Don’t Overlook Coal's Continued Importance

Don’t Overlook Coal's Continued Importance
AP Photo/Dake Kang, File

Contrary to popular opinion, coal is still critically important to meeting our nation’s energy needs. Coal is America’s number one source of electricity, accounting for 32 percent of electricity production, and it generates more than half of the power in states with heavy industries like Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Colorado and Utah.

Coal is also the leading supplier of electricity globally. Nothing else can match it for abundance, reliability and cost. From Germany to China, it remains the electricity sector’s workhorse. What’s more, coal is essential to maintaining America’s grid security – to provide reliable energy in times of outages or natural disasters. This point was echoed last month by Energy Secretary Rick Perry in his proposed rule to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to ensure coal is recognized for its resiliency and reliability in how the wholesale energy markets are priced.

Here in the U.S., government regulations – implemented before President Donald Trump took office – hamper the use of coal, while solar and wind power are heavily subsidized and get most of the media attention. To be sure, our energy future depends on having an affordable supply of low-carbon energy. But renewable energy, despite its growth in recent years, is still decades away from becoming a primary source of power. Solar and wind combined, even with help from federal tax credits and state mandates for renewables, supply only seven percent of the nation’s electricity. This illustrates how difficult it will be to meet environmental goals of policymakers and why we must find a way to make better use of the resources and infrastructure already at hand.

This is one of the key energy issues that Congress needs to address as it considers new legislation to fund research and demonstration projects on carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS). The goal of CCUS is to develop an economically competitive way to capture carbon dioxide emissions from coal or natural gas plants in order to meet emissions regulations as well as use the carbon to make useful products like petrochemicals and plastics and then sequester unused carbon safely underground.

CCUS technology is a key piece of the energy puzzle. A technological breakthrough in the U.S. could be shared with other countries that have large coal resources and growing demand for coal power. Some pilot CCUS systems are being demonstrated in the U.S. and Canada. But developing affordable technology will take time. For now, there are other coal technologies available for commercial use that, if deployed globally, can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from the entire global coal fleet by around 20 percent.

Consider advanced ultra-supercritical coal technology. Coal plants with this technology operate at an efficiency rate of 45 to 50 percent, whereas conventional coal plants have efficiency rates of up to 38 percent. With supercritical coal technology, less fuel is used to produce the same amount of energy. Environmentally, a one percent improvement in the efficiency of a coal plant results in a two to three percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. And its deployment also reduces other greenhouse-gas emissions as well as nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter.

Think about it: If the global coal fleet can reach a level of just 40 percent efficiency from its current 33 percent, annual carbon emissions could fall by 2 billion tons. That reduction would be equivalent to all of India’s annual emissions – a not insignificant way that coal can meet the challenges of today’s more rigorous emissions standards.

What’s important to recognize is that this improvement in carbon mitigation could be achieved with coal technology that’s already commercially available. In other words, both environmental progress and economic growth can be achieved with the use of advanced coal technology.

The reason for coal’s continued importance is clear. Electricity is the most efficient energy source. Concerns about carbon emissions should not be permitted to muddle what remains the essential point: We need to recognize the critical contribution of coal to energy supply now and in the future. An affordable, reliable supply of energy must remain the focus of our energy policy.

Matthew Kandrach is President of CASE – Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market oriented consumer advocacy organization.

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