Blog Post

Big Bad Coal Isn't Going Anywhere

Coal Crop We, the world, are burning more coal — and it’s dirty. Accounting for 25 percent of the global energy supply in 2006, coal was responsible for approximately 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, according to a report released this week by The WorldWatch Institute. The study in particular highlighted China’s phenomenal growth, noting that the country added more than 1.5 GW of coal power per week (roughly what the U.S. and India, combined, added all year) for a total of 90 GW of growth in 2006.

The world burned 3,090 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) in 2006, according to the report, and projections for 2050 range from a green 2,900 Mtoe to a black 10,700 Mtoe. The study pins great hopes on the ability of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) to reconcile coal’s importance as an energy source and its contributions to CO2 emissions, joining OPEC, Midwestern Governors, and BP in hoping CCS will prove to be an economically viable solution for cleaning up fossil fuel emissions. It’s still an extremely expensive proposition, however, that has yet to be proven at scale.

CCS would allow for the continued exploitation of coal still underground. The study estimates that at current extraction rates, China has another 50 to 70 years of coal production, while the U.S. and India have 200 years left. The dangers of coal, however, remain high. The emissions from coal power plants inflict billions of dollars of health problems and while in the U.S., 47 coal workers died mining coal in 2006, China suffered 100 times as many fatalities — 4,746 in total.

Coal Crop 2

WorldWatch considers CCS a very viable solution, devoting over half of the report to exploring its potential. Successful CCS would require isolating a relatively CO2 stream, pressurization and storage, injection into a reservoir, and then constant monitoring.

Citing the technical success of the Great Plains Synfuels plant in North Dakota at incorporating all four key elements, WorldWatch thinks that “the technical feasibility of CCS [is] largely proved.” Still, cost is extremely prohibitive. Currently they estimate that adding CCS capabilities to a coal-fired power plant would increase the price of the electricity produced by upwards of 60 percent, without including the cost of CO2 transportation, injection or monitoring. It seems odd to cite the key parts of CCS and then give a price estimate for implementing it without including three of the four steps.

It would be folly to pretend that the answer to dirty is new clean energy, in the form of solar or wind. Coal simply plays too large a part in the growing economies of China and India to be replaced out of hand. Trying to cut global CO2 emissions by investing in the likes of solar and wind will be moot if we can’t somehow get coal emissions under control. A lot of investment announcements in the last few weeks have been aimed at research and development in CCS but until carbon has a monetary value, the cost of capture and sequestration will prove prohibitive.

7 Responses to “Big Bad Coal Isn't Going Anywhere”

  1. Coal is NOT great stuff. Coal is hazardous to our health. Coal is harmful to our environment. Coal is destroying our future.

    The benefits of coal are greatly outweighed by the shortcomings and negative impacts of burning fossil fuels. Coal is dangerous to extract, and the drilling process causes irreparable damage to natural habitats and ecosystems. The burning of fossil fuels emits hazardous gases that affect not only humans, but every living organism on the planet. Transportation of coal is very inefficient, as is the conversion to energy. According to the Department of Energy, only about 1/3 of the fuel energy potential is produced when coal is burned for power. It is also not recyclable or renewable, and we are quickly approaching the end of the existing supply. If we do not begin implementing new energy sources now, what is going to happen to our society when we have exhausted every last coal reserve?

    It is time that we, as the inhabitants of this Earth, take responsibility for the preservation of our environment. We are responsible for taking care of our planet today so our children, the future of society, will flourish tomorrow.

  2. Coal is great stuff! We just don’t know how to properly exploit it yet. Most coal uses involve huge losses in the resource flow model, usually heat up a chimney and chemicals lost to the wind. A bacteria is being modified as we speak, to eat coal slurry and produce fuel! With just a little more scientific and technological effort, the world will see a revolution in the extraction and conversion of coal to useful resource flows! China, having more high IQ geniuses in school currently than the U.S.A. ever had, due to their larger population pool, will bring forth a plethora of stunning discoveries and technological advances. The burning of coal is tops on their list, right after efficient nuclear fuels exploitation! America, step back from the plate, and take a well deserved rest and let the new super power in the world pick up where you left off! They have bought all your patents from the bush neocons and know how you do things, now give them a chance to find their own technologies!