LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Rural electrics should support clean energy

Thursday, December 19, 2013 | 12:32 p.m. CST

So the scuttle is that the Environmental Protection Agency wants to raise your electric rates. That’s what the Association for Missouri Electric Cooperatives and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association are saying.

The two groups insist that electricity from coal is the cheapest and rural Missouri should stick with it. But it’s not the cheapest when you factor in health costs, environmental cost and the cost of climate change.

And what about future energy prices? The cost of coal and burning it is not likely to go down. But the cost of wind and solar is on a downward trend. By limiting fossil fuel use, we would send a signal to investors to move their money from dirty energy to clean energy to meet that new demand. With increasing demand and economies of scale, technology will continue to improve and prices will fall further.

As a mom and a grandmother, I am concerned that burning fossil fuels is changing our physical world. Carbon emissions from burning coal and oil are warming the Earth’s atmosphere and making oceans too warm and acidic for sea life. Scientists tell us to expect more extreme weather, wildfires, sea rise and mass extinctions if we continue to burn fossil fuels at today’s rates. Not a single major scientific society disagrees. In other words, the Missouri we grew up with is not the Missouri our children are getting. And what are we setting up for our grandchildren? More can be found at, or

It takes just one ton of sand to make the same amount of electricity for solar energy as 500,000 tons of coal. A fourth of the burned coal remains as coal ash that contains arsenic, lead, mercury and hexavalent chromium – pollutants that cause cancers and neurologic development. Because of health concerns, Missouri residents near Ameren’s Labadie coal plant have been fighting plans to pile millions of cubic yards of coal ash on a plot of cropland near the Missouri River, just upstream from St. Louis. Additionally, burning coal leaves a plume of sulfur dioxide and particulate matter that causes increases in asthma, lung and cardiovascular problems. has great information about coal pollution.

Through its political action committee, NRECA spends more than $2 million on political campaigns each election cycle. In addition to this fiscal investment, at the local level it works through more than 900 local electric cooperatives serving more than 43 million people across the United States to send messages to Washington demanding the right to burn coal to keep kilowatts cheap. The cost to our health, environment, climate and future are never mentioned.

It is time that these 43 million customers — the real owners of these cooperatives — educate themselves about the total cost of coal. Then send a grassroots message back to their local cooperative, AMEC and NRECA demanding that the rural electric system that innovated to light up and power rural America now help lead our country to a new clean-energy future.

Juli Viel grew up on a family farm near St. Martins and now lives in O’Fallon. She is an auditor for the state of Missouri and a volunteer with the Citizens Climate Lobby.

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Michael Williams December 19, 2013 | 2:54 p.m.

"It takes just one ton of sand to make the same amount of electricity for solar energy as 500,000 tons of coal."

What an absurd if "sand" was the only thing used. Does the author even know what the term "rare earth metal" means? I'd call it a lie, except I don't think a person can lie if they know little about a topic. Perhaps MarkF will weigh in....

As for telling us rural folks what to do, perhaps your nose is better kept on your side of the city limits.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith December 20, 2013 | 8:00 a.m.

Michael et al.:

I'd neglected to read this yesterday. First, I want to comment on one statement where the lady is definitely correct: As more wind-generated electrical power is placed on line the cost per kW will continue to become less. That's simply basic economics as applied to any new technology.

Iowa and several other states have considerably more wind units in service than Missouri (Iowa may now be second of the 50 states) and it definitely shows up in the percentage of electricity generated by wind power. However, I can take you around Iowa and show you a number of huge coal-fired units running ""flat out." Why? Because we have yet to supply by new sources anything close to the electrical energy we need to meet our demands WITHOUT continuing to resort to coal-fired units.

This is where our ecology friends require further education: they seem to have no concept of HOW MUCH electricity our society demands on a daily basis!

As to the statement about "sand," there may in theory be that much energy - if some means to extract it were available. I would remind this lady and others that there IS ALSO A HUGE AMOUNT OF ENERGY AVAILABLE IN THE ELEMENT URANIUM, WHICH WE CAN AND DO EXTRACT FOR PURPOSES OF PRODUCTING ELECTRICAL ENERGY. That process does NOT produce carbon dioxide, sulfur, or airborne particulates. (Unfortunately, it DOES produce radioactive waste.)

