High-Efficiency Coal Technologies Are Vital to Low-Carbon Energy Systems

Published: 23 Feb 2016

High-Efficiency Coal Technologies Are Vital to Low-Carbon Energy Systems

Access to affordable energy is crucial for improved family budgets and stronger GDP, and a balanced energy portfolio is vital given growing electricity needs.  Today the world uses twice as much electricity than it used 25 years ago.  

Our need for power becomes even more pronounced when one considers the billions of people in emerging economies that still have no access or inadequate access to modern energy.  For these families, there is no enduring light, no refrigerators to keep food fresh and no clean, safe way to warm their homes.  

As energy leaders, our charge is to expand energy access for families living without power, maintain a reliable supply to satisfy existing needs and plan for long-term growth, which points to coal’s important role in the broad mix of fuels given its scale, availability and low cost.  Advanced coal technologies are a ready-today solution to satisfy these needs and accelerate the transition to low-carbon energy systems.  I believe there are three core steps toward this goal, and I’d like to elaborate on each one:

First, turn coal into electricity, which can lift hundreds of millions from energy poverty and the health tragedies of indoor air pollution from cooking and heating with open fires.  Step one in reducing key emissions and improving health and longevity for millions should be extending the elevating hand of electricity to those who lack it.

Step two is using today’s high-efficiency, low-emissions (HELE) coal-fueled generation technologies to drive down carbon dioxide levels.  There is a large build out of these plants underway globally with more than 700 gigawatts of advanced coal generation online or under construction.  China leads the way with about 55 percent of the world’s fleet.   

These technologies have a smaller environmental footprint, achieving as much as a 25 percent reduction in a plant’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emission rate.  Said another way, moving the current average global efficiency rate of coal-fueled power to HELE levels could deliver the equivalent environmental benefit of reducing India’s annual CO2 emissions to zero.

Notably, when HELE plants are equipped with advanced emission controls, they achieve key emission rates in the United States that are 75 percent below the existing fleet.  We’re seeing enormous environmental improvement with this technology right now.

My final point is the need to advance policies and investments to commercialize carbon capture and storage technologies (CCS), which offer the best large-scale solution to capture carbon dioxide emitted from energy as well as industrial processes.  

I was pleased to chair a National Coal Council study this past year on CCS, which was done at the request of the U.S. Secretary of Energy through the Council’s advisory capacity on coal policy and technology.  The study calls for leveling the playing field for CCS to achieve policy parity with other low-carbon options such as solar and wind.  Ultimately this would lead to near-zero emissions from coal, which is recognized by global leaders as essential to our carbon goals.  The International Energy Agency has said that CCS must contribute one-sixth of total emission reductions by 2050.  

That is a significant challenge, given there are currently only 14 large-scale CCS projects in operation globally, including one in the power sector, with another eight under construction that will bring online two more in the power sector.  Since 2007, CCS investment has been around $13 billion compared to roughly $1.8 trillion for renewable power generation technologies over the same timeframe, according to the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute.  Much greater investment and deployment of large-scale CCS projects are needed.

As we look ahead, we must put in place a technology path for long-term improvement in carbon emissions that will enable the world to use more energy while keeping electricity available and affordable.  

Advanced HELE technologies and ultimately carbon capture and storage are the right approach and a major part of a low-carbon energy future. 

This Industry View was published in the February edition of World Coal magazine.

Primary Center: