Many are those that believe that coal is an obsolete technology that is not or should not be used in this advanced 21st century world. Let’s be honest, at first sight coal doesn’t really look like anything attractive. It is a black-brownish sedimentary rock that causes many miners to develop black lung disease due to long exposure to the coal dust. Many of them also pay the cost of their lives, as the industry unfortunately recorded several disasters such as the Farmington Mine disaster in 1968 or more recently the Jim Walter Resources Mine Disaster in 2001, or the 2006 Sago Mine Disaster. As far as President Obama is concerned, coal is to be ruled out of our energy portfolio because it is a major contributor to the greenhouse effect. However, many facts lead to think that the “dark stone” still have a bright future.
According to the EIA, here in the USA, coal is responsible for nearly 40 percent of our electricity. From a global prospective, coal also played a major role as it supplied nearly half of the global incremental energy demand this past decade (see graph below):
Incremental world primary energy demand by fuel, 2000-2010 (Mtoe)
But why is coal so well-liked? Here in the United States, coal reserves are of 260 billion short tons, which based on the 2012 coal consumption (890 million tons) means that there is enough coal for the next 200 years. Major proved recoverable coal reserves have been identified in other parts of the world as well: South Africa (30 156 million tons), Indian (60 600 millions tons), Russia (157 010 million tons) or Australia (76 400 million tons). This abundance of coal makes it one of the cheapest options to satisfy the growing energy demand. Also the coal industry has the big advantage of having a technology that is readily available and which has no major constraints (unlike solar energy which requires sun, or wind energy which requires wind). As of today there are nearly 1.3 billion people who do not have access to electricity worldwide. Coal can be the “bridge” these populations rely on before transiting to cleaner alternatives, which are expensive and constraining for the most part.
Despite the Shale Revolution that the U.S. is experiencing, coal is far from being forgotten. A major reason is because the dark stone will offer more price stability than natural gas. EIA projects that natural gas prices for electric power generation will increase by 50 percent between 2012 and 2025, while coal prices are projected to rise by only 11 percent over the same period. Coal plays a significant role in the well-being of developing countries’ economies: countries like China, India, South Africa and Kazakhstan have large coal export markets, which create valuable foreign investments.
However, from a climate change perspective, coal is an issue as being a major CO2 emitter. Among major fossil fuels, it has the highest carbon intensity and in reason of that, coal-fired plants have the highest CO2 per kilowatts output. On the following EIA graph, it can be seen how CO2 emissions from coal are projected to be dominant for the next few decades, when compared to the other energy sources:
World energy related carbon dioxide emissions by fuel type, 1990-2040
In order to foresee a future for coal without compromising the environment, efficiencies of coal-fired plants have to be improved. According to a 2006 IEA report on coal, an only 1% improvement of a coal plant efficiency could result in decreasing its CO2 emission by 2-3 percent. Another key aspect that will allow the use of a cleaner coal is the development of Carbon Capture and Sequestration technologies.
Carbon capture and storage technology will be a key aspect to reduce CO2 emissions, not only from coal, but also natural gas and industrial sources. The IEA’s WEO 2011 report estimates the potential for CCS to contribute 22 percent of global CO2 mitigation through to 2035. With the utilization of Carbon Utilization and Storage (CCUS) technologies, the carbon capture can even be used to enhance oil recovery, hence further improving the energy security of a nation. Like all new technologies, CCS or CCUS will require significant investment costs to support the R&D needed to adapt it to the commercial scale. It is important to realize that the technology already exists, but it has not yet been proven at the commercial scale. Governments should therefore unconditionally support the R&D aiming to improve CCS and CCUS technologies, as well implementing incentives (like the production tax credit) to overcome the financial barrier.
Coal will be the bedrock on which energy access will be built for both developed and developing countries. Its abundance and readily available technology makes it a cheap and reliable option to satisfy the growing demand for energy. Facing the threat of climate change, it is understood that efforts have to be made to mitigate CO2 emissions for which coal is a major contributor. Banning coal seems to be a drastic alternative that will compromise the nation economies as well as their energy security. Instead, improving coal plants efficiencies and implementing CCS and CCUS technologies will most likely lead to a win-win situation between the coal adherents and the environmentalists. From there, each nation could continue improving towards a zero-carbon economy, based on the opportunities offered by its geopolitical situation. Leading nations like the U.S. should therefore push the development of these critical technologies, so that coal doesn’t compromise the existence of life on earth.