Public concern over global warming has cast much-needed attention on efforts to curtail carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. As the most carbon-rich fuel, coal is right between the crosshairs. But substantial global warming won’t be avoided unless coal-rich countries – especially China and India – reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
Those who disparage the use of coal ignore that the world uses far more coal than at any other time in history, and that the basic attractions of coal remain the same – low cost and great abundance. Thanks largely to coal, each day last year another 325,000 people globally gained access to electricity for the first time. But there are nearly one billion people still without electricity, according to the World Energy Outlook, and more coal-fired power would make a big difference in their lives. In China and India, coal supplies 60 percent of the electricity, and access to electricity reduces infant mortality, improves sanitation, extends life expectancy and fosters educational opportunities. Significant benefits could be realized within a single generation.
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What’s more, coal is being burned much cleaner, due to the availability of emission-control systems. But improvements to date in coal technology have barely scratched the surface of what is possible. The world is looking to the U.S. for engineering knowledge and operating experience. The U.S., with the world’s largest coal reserves and an unmatched capacity for innovation, should take the leadership in delivering it.
That is why the U.S. Department of Energy is setting goals on how the coal fleet of the future needs to perform and what it should look like. Its model for action is the coal FIRST program, an ambitious project that represents a first step forward. Launched in 2018, coal FIRST has set as its goal the design, development and deployment of a new generation of small coal plants capable of generating electricity at high efficiency – 40 percent or greater higher heating value than conventional coal plants – and with carbon capture and near-zero emissions. Ranging from 50 to 350 megawatts, the plants would produce power on demand to complement the intermittent power from wind and solar energy.
With advances in technology, researchers are improving methods being used to capture carbon dioxide emissions at coal plants before they reach the atmosphere and sequester the emissions underground in depleted oil and gas wells and geologic formations. Costs at the Petra Nova coal plant in Texas, the plant with the world’s largest carbon capture system, have been reduced to $60 a ton, down from $100. DOE’s goal is to reduce the cost to $30. Petra Nova captured more than 1 million tons of carbon dioxide last year that was sold for use in enhanced oil recovery. Researchers are trying to develop ways to turn emissions into useful carbon products.
The market implications for advanced coal technology are enormous. Since coal accounts for 40 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, it’s time to move from a heated debate about global warming to developing the technological breakthroughs that can help put a stop to the rise in emissions. With electricity demand in the world projected to grow in the decades ahead, the need for innovation in coal plants and carbon capture has never been greater.
Dr. Virendra Mathur is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of New Hampshire.
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