some point. We just don't know when.
Happy thoughts and partial treatments will leave you dead.