Pittsburgh Coal Conference (PCC), Pittsburgh USA, 6-9 October 2015

The Pittsburgh Coal Conference was initiated in 1973 and has evolved into an established meeting of experts from not just the USA but Europe, Asia and S Africa too. Numbers are undeniably down on previous years but this does not really come as a surprise in a country where coal production and use is in decline. The Plenaries on Day 1 told a fairly gloomy story of national mine and plant closures. Currently in the USA there are 500 working coal mines, 50% having closed since 2000. In fact, Dick Winschel of Consol Energy noted that the number of working coal mines in the USA now is actually the same as it was back when Edison invented the light bulb. Lots of US coal companies are in bankrupcy and institutions such as the Bank of America and, even more recently, CitiGroup have announced that they will no longer lend to mining companies in the USA. And so the country is facing a tightening of emission legislation at the same time as a reduction in funding and support for the coal sector. Although plant retirement in the US peaked this year, coal use is expected to continue to decline over the next decade. However, Grace Bochenek of the National Energy Technology Lab presented a semi-optimistic argument that coal is the backbone of energy in the USA and that it will remain as one of the integral parts of the “All of the above” approach defining the continuing and widening portfolio of energy options in the USA. By contrast, the international  plenaries on Day 2 focussed on the incredible amount of coal use increase in emerging economies. The major concern expressed was the availability of international funding to ensure that any coal build in these regions is high efficiency and low emission (HELE) technology and not a rush to cheap and outdated coal systems that will lock in increased emissions for decades to come.

Plenaries on Day 3 concentrated on the legislative side of the US coal industry with a guide from Prof James van Nostrand, a lawyer, on the different ways in which the coal industry can “retaliate” against the US EPA’s new Greenhouse Gas Rule. For myself at least this is a reminder of just how complex the situation is in the USA – not only do utilities have to prepare for compliance with new legislation but they must also prepare for potentially long and drawn out negotiations before the final versions of this legislation is produced. For many plants, it pays to play the waiting game on retrofitting decisions, since there is always a chance that the legislation will change along with the associated compliance requirements. John Pippy of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, argues that the new US carbon regulations will cost jobs in the coal industry as well as causing a “double digit” increase in consumer energy costs. Clearly the US faces several more years of argument and litigation in the energy sector, something that the rest of the world can only sit back and watch with a sense of, for me at least, confusion and disbelief.

One of the great things about the PCC is the wide range of topics covered in the many parallel sessions – from oxyfuel combustion to black carbon emissions, and from flue gas cleaning use to rare earth metal production and emissions trading. The conference now benefits from combining with the Coalbed Methane Outreach Programme to include a 5th parallel session group on coal mine methane (CMM) capture and use. Under the new US Climate Plan, US mines must reduce methane leakage and release. Increased CMM is not restricted to the USA – apparently China plans to increase mine methane activities by almost an order of magnitude, to volumes equivalent to those being produced in the USA, by 2020. India currently has 500 coal bed methane wells and plans to double this over the next few years. New CMM activity is also being initiated in S Africa, Kazahkstan and Botswana. The CCC has produced several reports in this area over recent years which are available free of charge through a one-click download to registered users.

The PCC is and will remain an excellent source of information and networking within the coal community. Next year’s meeting in S Africa should be an ideal opportunity to find out more about the unique and significant energy challenges being faced in Africa. Proceedings from this year’s and previous PCC meetings are available for a small fee from the conference website