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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

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