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A giant leap for humanity

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World Coal,

Fred Palmer

In the 20th Century, the culmination of a decade-long effort was to land a man on the moon in 1969: an amazing achievement for mankind that marked a milestone in the industrial evolution of the human community.

Despite the progress this achievement represents, almost fifty years later there are billions of people on the planet with no – or grossly inadequate – access to electricity. To provide modern levels of electricity supply on a universal basis, meaning every human on earth has a right to live the way we do, we need a new man-on-the-moon vision, with a man-on-the-moon effort to achieve universal energy access.

Because of the huge amount of un-met human need, both in the present and the future, 21st Century coal is the only path to achieve this transformational goal. Fortunately, 21st Century coal has a man-on-the-moon vision to pursue in achieving it, as articulated by the actual man on the moon himself: Neil Armstrong. In 2000, Armstrong, on behalf of the National Academy of Engineering, said: “the top-rated improvement to the life of earthlings in the 20th Century was electrification. If anything shines as an example […] it is clearly the power that we use in our homes and businesses.”

In recognising 20th Century electrification in the US as a driver of the country’s success, the academy recognised by definition the power of coal in driving electrification, improving the lives of all of its citizens, as well as the human and natural environment.

Of course, the US urbanised as it electrified; the two proceed together, hand-in-glove. And in the 20th Century, coal provided well over half of the total electricity consumed as the population and the economy surged following the end of World War II.

The human environment

The human environment is identified in the laws of the US in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA):

  • NEPA establishes the ‘human environment’ as the focus for all federal agencies in exercising regulatory authority for development of the country’s natural resources.
  • It requires the government to prepare environmental impact statements before taking major federal action that impacts the ‘human environment’.
  • It was signed into law by President Nixon in 1970.
  • It is our ‘Environmental Magna Carta’ and should be treated as such.

In 1972, the UN Conference on the Human Environment in its Stockholm Declaration defined the human environment as identified two years earlier in NEPA:

“Man is both creature and moulder of his environment, which gives him physical sustenance and affords him the opportunity for intellectual, moral, social and spiritual growth […] Both aspects of man’s environment, the natural and the manmade, are essential to his well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rights: the right to life itself.”

In the US, electrification has powered the economy with steady improvement to the human environment from the beginning. As an inherent part of that process, coal used with ever-improving technology has been relied on to grow the economy and facilitate urbanisation with continued improvement in the human environment. The development of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is a clear case of this.

The TVA: a story of electrification

Life before the TVA

Before the TVA, farmers in the Tennessee Valley earned only about a third of what farmers averaged across the country – and most farms produced just barely enough food to feed the family. Life on a typical valley farm at the time lacked most of the modern conveniences enjoyed by those in nearby cities:1

  • No running water, which meant no indoor bathroom. Any water the family needed for drinking, washing and bathing had to be carried in from a well, stream or lake.
  • No refrigerators to store butter, cream or milk, which the family could have sold to make money.
  • No modern appliances, such as washing machines, so a lot of time was spent washing clothes by hand and doing other manual chores.
  • No electric lights for the family to read or study by in the evenings.
  • No electricity to power a radio to hear the latest news, sports scores and music.

Life after the TVA

When TVA brought electricity to the country, life changed for the better. The following details what the same farm looked like after being hooked up to TVA power:1

  • A new electric-powered water pump and a washing machine meant the family did not have to spend so much of their time hauling water and cleaning clothes. With more time and energy, they could focus on other activities.
  • A new electric-powered refrigerator allowed the farmer to sell butter, cream and milk.
  • Electric lights in the henhouse, the yard and the laundry room helped the farm become more productive.
  • The addition of electric lights and electric appliances helped the farmer produce more goods to sell, which meant the family earned more money and was able to produce more than enough food to eat.
  • With more spending money, the family could paint the house, remodel the kitchen and add hot and cold running water. The farmer could buy more chickens, cows and pigs and increase his income even more.

Conclusion: the TVA example today

The TVA story may be a uniquely American story, but the lessons learned from it are not. The 20th Century story of the TVA establishes how electrification improves the quality of life in the US, informs US leadership on a 21st Century coal path for the future, and clearly shows a path forward for electrification in the developing world in the 21st Century. What electrification did for the people of the Tennessee Valley can be done across the globe in places such as Africa, China and India, where people still live like the people of the Tennessee Valley did almost a century ago.

The following statistics need to be understood by policy makers who should put in place a regime that solves these horrendous problems:

  • 3.5 billion people lack proper energy for basic needs.
  • 3 billion people burn primitive biomass for cooking and heating in India, South Asia and other developing nations.
  • 2.5 billion people lack clean water and sanitation facilities.
  • Over 4 million people die each year from indoor air pollution.2

A huge increase in population in cities is on the way. The UN estimates that the worldwide population will increase, primarily in the developing world, by 3 billion people by the year 2100 to 10 billion people. The UN also estimates that over 70 million people are expected to be added to cities each year by the year 2050. Simply doing the maths suggests well over 2 billion additional people in cities by the year 2050.

How much additional coal use will this massive urban growth require? In a 2015 presentation I made in Paris to the Coal Industry Advisory Board, an IEA group, and using historical past coal, population and urbanisation numbers as prologue, we concluded electricity demand would grow 130% and require total world coal production and consumption of 13 billion tpy. This compares to just under 8 billion tpy consumed today. This powerful story of urbanisation and electrification needs to be explained consistently and persistently, and in detail, to world policymakers and to the public.

At the same time, we need to recognise the need for a long-term societal discussion on carbon. How do you deal with that? It has to be educational and it needs to start with people’s values. You start with the strictures people will face under the grip of energy poverty and move on to the wonders of electrification and what it has done for everybody.

The next part of the work is to paint a technology picture to show how technology is continually evolving. As the price point of advanced technology is brought down, we will be always more efficient. In fact, we are at near-zero criteria emissions pollutants today in state-of-the-art power plants. If the human community decides as a whole that we want geologic storage of CO2, we have the means to do that – and we can do that.

Most importantly, new policies in the US and abroad are needed to give near-zero CO2 emission coal technology the same electric production tax credits and set asides as wind and solar as we preserve the existing coal fleet in our policy work. If that happens, I have no doubt the private sector will provide a number of alternatives superior to CCS as a long-term carbon answer.


  1. For more on the history of the TVA see:
  2. Yadama, G.M., Fires, Fuel and the Fate of 3 Billion: the State of the Energy Impoverished (OUP; 2013).

Note: This article first appeared in the May issue of World Coal.

About the author: Fred Palmer is former Senior Vice President of Government Affairs at Peabody Energy and now a Partner are public affairs firm, Total Spectrum/Steve Gordon and Associates.

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