Coal is Still An Important Part of Our Energy Mix

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The rush to reduce carbon dioxide emissions resulted in the closure of 20 U.S. coal plants last year, but the power source is far from obsolete. Coal is still supplying around 30% of our power and is expected to remain a significant energy source well into the future. Fortunately, new technology is making the U.S. coal fleet cleaner and more flexible than ever before. 

Last week, Houston, TX hosted the 9th International Conference on Clean Coal Technologies which is the first time the conference has been held in the U.S. The conference mainly discussed the drastic changes affecting the energy sector as much of the world seeks to decarbonize while boosting energy efficiency and increasing renewable energy. Coal currently supplies around 27% of worldwide energy demand, but that number is expected to drop to 22% by 2040. 

Here in the U.S. coal still plays a valuable role in ensuring grid reliability, and there is hope that coal may be an important part of solution to decreasing emissions. Even as coal plants retire, the fuel will still supply 20% of our electricity by 2040 or as much as wind and solar energy combined. These changes to our power sector will create important opportunities for advanced state of the art high efficiency, low emission (HELE) coal fired power technology. 

“The need for considerable dispatchable generation, critical ancillary services, and grid reliability creates opportunity for advanced coal-fired generation,” says Lou Hrkman, the Department of Energy’s deputy assistant secretary for the Clean Coal and Carbon Management office. “Fundamental changes to the operational and economic environment are expected into the next decade and beyond.”

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is working to help drive down prices for carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS). CCUS technology captures the carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants and either stores them permanently or reuses them for things such as adding carbonation to drinks. Currently capturing a metric ton of CO2 from a typical coal plant costs around $50 but the goal is to get that price to around $30 per ton by 2030. 

“The payoff for those investments, carbon-free fossil energy, is just over the horizon. Soon, it will be a technology option for regulators and companies to consider in their energy plans,” Hrkman  adds.

The DOE also believes that small-scale, modular coal plants have an important role to play as part of our future power grid. These future coal plants would have around 50-350MW of capacity as opposed to the 1500-2000MW power plants we have today. These power plants would be able to ramp up and down quickly to work alongside intermittent renewable energy and would have almost no emissions, with carbon capture technology built right in. 

However, coal’s future largely depends on continued investment. “In recent years, as political opposition to coal-related investment and lending intensify in many parts of the world, public finance for greenfield coal power projects is increasingly scrutinized, and in some cases, virtually forbidden,” explains Hrkman. 

Despite being a hot-button issue, coal remains a modern success story in many parts of the world. Many of Asia’s developing countries, for instance, are quick to support new coal fired power generation as they believe it to be the quickest most effect way to alleviate poverty. Having access to reliable power supplied by coal allows these countries to have clean water supplies and allows for safe storage of food and vaccines in hospitals. 

Even though coal’s contributions to electricity in the U.S. and elsewhere may change over the years, this important fuel source is going to continue powering our lives for many years to come.