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World Coal Consumption Increases: Should We Be Worried?

Coal-fired power plant

Environmentalists have raised alarm bells regarding the substantial increase in coal consumption over the past few decades. Due to rising demand in the developing world and emerging markets such as China, coal consumption rose 7.6% in 2010. Among the fastest growing coal consumers were China (up 10%) and India (up 11%).

But why such a huge increase in coal consumption?

Well, probably the most substantial reasons are economic – coal is one of the cheapest forms of energy generation. It requires lower initial capital costs than hydroelectricity, is cheaper than oil or natural gas, and is far more reliable/available than wind or solar power. It should therefore be no surprise that coal would be attractive to a developing country that lacks significant financial capital.

However, coal also brings with it some serious environmental problems. It is an exceedingly dirty fossil fuel that emits high amounts of CO₂ into the atmosphere during combustion. As a result, it is a substantial contributor to climate change. In addition, the extraction of coal emits further CO₂ into the atmosphere while damaging local ecosystems through the process of mining. But despite these environmental concerns, Vietnam (one of the top 11 countries most vulnerable to climate change) has announced plans to sink $83 million into the construction of 90 new coal power plants.

Therefore, this rise in coal consumption could be a cause for concern.

I said “could” because I believe coal could actually be a viable form of energy generation if the proper measures are put in place. For instance, many scientists have highlighted the ability of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to reduce the CO₂ emissions generated by coal.

CCS includes a range of technologies which could trap up to 90% of the carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants. For instance, the process of “oxyfuel” burns coal in an atmosphere with high concentrations of oxygen, thus creating a pure CO₂ exhaust gas. This gas can then be trapped, liquefied, transported, and then buried underground. I have even seen the suggestion made to utilize this liquefied CO₂ in carbonated beverages. Not a bad arrangement if you ask me.

My point is, the world is not transitioning to alternatives fast enough to prevent global warming. We need to do things now to curb our carbon emissions, and coal-fired plants in conjunction with CCS can accomplish this to some degree. I’m a big believer in being pragmatic about the decisions we make as we tackle climate change, and coal can be viable intermediary form of energy as we improve the technology of other alternatives. I realize this may be a controversial argument for some people, but would do you think? Is there a place for coal in energy policies of the future?

Image CC licensed by thewritingzone: Coal-fired power plant, England

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • http://twitter.com/gnoll110 Noel Kelly

    These people have their heads up their arses.

    Carbon capture and storage has problems on both the capture and storage side.

    Capture.
    I’m not convinced that the capture can be done on the scale required, for the cost required. Thus I don’t see developing countries ever embracing  with technology.

    Storage.
    I not think enough accessible geology can be found to store all the captured carbon (if we could get capture universally accepted). Then there is the risk of storage failure. Over time some will fail, and the more carbon stored, the greater the chance of failure at we use the best sites first. Geological Russian roulette. Here being a NIMBY makes sense. I wouldn’t want it in my backyard and thus I would want to force it on anyone else. Liquid CO2 getting to the surface and vaporizing could look like this. “On August 21, 1986, possibly triggered by a landslide, Lake Nyos suddenly emitted a large cloud of CO2, which suffocated 1,700 people and 3,500 livestock in nearby towns and villages” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Nyos

  • Joseph Tohill

    Thanks Noel for contributing to the discussion. I think you’ve made some valid points regarding some of the limitations of CCS in coal plants.

    I’d like to start off by saying that no energy option is without its impacts. Obviously we need to move away from CO2 emissions caused by current energy generation, but renewable technology is not quite there yet. That’s why I’m advocating for a relatively clean intermediary energy source until renewable technology is at the point where it can be deployed large-scale.

    The way I see it, we can already reduce CO2 emissions from coal generated plants by 85-90% using current technology. Unlike renewables, we do not require a full-scale rethinking of technology, energy storage, and infrastructure. The technology for coal and CCS has been developed for the past few decades. There are still some significant hurdles to overcome, but nothing completely insurmountable. I think it would be a mistake to discount coal as a viable clean energy source in the near future.