Now, let's get to ceramic raw materials, of which which I believe I have some knowledge. When "civilians" use the word "sand," they usually mean quartzite (silicon dioxide), the most abundant mineral on earth. Most commercial forms of glass contain silicon dioxide as an ingredient, although most natural quartzites aren't pure enough for glass production. The minerals olivine (a naturally-occurring silicate) and rutile (a naturally-occurring form of titanium dioxide) are also called "sands" and have important commercial applications. So "sand" actually refers more to a (fine) particle size than to any specific chemical formula.

Reading the letter to the editor one assumes that this lady, like so many folks, does not understand what we can now do both technically and by regulation to remove particulates (ash), sulfur-containing gases, etc. from exhaust gases of coal-fired electrical power plants. She and her family are in potentially more danger from the exhaust gases from diesel trucks and railroad locomotives. Those emissions contain long-chain hydrocarbons that are either known (animal studies) or suspected carcinogens. Where are letters to the editor about that?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 20, 2013 | 9:24 a.m.

Ellis: I interpreted her comment about "sand" to mean we can take specific silicates and make solar panels which have a useful life for electrical generation equivalent to 500,000 tons of coal.

(Really?....1 billion pounds of coal equivalent? While I'm highly qualified at skepticism, I'm unqualified to answer this specific question. MarkF, where are you?)

The "long-chained hydrocarbons" to which you refer are actually PAHs, or polyaromatic hydrocarbons.....cyclic aromatics rather than chains. Personal exposure per unit time is far greater over the BBQ grill or, as you stated, behind one of Columbia's buses.

PS: However, I am in complete agreement with the notion that releasing carbon sequestered for billions of years into earth's active carbon pool is not a good long-term strategy (oil, gas, coal, AND limestone for concrete). We should be using nuclear as a time-bridge to harnessing energy from the sun so we can split water from the sea (aka, catalyst). This will undoubtedly require a complex ceramic, so get busy, Ellis.

Our ecology friends are NOT thinking big enuf with these rinkydink wind farms and solar-to-home electricity!

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith December 20, 2013 | 11:57 a.m.

@ Michael Williams:

Thanks. I now see that's what the remark about the sand probably refers to, but that changes NONE of my remarks, above.

Mark Foecking has previously pointed out that while wind and solar both sound good and can indeed BE good, we aren't unlimited as to where they can be placed. For wind, we need venues where wind is more or less continually present and is neither too weak nor too strong. Yes, folks, it CAN be too strong (gusting), where we must either lock out the windmill or risk damaging it.

To make solar most effective we need clear days up to 300 days a year. That situation occurs in Santa Fe, New Mexico and the Mojave Desert, but not so much in the Eastern or Central United States - and absolutely not in the coastal portions of Oregon or Washington states. In Contrast, coal-fired or nuclear plants can produce no matter the wind, sun(lack of cloud cover), ambient temperature, etc.

I am not pushing coal or nuclear, I'm simply stating fact.
BTW what happens if a large solar array of glass mirrors (as opposed to some other reflective surface) is subjected to a storm with golf ball-sized hail? One does not need a degree in Ceramic Science or Ceramic Engineering to appreciate that glass is brittle.

(Report Comment)
Mollie Freebairn December 22, 2013 | 4:06 p.m.

The sand question is a good exercise to give an idea of how much solar & wind power is physically required to replace all the coal currently being burned, also discussed in Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson’s article in Scientific American,

In Missouri about 80 percent of our electricity is generated by burning about 45 million tons per year of subbituminous coal from Wyoming, releasing about 80 million tons per year of CO2 into the earth’s atmosphere.
Solar panels are composed of a lattice of thin flat photovoltaic semiconductor silicon cells, 180 to 350 micrometers thick. Silicon crystals require about 8 grams of silicon per watt of electric generating capacity. Annual electricity produced varies depending on the orientation and latitude of the solar system array. In Mid Missouri, each watt will produce about 1.25 watt-hours per year.

