US Electricity Executive calls for end to coal

Energy Matters0

Scott Bilby:I’d like to start off by just trying to let people know, that because in Australia, we’re still being told the same thing that you’re being told in the US, that renewable energy is basically a sideline cottage industry, we know it can go commercial scale and very quickly, so can you just quickly give us a little bit of information about you’re background, and how you know that we can move too commercial scale renewable energy pretty soon.

David Freeman:Well I have been a utilities executive most of my life, and when I was chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is a utility much larger than anything in Australia, we were buying thirty million tones of coal a year, so I know a bit about coal, and the one thing I do know for sure is that it is not clean, it is dirty, and that anyone who tries to tell you differently is just speaking falsehoods.

Australia has more solar energy than it has coal. I think the misleading impression that has been left is that the existing energy industry has plenty of money and they advertise on television and elsewhere, and they’re trying to leave people with the impression that they are essential and the sun and the wind and growing things are just small bits of energy, very diffuse and kind of a sideline.

Scott Bilby: That’s a good way of putting it

David Freeman: The opposite is true. Obviously there would be no life on this earth without the sun, but the energy that we can use from the sun every day, coming down free of charge is enormous, and more, much more than enough to meet our needs, and its inexhaustible.

So basically, this civilization of ours is using what I call the three poisons, coal, oil and nuclear power, and we haven’t put our minds and our money into developing the much larger sources of energy, namely the renewables, and over time the renewables are cheaper than the coal. The problem is, the price of coal does not include all of its costs. It doesn’t include the health effects on people just from ordinary air pollution. It doesn’t include the risk to the whole society of global warming, and it doesn’t include the risks of a third world war, or people being blown to smithereens by a nuclear blast. In an age of terror, you know, shifting to nuclear power is like going out of a frying pan into a radioactive fire. So we have a lot of learning to do and we need for the next generation to recognize that we’re in a life or death struggle for the survival of the civilization that we have now, and we have just got to raise the bar on the solution package.

I think that we’ve made progress in understanding the problems with the help of people like Al Gore and others that have hammered home the danger, but we need the equivalent of an Al Gore on the solutions side, and to combat the propaganda of the existing purveyors of poison.

Matthew Wright: David, it seems certainly that our government, and we saw it a couple of nights ago on lateline which is an Australian Broadcasting Corporation nation wide television program where our climate change minister, Penny Wong continually said and implied that there’s no solutions to climate change without clean coal. Now I understand that with you’re knowledge, and maybe you can tell us a bit about how you’ve worked with coal, the coal mining industry and running coal power stations, and what you think of this idea of so called ‘clean coal’?

David Freeman: Well look, I mentioned just a moment ago I was the head of the Tennessee Valley Association under President Carter. We had a lot of coal fired power plants. Coal is inherently filthier than dirt, and anyone that uses the phrase ‘clean coal’ is misleading, either deliberately or otherwise, misleading the public. It is the most carbon intensive of all the fuels, so when you burn it you are emitting more carbon into the air than if you were burning anything else. But then the local air pollution from burning coal, is well understood but we’ve become complacent about it. It’s the fine particulate matter from coal that goes past you’re nasal passages into the deep recesses of you’r lungs, and into your bloodstream. It’s a killer. And coal contains all sorts of things like mercury, lead etc, that are not even controlled, so the phrase ‘clean coal’ is oxymoronic, it is just blatantly false, and the reason they’re getting away with it is that people do not see and touch coal any more.

When I was a kid, coal was used in furnaces at home, and when you had to stoke the stoker, you knew how dirty coal was. Nowadays the coal piles are in remote locations at power plants. We’ve stopped using coal for heating in the home because it’s so damn dirty, and filthy and polluting. So you know there is a river in Egypt that flows all over the world, it’s called denial, and I think that some people in the coal business, beholden to the coal industry, are in denial.

That’s just a fact and we certainly have alternatives, in fact it’s interesting, we have an Australian company that’s come over here with marvelous new technology for large solar power plants that are very economical.

Scott Bilby: We’ve actually interviewed David Mills here on this show.

They’ve built a plant in Australia, they’re building a larger version here. The photovoltaic technology is being supplemented by technology where we simply heat oil and make electricity in an ordinary steam turbine with the sun. And if you look at the cost to society, coal is the most expensive thing on earth, and solar power is the cheapest.

Matthew Wright: Absolutely, and that technology from David Mills, for our listeners, they can log onto our website at, and we’ve interviewed David Mills and just the other day he released a study which we will also have on the website , that [says] you can run 90% of America on solar thermal technology. Perhaps you can tell us about that?

David Freeman: Well Ausra, the company that’s making a name for itself in America, and hopefully will also make a name for itself in it’s native land of Australia.

Matthew Wright: We hope so too and of course we have a fantastic solar resource. So it’s always mind blowing to us that we seem to invent all the solar technology and then the scientists leave and it gets commercialized in Germany, China or the United States, so for Australian’s it’s a very difficult one to understand and obviously those vested interests are whats causing this problem.

David Freeman: There’s not much doubt about that and I took civil engineering and I’ve worked with engineers, there’s a tendency to want to build tomorrow what you built yesterday because you’re very comfortable and people that suggest something new kind of ruffle the feathers of engineers who know who’ve been building coal fired plants and they view it as a threat. And with all due respect the most imaginative of the engineering profession did not go into the electric power business, they’re into electronics and other things where they’re making a bundle. We have resistive behavior and that’s not peculiar to just America or Australia or any country. And so we have to overcome it and that means that programs like this are very very important to educate people to what can be done because unless the people know that there is an alternative it is not likely to take place, because the vested interests, like one senator once told me when I was working for the US Senate, he said I was suggesting some amendments to a bill involving the oil industry and he said son this Senate has not been bought but it has been rented on this issue and you’re wasting my time. And the influence of money on politicians no matter what country you’re in is enormous and there’s a brainwashing factor to it, I mean people tend to believe what they say because it helps them with their campaign contributions and other things, I’m not saying it’s criminal I’m just saying it’s a fact of life and it has to be overcome. By the public raising the issue in an unmistakable manner.

Matthew Wright:In Your book Winning Our Energy Independence: An Energy Insider Shows How You said that with lignite and as the head of the biggest power authority in the United States the Tenessee Valley Authority. You said that you had actually gone and ended some ideas about mining lignite, funnily enough in Victoria Australia we have some of the world’s biggest lignite reserves. And unfortunately we stripmine that and run 90% of our electricity on that. Is that something we want to be doing?

David Freeman:It’s near coal, it’s very low grade coal, and I don’t know what the quality of the lignite is in Australia and it is by its nature less energy intensive and more pollution intensive even than coal and I’m very proud of the fact that when I was the head of the utility near Austin Texas we stopped the lignite mine before it got started even though they’d already bought the equipment. It’s a travesty of major proportions for an area that has got such enormous solar power like Australia to be burning coal or lignite, now I’m a utility executive I’m a realist you can’t just shut down everything you’ve got overnight, but you could have the law in Australia that says from this day forward that says there will be no new coal fired plants, no new lignite plants, no new nuclear plants and that all of the future belongs to the Sun and the Wind and efficiency measures. That’s what we’ve got to do all over the world and there’s no point in pointing the finger at the Chinese or anyone else unless we start showing an example that they can follow and I think that if we did they would.

Mark Ogge: …

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