Because burning coal produces the most atmosphere-damaging carbon emissions, many people would like to see all coal-fired power plants closed. They think the massive amounts of electricity the plants generate can be replaced by renewables. Such an accomplishment may be possible one day—but that day is not today.
“Coal is not dead,” said Charles McConnell, executive director of Rice University’s Energy and Environment Initiative.
Coal use is actually growing. More than 550 coal-based plants are under construction worldwide, particularly in countries like China, India, Vietnam and Indonesia. Japan is planning 43 coal projects to replace its shuttered nuclear plants.
According to the National Coal Council, which advises the U.S. Secretary of Energy on coal policy and technology, coal generates 44 percent of the world’s electricity. Even by 2035, it will still be providing about 33 percent.
“As we see the increased electrification of the world, power generation from coal will be critical,” said Janet Gellici, the council’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. “We’re seeing an additional 2,200 coal units under construction and planned globally.
“So, I think the point is not lost that we will continue to be using fossil fuels going forward in a big way.”
Coal’s attraction is that it is plentiful, reliable and relatively low in cost. Not burning it is going to make electricity a lot more expensive. The key is to continue using it, but significantly reducing the carbon it emits and contributes to global warming, acid rain and smog.
The technology that can accomplish carbon emission is carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), sometimes shortened to CCS.
“Clean [energy] costs more than not clean,” said Dr. Julio Friedman, principal deputy assistant secretary for the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy. “In that context, CCS can hold its own. Today, the cost deployed in the market for CCS is between the cost of offshore and onshore wind.
“In most markets, it’s cheaper than solar. In most markets, it’s cheaper than nuclear. That’s why, if we don’t have CCS, the cost for hitting the climate target goes up 140 percent. It’s because it’s the low-cost option in a bunch of markets.”
McConnell, Gellici and Friedman made their remarks during the Carbon Management Technology Conference (CMTC) at the Sugar Land (Texas) Marriott Town Square 17-19 November 2015. The event theme was, “Sustainable and Economical CCUS Options.”
CMTC featured a strong industry presence and drew more than 240 attendees from 20 countries. The Founder Societies for Carbon Management, of which IEEE is a member, sponsored the conference. The others include the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers, and the American Society of Civil Engineers.
AIChE organized and managed the event, and IEEE-USA was a financial co-sponsor. Denis King, a member of the IEEE-USA Energy Policy Committee, served on the CMTC Steering Committee. The gathering included site visits to two facilities employing the latest CCUS technologies: the Petra Nova carbon capture project and Hastings Field.
The Environmental Cost & Benefits of Fossil Fuels
The burning of fossil fuels—oil, gasoline, coal and natural gas—for power generation, transportation (including ships and airplanes), and large industrial operations releases greenhouse gas emissions. One of the most significant is carbon dioxide, which traps heat in the atmosphere and warms the planet. Most atmospheric scientists agree that human activity is responsible for most of the warming. The earth’s temperature also fluctuates naturally.
“CCUS gives people a chance and a pathway … to make a meaningful impact on greenhouse gas emissions,” McConnell said.
Fossil fuel combustion also releases carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons. Each of these pollutants has a negative effect on plant and animal life.
“CCS provides the most impactful opportunity to capture, use and store significant amounts of CO2,” Gellici said. “And it’s important to point out that it’s for coal and natural gas. I think we lose sight sometimes of CCS being made just for coal management.”
In addition to carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide can also be captured, converted to sulfuric acid and sold to industry. A byproduct of coal combustion—fly ash—can be sold for pre-cast structures and concrete products.
Carbon dioxide is the waste product of most interest to scientists, entrepreneurs and engineers. It can be stored in large underground cavities, used in food and beverage processing—e.g., carbonated soft drinks—and contribute to enhanced oil recovery (EOR).
According to the Global CCS Institute, 15 large-scale CCS projects are in operation, and seven are being constructed. With EOR, carbon dioxide is pumped into an oil well to facilitate the extraction of additional oil. This process is more lucrative when oil prices are high, such as $100 a barrel.
Carbon dioxide resulting from human activities is referred to as anthropogenic. When used in EOR, it not only brings up more oil that can be sold, it creates jobs and benefits society.
“Enhanced oil recovery from anthropogenic CO2 is jobs, it’s economic value-add, it’s tax revenue, it pays for infrastructure, it’s all the things that developing countries want and need desperately,” McConnell said. “… We’ve got a technology that we’ve developed in this country that not only is going to be good for the climate and good for the world; it’s going to be good for you.
“There’s jobs, there’s revenue, and there’s everything that comes from it.”
Water & Energy
Former IEEE-USA President Russ Lefevre delivered a CMTC presentation on the interplay between water and energy. He began by discussing the importance hydroelectric dams play in producing clean electricity.
“Hydropower provided 50 percent of the renewable energy produced in the United States in 2014,” said Lefevre, who serves on the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. “So you can talk about sun and wind all you want, but hydropower is where you’re getting the bulk of your renewable energy.”
A dam’s powerplant depends on falling water to turn the electricity-producing turbine blades. The more water a dam has, the greater its energy-generating efficiency. From 1983 to 2013, hydropower accounted for an average of 18 percent of California’s total electricity.
From October 2011 to September 2014, because of the drought the state is facing, that percentage dropped to less than 12 percent. The difference that is made up by traditional coal- and natural-gas fired plants increases California’s carbon footprint. It also has an economic impact.
“Hydroelectricity is cheap, compared to everything else,” Lefevre said. “The increase in electricity costs is $1.4 billion. It costs us that much more than it would have, if not for the drought.”
Lefevre said that in FY 2011-12, the water district derived 393.5 MW of electricity from hydropower. In FY 2013-14, it fell to 216.2 MW.
“The drought has really hurt California,” he said.
Chris McManes is IEEE-USA’s public relations manager.