A Cup Half Full: Answering the Question “Why Coal and How Coal?”
U.S. coal exports are booming; domestic generation is easing; global metallurgical coal demand is strong; American natural gas and renewables are tough competitors; new coal plants continue to be built in large numbers particularly in Asia; opponents call for divestment from fossil fuels; recent policies represent potential opportunity.
Just another year in the dynamic coal industry, you might say.
Yet amid this mixed “elevator analysis” related to coal fundamentals, I would submit that we can make two statements with confidence. First: Coal remains an essential part of our global energy mix and a key ingredient in steelmaking. Second: The question is not “Should we use coal?”, but “How should we use coal?”… And the answer is: cleaner every day.
That’s as it should be. Society has both a growing need for energy and a desire to lower emissions. In fact, we recognize that we can only consider our job well done when we’ve expanded energy access, economic growth and environmental solutions.
First things first. Is it fair to say that coal remains essential? Consider the evidence:
The world uses some eight billion tons of coal each year – or right around one ton for every man, woman and child on the planet.
China’s coal use continues to grow (it is up more than 3 percent just in the first half of 2018) and that nation alone uses 10 million tons of coal every day.
Coal is a key ingredient in new steel production, with approximately one billion tons of metallurgical coal used each year.
Recent news reports remind the world that coal fuels about 37 percent of global electricity generation today – and did so about two decades ago – a similar slice of a much larger pie.
New coal plants continue to be built out in substantial amounts. In 2018, we expect some 56 GW of new coal-fueled generation to come online across 24 countries on five continents. That math translates to a new 500 MW coal-fueled generating unit coming online somewhere in the world every three to four days this year. On average, each GW of generation capacity would use three- to four million tons per year of coal at optimal capacity.
The longer-term generation picture is also bright. Yes, coal plants are retiring in meaningful numbers in places such as the U.S. and Europe – IHS Markit projects 125 GW of coal plant retirements globally by 2030. But the consulting firm also projects 439 GW of new coal-fueled generation during that time in Asia, dwarfing the retirements. As a result, the organization expects total global coal-fueled generating capacity to increase 15 percent by 2030, from 2017 levels. In addition, the World Coal Association recently noted more than 700 GW of coal-fueled plants in development or under construction around the world.
As we look to the U.S., we’ve seen a modest secular decline over the last few years. Coal accounted for 37 percent of the nation’s electricity capacity five years ago and in 2017, it totaled around 30 percent. This evolution was driven by the shale gas revolution, starting around 2013, along with heavily subsidized renewables and a regulatory regime that had been quite challenging. Third-party estimates show the pace of decline slowing, with coal’s share of electricity generation still around 27 to 28 percent by 2022.
Those points provide effective evidence for the “Why Coal” story – and the “How Coal” story is equally compelling. We know next-generation coal-fueled power plants must be efficient, flexible and clean, but what does that mean? The answer lies in the use of advanced coal technologies and two important acronyms.
Technologies exist today, and others are being developed, to provide a path to near-zero emissions from coal use. Emissions progress is tied to deployment of high-efficiency, low-emissions (HELE) power plants using available technology. Supercritical plants offer substantial efficiency improvements, significant back-end emissions controls and meaningful decreases in carbon emissions rates. HELE plants can reduce typical emissions by 90, 95 and 99 percent … and can achieve as much as a 25 percent reduction in the carbon dioxide emissions per megawatt hour.
HELE technologies are important because they are commercially available and a key steppingstone to meet energy needs as well as emissions goals. In fact, 24 countries have included coal-fueled power plants in their nationally determined contributions as part of the Paris Agreement.
Achieving near-zero emissions from coal also will require implementation of carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) technologies. Plants, like Petra Nova in Texas, are showing that CCUS coal-fueled plants are technically viable and are the first step in the technology cost buydown curve based on the lessons learned that drive down costs for future projects. In the end, we need dozens more plants like Petra Nova.
In the United States, the passage of the FUTURE Act legislation has resulted in renewed momentum for CCUS and is expected to result in new CCUS projects. Additionally, a new type of power plant is under development that would be efficient, modular and flexible. Being advanced by the U.S. Department of Energy, these plants could offer considerable value not only in America but around the world.
Many other initiatives in the technology development pipeline have potential for carbon capture and reduced emissions. Examples include solutions from post-combustion concepts such as membranes, dry sorbents, non-aqueous liquid systems to transformational options like chemical looping and pressurized oxy-combustion. Several of these have advanced to the pilot and demonstration scale and with appropriate funding can be advanced to successful implementation.
But policy and practicality aren’t always on the same page. While the rest of the world is turning to coal, the U.S. hasn’t yet fully shifted its thinking or policies along those lines. We need to continue to encourage investments in coal-fueled plants and remove regulatory barriers such as New Source Review, which deters power plants from making upgrades that could improve efficiency and reduce emission as a result. New Source Review also discourages changes that would make power plants more flexible, allowing them to respond to the influx in intermittent renewables. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is starting to address these concerns, along with a repeal and some form of replacement of the Clean Power Plan. The changes are welcome and can’t come soon enough.
Across the world, we need to make sure we are taking actions that support viable, healthy economies driven by affordable power. Mistakes learned by those who have turned away from coal should be well heeded by policymakers.
Take for instance, circumstances as recently seen in Australia where a country rich in natural resources and one that pays some of the highest electricity rates in the world has faced blackouts. Conditions in certain regions of the U.S. expose similar vulnerabilities. The bomb cyclone which struck much of the eastern U.S. late last year is an example. Temperatures plummeted and demand for heating power soared. During that period, coal-fueled power fortunately kept the lights on and homes comfortably warmed.
In addition, Texas has warned of increased risks of price spikes and reliability issues due to record summer demand amid early coal plant retirements.
These signals of threats to power supply and grid resiliency are a real risk, especially when viewed with the thought of evolving replacement of fuel-secure sources with fuel-insecure sources. We must work together to ensure we have the power generation to meet the world’s needs, both on a day-to-day basis and during high-impact, low-frequency events.
These are vital points to be made when we meet with policymakers, opinion leaders, friends and family as part of a common-ground approach to rational thought on energy and the environment.
Coal is not without its significant headwinds. But as I look at the state of the global coal industry, I see a cup – perhaps a haul truck – half full or more.
Coal has a significant role to play in the world and will for many decades to come. Coal helps the world achieve multiple UN sustainable development goals such as ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy; promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth and employment; and building resilient infrastructure. And advanced coal technologies are a major part of the solution for environmental improvement.
Glenn Kellow is President & CEO of Peabody, and serves as chairman of the World Coal Association and vice chairman of the International Energy Agency’s Coal Industry Advisory Board.