    As far as carbon capture goes, I’ve seen a huge expansion in the literature over the past number of years. Post-combustion carbon capture is currently technologically viable… the beauty of coal power plants as that they are large, stationary emitter of CO2, which makes it easier to capture the carbon, and in fact there are a number of ways to do – I have outlined one of the more promising ways in my article. Granted, it is more expensive to implement CCS for coal plants and energy efficiency can be reduced by 8-9%. But if a proper cost is imposed on carbon emissions in the developed world, this will make these coal powered plants more of an option. Despite all this, coal is still more economically viable/reliable than other renewables at this point, especially given the fact that we still have not discovered an ideal way to store energy generated by renewables such as solar and wind. For more info on CCS, I’d refer you to this article in Science, this editorial, this whole special issue of Science, and this article in Energy Policy… all of which are highly reputable academic and scientific publications. The IPCC has also suggested CCS as a legitimate (even necessary) avenue to pursue to mitigate climate change. There is a lot of proven science behind carbon capture technology.

    Regarding carbon storage you do present some significant (though in my opinion not insurmountable) issues. In fact there are numerous possibilities for the permanent storage of carbon in underground geological structures – oil companies have been doing it for years to extract more oil from the ground. For instance, there is great promise for CO2 sequestration in deep saline aquifers, which are able to absorb large quantities of CO2 (which would be liquid at these pressures). If dissolved in the aquifer water, given flow rates, it would take a million years for the CO2 to travel even 10-20km. Although it is difficult to estimate the capacity of these deep saline aquifers, experts agree their capacity is huge… perhaps quite close to (or even more than) the carbon stored in the earth’s fossil fuels. So carbon storage is not far off; we can’t ignore these possibilities give the huge emission reductions we can achieve on the technological side of things.

    The Lake Nyos example you gave is not an example of a permanent geological storage structure scientists are talking about. In the situation you brought up, the lake was the CO2 storage (via underground magma), which caused a dispersion following a landslide. This is not analogous to the forms of storage experts are suggesting, although obviously environmental concerns do still need to be taken into account.

    I think I’m going to end here, but I will conclude by saying that we can’t just ignore coal with CCS as a viable intermediary form of clean energy. Shifting to renewables full-scale right now is not an option and world energy consumption will continue to increase (despite conservation and improvements in efficiency). We need to start tackling climate change NOW, with carbon CCS since renewables are not quite ready. Please note, I am not advocating giving up on renewables – quite the opposite as a matter of fact. We need to continue research on renewables until the technology is where we need it to be. But in the mean time we need a relatively clean energy source to fuel global demand. In fact, our climate depends on it, if it is not already too late.

    Also, for anyone interested I would recommend the book Sustainable Fossil Fuels by Mark Jaccard (professor of environmental economics and contributor to the IPCC). I have used much of his research as the basis for my views on energy policy, and he makes some compelling (and well supported) arguments regarding the use of coal with CCS, among other things.

  • Delphine Andrews

    This is a complicated issue and our country is still trying to figure out an answer. The Powering a Nation (poweringanation.org) news site is looking into our complicated relationship with coal. “Coal: A Love Story – Can’t live with it. Can’t live without it.” is due to launch July 22. However, there is a blog that is constantly being updated (coalalovestory.com).

  • Joseph Tohill

    Thanks Noel for contributing to the discussion. I think you’ve made
    some valid points regarding some of the limitations of CCS in coal
    plants.

    I’d like to start off by saying that no energy option is without its
    impacts. Obviously we need to move away from CO2 emissions caused by
    current energy generation, but renewable technology is not quite there
    yet. That’s why I’m advocating for a relatively clean intermediary
    energy source until renewable technology is at the point where it can be
    deployed large-scale.

    The way I see it, we can already reduce CO2 emissions from coal
    generated plants by 85-90% using current technology. Unlike renewables,
    we do not require a full-scale rethinking of technology, energy storage,
    and infrastructure. The technology for coal and CCS has been developed
    for the past few decades. There are still some significant hurdles to
    overcome, but nothing completely insurmountable. I think it would be a
    mistake to discount coal as a viable clean energy source in the near
    future.

