Coal giant Peabody Energy put out a press release this morning that on first glance could be the work of The Yes Men, or a Greenpeace parody campaign. The announcement is titled: “Lights Out At Big Game Offers Compelling Demonstration To Counter Those Who Envision World Without Coal,” and the one-pager describes the Super Bowl blackout as something Americans should get used to in an era of reduced coal use for electricity.
That’s about the most disingenuous and manipulative piece of advertising I’ve seen in years (about as bad as its Coal Can Do That site). While power grid and utility execs are still looking into what caused the blackout at the Superdome, there are much more likely causes of the blackout than a reduction of coal use including faulty grid architecture (feeder line from an external substation), issues with Superdome power architecture, or even the highly speculative discussions of grid hacking that were ample on Twitter during the blackouts. (Note, Peabody isn’t actually saying the blackout was caused but a reduction of coal use, but just weirdly slaps the two together).
The use of coal for electricity in the U.S. has been reducing and will continue to reduce. Natural gas for electricity is the new hotness — it’s cheap, provides power 24/7, and is cleaner than coal — and wind power was actually the largest source of new generation in the U.S. in 2012. That wind stat was a record, by the way. Of course, having a massive coal business, Peabody doesn’t like this shift in energy generation, so it creates advertising campaigns that look to promote coal.
It’s a sad approach, really. I would say this to Peabody: you can’t turn around a fundamental shift in energy technology by these types of PR methods. The only thing that will shore up the loss of the coal business is investment in new energy technologies.
Yes, you claim to be doing so with “clean coal” technologies, but clean coal tech at this point is far less commercially viable than natural gas, wind, solar and energy efficiency technologies. If you look at the winners and losers throughout the history of the business world, the same type of technology shifts have led to changes like brick and mortar booksellers and video rental companies going out of business in the face of their online counterparts (Borders, Barnes and Nobles, Blockbuster), or telecom companies going under by not embracing wireless technology and the Internet.
No one would argue that coal provides one of the cheapest and most reliable forms of energy. But the environmental ramifications — both greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and dangerous work conditions — of coal are also well known. Coal is a non-renewable source and many of the coal plants in the U.S. are using very old technology. Natural gas is cleaner and also, like coal, can be used around the clock (wind and solar only provide power at certain times of day). And now with its low cost, it’s not surprising that utilities are turning to it now in droves. (Though, yes natural gas is non-renewable also).
As clean power — truly emissions free — becomes more mainstream, it’ll take over more of that new generation, too. Peabody, please join the modern technology age.