Since Silicon crystals require about 8 grams/watt (8 Kg/KW), which will produce about 1.25 watt-hours per year. Calculating and converting the units,
2000 Lb /2.2 Lb/Kg = 909 Kg / 8 Kg/kW = 114 kW of silicon will produce 142 kWh per year X 30 Years = 4,260 kWh = 4.26 MWH.
So 1 Ton of Silicon crystal will produce 4.3 MWH over 30 years. 500,000 Tons of Silicon would produce 2,130,000 MWH. In comparison, 1 Ton of coal produces 1,870 kWh = 1.87 MWH.

Feel free to check my math before heading out with the bulldozers, because that adds up to a lot of silicon, and more than twice as much sand! On the plus side, once it is placed in service, it has a life expectancy of 30 to 40 or more years, whereas the coal is consumed leaving behind many toxic pollutants, and more must be mined every year.

According to the US DOE Energy Information Administration, coal produces 1,870 kWh of electricity per ton. So 500,000 tons coal produces about 935,000 MWh of electricity. (

A typical home uses about 10,000 kWh of electricity per year. (10 MWH)
So 500,000 tons of coal would power 93,500 typical homes.)

(Report Comment)
Mollie Freebairn December 22, 2013 | 4:09 p.m.

Turning to the pollutants released to the air, water, and land by burning coal, according to the EPA,
& doing the math,
500,000 tons coal produces about 1,051,407 tons of CO2,
6,077 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2)
1,500 tons of nitrogen oxides (NOx)
In addition, according to the USGS, on p.27,
the heavy metals in 500,000 Tons of Powder River Basin WY coal contain:
0.07 Tons (140 Lb) of Mercury,
1.3 Tons Arsenic,
3 Tons Chromium,
1.5 Tons Lead,
13 Tons Manganese,
2.3 Tons Nickel,
among dozens of other heavy metals, carcinogenic polycyclic organic hydrocarbons(PAHs), dioxins and furans, and other products of incomplete combustion (PICs). Many of them are, as one commenter noted, captured by the air pollution control equipment as particle-bound pollutants, in the form of coal ash waste. Stored coal ash waste may be blown back into the air, or purposefully introduced back into the environment as replacement for portland cement in concrete, concrete blocks, shingles, asphalt, flowable fill, and bricks.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 22, 2013 | 9:22 p.m.

MollyF: Thanx for all the info.

But you also might want to discuss elements other than silicon that go into "solar". Things like what are they, how much is used, how do we recover and purify them, and who owns the mines.

Also, I found references that the world uses about 5 billion tons of concrete each year. I wasn't able to find out how much lime (CaO) goes into this amount of concrete, nor how much limestone is mined to make this CaO via high heat. I wonder how much CO2 is released from this largest of earth's carbon sinks each year via calcining limestone into lime for concrete?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith December 23, 2013 | 6:17 a.m.

Since concrete has been mentioned, a few comments.

Concretes are basically a mix of three ingredients: coarse mineral aggregate, fine mineral aggregate (typically fine quartzite, aka "sand") and a processed hydraulic-setting cement, which is a ceramic. The only ACTIVE ingredient is the cement, typically made from the minerals limestone, dolomite, or combinations of the two.

Most cement is processed thermally in what is called a rotary calcining kiln to form a sintered particle called a "clinker," which is then crushed and milled to form the finished cement. Calcining requires a considerable amount of fuel (typically either pulverized coal, natural gas, or fuel oil) and milling cement requires a considerable amount of electrical energy.

In the process of calcination of the raw materials BOTH the products of fuel combustion (with air) AND the chemical reactions taking place produce large quantities of carbon dioxide gas.

The rotary kiln process is thermally inefficient, and some other means of clnker production is needed. Present facilities for melting and refining glass (another class of ceramics) are also thermally inefficient, but progress is being made to correct that situation (and it has involved a special team of design and operating experts, some of them from MS&T).

Prospects for serious improvement in thermal efficiency of cement production aren't good, but we haven't given up.

Cement is produced commercially in large quantities on all continents except Antartica.

One of the largest diameter rotary calcining cement kilns is located in Clarksville, Missouri. I am not familiar with its current ownership or operating status, but it has historically operated using pulverized bituminous coal (Western, low sulfur) as fuel.

One further and, to me, interesting point: Ownership of cement producing facilities in the United States is pretty much foreign (Danish, German, Canadian, Swiss, Japanese). Years ago that wasn't the case.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith December 23, 2013 | 8:02 a.m.