    As far as carbon capture goes, I’ve seen a huge expansion in the
    literature over the past number of years. Post-combustion carbon capture
    is currently technologically viable… the beauty of coal power plants as
    that they are large, stationary emitter of CO2, which makes it easier
    to capture the carbon, and in fact there are a number of ways to do – I
    have outlined one of the more promising ways in my article. Granted, it
    is more expensive to implement CCS for coal plants and energy efficiency
    can be reduced by 8-9%. But if a proper cost is imposed on carbon
    emissions in the developed world, this will make these coal powered
    plants more of an option. Despite all this, coal is still more
    economically viable/reliable than other renewables at this point,
    especially given the fact that we still have not discovered an ideal way
    to store energy generated by renewables such as solar and wind. For
    more info on CCS, I’d refer you to this article in Science, this editorial, this whole special issue of Science, and this article in Energy Policy…
    all of which are highly reputable academic and scientific publications.
    The IPCC has also suggested CCS as a legitimate (even necessary) avenue
    to pursue to mitigate climate change. There is a lot of proven science
    behind carbon capture technology.

    Regarding carbon storage you do present some significant (though in
    my opinion not insurmountable) issues. In fact there are numerous
    possibilities for the permanent storage of carbon in underground
    geological structures – oil companies have been doing it for years to
    extract more oil from the ground. For instance, there is great promise
    for CO2 sequestration in deep saline aquifers, which are able to absorb
    large quantities of CO2 (which would be liquid at these pressures). If
    dissolved in the aquifer water, given flow rates, it would take a
    million years for the CO2 to travel even 10-20km. Although it is
    difficult to estimate the capacity of these deep saline aquifers,
    experts agree their capacity is huge… perhaps quite close to (or even
    more than) the carbon stored in the earth’s fossil fuels. So carbon
    storage is not far off; we can’t ignore these possibilities give the
    huge emission reductions we can achieve on the technological side of
    things.

    The Lake Nyos example you gave is not an example of a permanent
    geological storage structure scientists are talking about. In the
    situation you brought up, the lake was the CO2 storage (via underground
    magma), which caused a dispersion following a landslide. This is not
    analogous to the forms of storage experts are suggesting, although
    obviously environmental concerns do still need to be taken into account.

    I think I’m going to end here, but I will conclude by saying that we
    can’t just ignore coal with CCS as a viable intermediary form of clean
    energy. Shifting to renewables full-scale right now is not an option and
    world energy consumption will continue to increase (despite
    conservation and improvements in efficiency). We need to start tackling
    climate change NOW, with carbon CCS since renewables are not quite
    ready. Please note, I am not advocating giving up on renewables – quite
    the opposite as a matter of fact. We need to continue research on
    renewables until the technology is where we need it to be. But in the
    mean time we need a relatively clean energy source to fuel global
    demand. In fact, our climate depends on it, if it is not already too
    late.

    Also, for anyone interested I would recommend the book Sustainable Fossil Fuels
    by Mark Jaccard (professor of environmental economics and contributor
    to the IPCC). I have used much of his research as the basis for my views
    on energy policy, and he makes some compelling (and well supported)
    arguments regarding the use of coal with CCS, among other things.
     

  • http://twitter.com/gnoll110 Noel Kelly

    I take a systems view, rather than an economic/accounting view to carbon & global warming.

    All carbon can’t be accounted in the same way. Its ultimate source is critical. Fossil fuel burning moves carbon from the geology (where it’s been for between for about 100 million to about half a billion years) to the biosphere where it pushes the carbon cycle out of balance. While CCS tries to reverse that, I done think it can work to the degree needed or safely.

    The way I see it, the only acceptable use for fossil fuels is as feed shock to chemical processes. Not as a fuel source. A full-scale rethinking of technology, energy storage,
    and infrastructure is exactly what’s need, so we can again live with the planet’s annual solar budget.

    I used Lake Nyos to show what a cloud of concentrated CO2 can do. I do recognise that lake out-gassing is a completely different situation. An coincidence of geology & geography.

    The problem is more human nature that technical. “I can stop using before doing the long term damage could kill me”. The smokers retort.

  • Coal Portal

    It is a bit of  juggling game this process of extracting thermal coal and metallurgical coal from underground mines to ensure enough electricity and steel capacity worldwide while making sure the impact on the environment and people is minimal. Cherry of http://www.coalportal.com

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