“Carbon capture and storage technologies hold enormous potential to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions as we power our economy with domestically produced and secure energy,” President Barack Obama.
Reports of coal’s terminal decline are obviously premature: “Over all, 1,600 coal plants are planned or under construction in 62 countries,” The New York Times, July 1, 2017. Now generating 30% of U.S. electricity and 40% of global electricity, the fact is that coal will remain an essential component of the energy systems in the U.S. and around the world. The coal build-out is much higher than what you keep hearing. China and India, of course, remain at the forefront, each getting 65-75% of their power from coal. The might of coal in these still developing giants is simply overwhelming: gas generates less than 5% of power. To illustrate, as I have shown, China’s climate plan isn’t necessarily to use less coal but to use it differently, to use coal less directly like the U.S. does. But quietly, other large nations are also turning to coal. “Reports of coal’s terminal decline may be exaggerated” from Edenhofer et al. is a must read:
“Turkey, Indonesia and Vietnam, for example, plan to increase their capacity altogether by about 160 gigawatts altogether. This is about as much as the output of all existing coal-fired plants in the 28 EU countries.”
Pakistan and Indonesia, combined having 460 million people, are also turning to coal. With soaring power demand, coal is seen as cheaper, more reliable, more secure, and more established. “Although the costs of renewables have recently fallen, they still can’t compete with cheap coal in many parts of the world,” says Jan Steckel, head of the MCC working group Climate and Development. And even the already developed nations, where new energy needs are less, are following suit. South Korea, for instance, has coal for 45% of electricity and this will continue. And despite even having a negative population growth rate, Japan “has launched plans to open 49 new coal-fired power plants in the next decade.”
Many of these plants are based on installing state-of-the-art technologies, so they can last decades – especially since once investments for new coal plants are made they are already considered sunk.
U.S. Coal Exports
Coal will retain strong market share in the U.S. but is unlikely to regain its huge dominance seen earlier in the century when it supplied over half of our electricity. The Trump administration has been touting energy dominance and it’s forgotten that we have seen bi-partisan support for coal to fit right in. With a BP-reported 252 billion tonnes of proven reserves (381-year supply), President Obama said: “We’re the Saudi Arabia of coal.”
The Trump administration has proposed an alliance of countries that are rich in coal to promote more coal combustion. The U.S. coal industry has been focusing more on deliveries to a mostly poor and energy-deprived world, generally from our Gulf Coast and through the newly-expanded Panama Canal. In 2017, U.S. coal exports surged 61% from 2016 to nearly 90 million tonnes, with 50 million tonnes coming from the more pricey metallurgical variety that is a staple in steel making. “U.S. coal exports could rise 15% in 2018.”
Overall, some 10% of U.S. coal production has been going to exports, helping national coal production to increase 6% last year to around 700 million tonnes. In particular, industrials and utilities in India prefer the heat-intensive coal from West Virginia and surrounding states, with Germany, Brazil, Mexico, and China also importing more. The export surge has also bolstered the revenues of coal-carrying railroads such as CSX, BNSF, and Norfolk Southern, while also increasing business in U.S. ports. U.S. coal is also usually higher quality than coal used in other nations, particularly helping India’s problem of low calorific value domestic coal. “The U.S. has the world’s largest endowment of low-cost, high quality coal reserves.”
Not just helping our trade balance, exports help U.S. miners retain their jobs and support their families. Miners can make nearly $85,000 per year. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, coal mining jobs slightly increase last year to 51,200 in November from 50,000 in January. Know that U.S. coal usage itself is also quietly being bolstered: the $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan is obviously going to require loads of electricity and steel, two markets where coal still plays a very significant role. Coal has also been helped by the recent shelving of The Clean Power Plan.
U.S. Clean Coal Technologies
So our goal remains the same: help the nation and the world use coal as cleanly as possible. The constant advance of technology is the answer to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and combating climate change. Thus, we also need to be exporting clean coal technologies.
The centerpiece of which is carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), an emerging technology that captures CO2 before it’s released into the atmosphere. Without CCS, the International Energy Agency finds that for power generation alone CO2 mitigation costs would increase $2 trillion by 2050.“CCS must be deployed to make deep cuts in CO2 emissions,” says the International Energy Agency. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes that the absence of CCS would surge carbon mitigation costs by 138% from 2015-2100.
Al Gore himself calls CCS one of the “major building blocks of a solution to the climate crisis.”
But highly efficient coal plants are also key, namely the supercritical, ultra-supercritical, and coal gasification technologies that China and India are increasingly turning to reduce coal feed and lower emissions. These are the high-efficiency, low-emissions (HELE) coal solutions advocated by the International Energy Agency’s Clean Coal Center: “Realizing Decarbonization Through Efficiency Gains.”
The Trump administration seeks to lift restrictions on lending for coal-burning plants in the developing world through the World Bank and other agencies. The emerging economies want to reduce their carbon intensity, so evolving clean coal technologies help them reach their goals. In addition, China has replaced Japan and is increasingly investing in coal-fired power plants abroad, so we have a great chance to counter act China’s rising influence in global energy markets.
Finally, U.S. energy and climate policy must be rooted in practicality, not idealism. The reality is that if we don’t help nations use coal more efficiently, they could easily revert to less efficient technologies such as subcritical plants because they are cheaper…..and thereby increase emissions. The International Energy Agency has continually warned about this.