@ Molly, Michael, et al.:

Molly mentions that about 80% of the electricity generated in Missouri is produced by coal-fired power plants.

Here, in Iowa, that percentages is noticeably lower. I forget the exact figure, but was surprised when I saw it. I do know, as I have previously mentioned, that this is a leading state in wind farm production.

My other observation is that in France it so happens that 75-80% of all electrical power generation is from nuclear power plants.

I am not "pushing" nuclear power, just making an observation. Obviously, use of nuclear fission (versus nuclear fusion) creates radioactive waste, but it doesn't create carbon dioxide (greenhouse gas).

The French situation is interesting. Germany - Frau Merkel's* government - WAS going to build a few more nuclear reactors to operate as a capacity "bridge" until they could phase out their fuel-fired power plants.

With the Japanese nuclear disaster, and growing pressure from Geen political parties, the Merkel government reversed course and will build no more nuclear power plants in Germany.

So how will the Germans get the power they need for that "bridge"? THEY'RE BUYING IT FROM FRANCE, WHICH LITERALLY HAS POWER TO SPARE. By what means is the French power produced? :) It is a good economic deal for France, as it will help balance an inbalance of payments in trade with Germany.

I offer this as an example that far more is involved in these matters than technology or calculations.

*- Generally speaking I am one of Frau Merkel's ardent admirers.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 23, 2013 | 9:30 a.m.

Ellis: I found an article (but failed to save the link) that said 7% of all man-made CO2 came from calcining of limestone for cement (included CO2 directly from limestone to make CaO, AND the energy to do the reaction).

I have NO idea of the accuracy of this value. However, given the large number of quarries in the world plus the large amount of concrete poured, I'm betting the value is close.

7% is a bunch!

PS: Our ecology friends need to understand that oil, gas, and coal are NOT the only sequestered carbon sinks around.

In fact, limestone is #1.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith December 23, 2013 | 12:30 p.m.

Because carbon dioxide is highly soluble in water, the planet's oceans contain a greater reservoir of carbon dioxide than the entire atmosphere. ("Earth, The Sapphire Planet," Lanham, Dover Publications, New York, 1999, page 99)

From geology (rock chemistry and paleontology) we know that in the past the earth's atmosphere contained considerably less oxygen than it does now. This goes along with the fact that animal life first began in the oceans (where there was dissolved oxygen) and that plant life would have been more luxuriant then than now (accounting for the origins of coal and petroleum deposits).

At the same point in prior geological time the relative amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would have been higher than it now is, and ambient temperatures would have been higher than now.

BTW while many products have discrete chemical formulas, be they short or horribly long, there IS no discrete formula for Portland cement: as long as the product meets certain physical parameters, its chemistry is of little importance. This situation occurs with some other mineral products, and it drives government regulators nuts because they want everything to be neat and tidy. Too bad!

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 23, 2013 | 3:10 p.m.

Ellis: Actually, carbon dioxide isn't all that soluble in water. The equilibrium constant for H2O + CO2 -> H2CO3 is 1.3 x 10^-3......or about 1 part per 1000 reacts to actually form carbonic acid.

For actual dissolution {CO2(gas) versus CO2(aq)}, the concentration in water if the atmosphere was ENTIRELY carbon dioxide would only be 0.034M....and, of course, our atmosphere isn't 100% carbon dioxide. Thus, the concentration is much, much less dissolved in water under earth's atmosphere.

Of course, in water (particularly seawater), the carbonic acid disassociates easily in the slightly buffered conditions, forming H+ and HCO3- which tends to drive the equation to the right (Ka for carbonic acid to bicarbonate ~~ 2x10-4). Hence, the overall Ka for CO2(aq) into bicarbonate in water is on the order of 10^-7, or one part in 10 million.

In conclusion, I wouldn't say carbon dioxide is all that soluble in water.

It's the total volume of water that makes it such a big carbon sink.

Not as huge as limestone, tho.

Please note that the ocean is the largest ACTIVE carbon sink on earth. The oceanic carbon dioxide is actively involved in our carbon cycle. Things like oil, gas, coal, and limestone are sequestered sinks, unavailable for participation in our active carbon cycle until WE make the carbon active.

PS: Of course, as all champagne drinkers know, you can increase the soluble carbon dioxide with increased pressure.

(Report Comment)

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.