Coal rush

What's behind the huge spurt in coal generation investments in the US?

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Growth in coal generation will (Credit: Sierra Club)bush is back in business. And so is coal. Labelled for years as eco-unfriendly, coal-based power generation is now being promoted as the new energy source of the future that's cleaner than conventional technologies. But environment groups remain sceptical. "There's no such thing as 'clean coal' and there never will be. It's an oxymoron," warns Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program.

A rough estimate of investment in new coal energy technology puts it at more than us $100 billion. "Running a coal-fired plant in these times is a gold mine," says Robert McIlvaine, a coal industry consultant in Illinois. 118 new coal-fired plants have been announced. The Sempra's Granite Fox coal-based project in Nevada is expected to supply 1,450 megawatts of generating capacity. This will make it one of the nation's largest producers. "President Bush stood up and said that his administration would not turn its back on coal," outgoing Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham recently assured a group of coal industry executives. According to the National Mining Association, in the past 4 years, President Bush and the Congress have boosted coal funding by us$240.6 million over requested levels. Besides making bilateral pacts with 80 countries outside the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (unfccc), the us has also negotiated a deal with India and 12 other nations like China, Russia, Brazil, Colombia and the European Union (eu) to design and develop the first coal power plant with no carbon dioxide.
"Coal production is at record setting or near record setting growth," says John Grasser, director of communications in the Energy Department's Office of Fossil Energy. The us coal production of a billion tonnes this year will top all time record levels. The us has the world's largest reserves of coal. At current consumption rates, these are projected to last at least 275 years.

Coal's resurgence is partly due to us fears over declining natural gas supplies. The running cost of a gas plant is also higher. Typically, coal-fired power plants spend 2 cents per kilowatt/hour (k w/h) to fuel operations, compared to 5 cents per k w/h for a plant fuelled by natural gas.

The FutureGen programme, set up to develop zero-emission coal-fired power plants over the next decade, is a move by an administration under pressure to address global warming. Also known as "integrated gasification combined-cycle" power generating units (igcc), these plants do not directly burn coal, but pressurise it to produce a gas from which smog-causing pollutants can be filtered before the gas is used to power jet-engine-style turbines (much like the ones in natural gas power plants). The pressurising process also releases a stream of carbon-dioxide emissions that can be captured for underground sequestration. igcc proponents claim that it can reduce key pollutants like nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, and particulates by more than 90 per cent.

The trouble with igcc, feels Becker, is that carbon sequestration has not been proven a successful technique, and extracting coal from the ground can be so damaging that boosting coal generation will have grim fallouts. He also fears that igcc technology could be used as an excuse to build hundreds of new coal plants, diverting investment from renewables and stalling the shift away from fossil fuels.

Despite potential benefits, clean coal technology got shortchanged when FutureGen got only us$18 million of the requested us$237 million in the 2005 budget. As it is, FutureGen aims to get just one prototype up and running by 2008, despite its capacity to build 4 or 5 plants. Meanwhile, the industry, despite promising to set up a research fund, is hesitant to adopt igcc as it costs 30 to 40 per cent more than traditional coal technologies.

"The administration pays lip service to the project, but will have to spend more political capital to actually move the technology," says Rusty Mathews, a former Senate staffer who worked on the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. Is the Bush administration just using FutureGen as an excuse to avoid taking real action on climate change?

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