Coal & Its Future Through Technology

Energy demand is growing globally, and growth is likely to continue.  The International Energy Agency (IEA) projections are for a continuing dominant role for fossil fuels in the next decade.  These projections for fossil fuels come despite projections for commensurate growth of renewable sources of energy.  Coal remains one of those very important fossil fuels for which growth is projected, and its increasing use is evident especially in emerging markets where it is relatively cheap and plentiful.


While we in the US are seeing a shift away from coal in US power plants to cleaner (fewer greenhouse gas emissions) fuels such as natural gas, this is not the case in developing countries.  In much of the developing world, especially in emerging markets, coal is and will increasingly be a major source of energy that is critical to those markets’ development.  That growth outside Europe, Japan and North America represents a major global issue for many.  But it need not represent the problem imagined by some if policy supports the needed research on clean coal.


Technology can change the future of coal – both at home and globally.  Technological innovation can mean that coal continues to become a much cleaner fossil fuel with the emission of fewer particulates and greenhouse gases.  For example, clean technologies have the capacity to increase the efficiency of coal’s use in power generation and to alter favorably the impact of coal on the environment.  Among those technological advances has been the gasification of coal along with co-gasification of coal and biomass.  Gasification, (see the Department of Energy) is a controlled process that uses heat and pressure to set in motion chemical reactions that produce “syngas,” which is primarily hydrogen and carbon monoxide.  Rather than a process of burning the coal to produce the gas, gasification is a process that partially oxidizes the coal to produce the syngas.


Recent additional research in this area by two scientists, Natalia Howaniec and Adam Smolinski, is representative of the potential from policy that supports research and the technological innovation that can come from it.  Ms. Howaniec and Mr. Smolinski used a laboratory fixed-bed reactor with steam for co-gasification of coal and biomass.  Their conclusion was that the laboratory process offers several advantages, including the chemical synergies associated with using biomass in conjunction with coal.  Those advantages include the stability of the fuel supplies, the scalability of the process, and emission reduction.


This stream of research is especially important in light of the anticipated, continued growth in use of coal globally and coal’s potential to address substantial energy needs of emerging markets.  As coal transitions to a cleaner source of energy, it is important that we examine new regulatory requirements imposed on coal fired power plants in terms of their consistency with continued research into the next generation of clean coal technologies.  The EPA’s recent new source performance standard (NSPS) for new units effectively required carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology in order for plants to achieve emissions standards of no more than 1,100 lbs. of CO2 emitted per megawatt-hour of electricity produced.  There are many critics who argue that this technology is currently in a developmental stage and is not broadly commercially available.  Until it is more widely adopted and improved upon, its costs will remain too high for commercial viability.



What is needed at the policy level is a willingness to put further, additional resources behind research associated with clean coal.  With that kind of research, it is reasonable to believe that commercially viable clean coal will become available.  Because of the abundance of coal and the development of emerging economies, coal will remain a widely used fossil fuel and major source of energy for the next decade.  Carefully drawn policy in support of clean coal will determine coal’s impact over that decade.



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