Make No Mistake: The Age of Coal Marches On

Published: 19 Oct 2015

Make No Mistake: The Age of Coal Marches On

By Frank Clemete PhD.
Professor Emeritus of Social Science, Penn State University

 In the wake of the EPA’s final carbon rule, aka the so-called Clean Power Plan (CPP), there is much ado about where we will get our future energy and what happens to coal.  Besides significantly raising energy prices for hard working Americans, the carbon rule will have virtually no impact on the global reality that coal will soon surpass oil in the amount of energy produced. Nor will the rule effectively reduce carbon emissions.

Technology, not political rhetoric, is the path to reliable, affordable energy and a cleaner environment. Clean coal technology works and is paving the way for expanded use of the world's most important energy source.  Consider these stunning statistics:

· Coal is the world's most rapidly growing major fuel of the decade, with absolute use increasing faster than any other source of energy. From 2011-2020, coal will generate over 100,000 terawatt hours of power — more electricity than natural gas produced in  50 years, more than nuclear has ever produced, and equal to the power output of 1,200 Three Gorges Dams.

· Coal produced 37% of the world's power in 1990, produces 40% today and, based on the Current Policy scenario of the International Energy Agency (IEA), will still produce 40% in 2040. There is no substitute for coal.

· To replace the world's coal power plants by 2040 would require the equivalent of about 5,000 Hoover Dams or a new nuclear power plant every four days for the next 25 years, or more than five million wind turbines — enough to stretch one million miles — to the moon and back…twice.

Over 200,000 people are added to the world's population every day. The burgeoning global demand for electricity translates into the need for additional generating capacity. The IEA projects about half of this new worldwide capacity will be coal, and at least 1,200 coal plants have been proposed or are under construction outside the United States.

A rising tide of advanced coal power plants will be the foundation of the world's effort to meet climate policy goals amid the growing need for power. High efficiency supercritical coal generation utilizes less fuel and produces more power with reduced emissions. These advanced plants emit up to 25% less carbon dioxide (CO2) than the average currently installed coal plant. Longer term, bringing technologies such as carbon capture to commercial scale will put the world on the ultimate path to near-zero emissions from coal.

Ironically, coal is the only way we can meet escalating global power demand as well as reliably and affordably meet the environmental goals trumpeted by those opposed to its use. Yet, rather than grasping the opportunity that clean coal technology presents, the Obama Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  continue  policies that will make energy more expensive, cost jobs and do virtually nothing to improve the environment.

Myopic EPA rules, such as the carbon plan, would cost Americans dearly by forcing utilities away from America's greatest energy resource and toward not only volatile natural gas prices but also expensive, remote and unreliable wind and solar generation.

While the U.S. shoots itself in the foot, the rest of the world engages in what a recent National Academy of Sciences study calls a "Coal Renaissance."  As a new wave of clean coal technology builds across the world, we fall further behind, and lose our competitive advantage of affordable energy.  And all for virtually nothing. The EPA’s rule would reduce global temperatures by one-hundredth of one degree Fahrenheit.

Instead of the politically convenient carbon rule to advance an ideological agenda, the world, including America, would be far better served by the U.S. re-asserting its leadership role in clean coal. China will soon have almost 400 gigawatts of advanced coal generating capacity. The U.S. has only 94.

In a typical “Catch 22,”reducing carbon at scale requires carbon capture technology, but there is no substantial U.S. government support to implement the program or bring the technology to commercial level. It was left to Canada to develop the Boundary Project — the world's first commercial coal power plant with carbon capture. It is no surprise that Boundary officials report Chinese delegations visit the facility "every two or three weeks."

Even beyond electricity, coal is used throughout the world in a variety of processes ranging from the production of steel to chemicals to liquid fuel to cement. In terms of steel, for instance, coal is used to produce about 70% of the 125 million tons manufactured at the global level every single month. Steel and cement — the building blocks of industrialization, modernization and urbanization depend on coal.

Over the years 2000-2010, global coal consumption increased almost 2,300 million metric tons or 50%. During the current decade, coal use will expand at least another 25% or about 1,700 million metric tons. In other words, in the first 20 years of the 21st Century, the demand for coal will have expanded a total of over four billion metric tons. The age of coal marches on.

Frank Clemente PhD., is Professor Emeritus of Social Science, Penn State University, Professor Clemente is former Director of the University’s Environmental Policy Center and editor of the International Energy Agency report The Global Value of Coal (2012). The author is solely responsible for the information presented here.

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