When I was first introduced to the coal industry, it was still regarded by many as the lifeblood of America. Coal fueled the boilers that drove the turbines at power generating stations that provided the bulk of electricity to homes, factories and businesses across the country, and jobs for generations of Americans.
Coal was an important part of the American scene, especially in places like West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Ohio, where deep seams of coal were plentiful, and Wyoming where there are large surface mines.
A lot has changed, but coal is still important and shouldn’t be written off. In fact, this is an opportune time to foster the use of coal technologies that can help reduce carbon emissions.
Few people know that the United States ranks No. 1 in reducing carbon emissions among the nearly 200 countries negotiating carbon reductions at a United Nations meeting that recently concluded in Poland. And there’s an advanced coal technology that can help advance efforts to continue on that downward slope.
Among the most efficient power plants in the world are those using ultra-supercritical coal technology. In this process, extreme boiler temperatures and pressure heat water in boiler tubes so that it becomes a “supercritical” fluid with the properties of a gas. In this state, supercritical steam is much more efficient at driving turbines that spin the plant’s generators.
Here’s why the technology matters: The global average efficiency of conventional coal plants is around 33 percent, significantly lower than the 47 percent efficiency of the most modern ultra-supercritical coal facilities. These ultra-super critical units lower carbon emissions to the level of a natural gas combined-cycle plant, and they have the advantage of burning cheap and plentiful coal.
A 600-megawatt ultra-supercritical coal plant in Fulton, Ark. — the John W. Turk Jr. plant — has been producing electricity for customers of Southwestern Electric Power Company since 2012. Although it’s the only one of its kind in the United States, there are several other ultra-supercritical coal plants in Europe and Asia that are making a difference in the fight against rising carbon emissions.
Listen to the debate on climate action these days and much of what you hear is the constant drumbeat for renewable energy sources. Although renewables are finding their way into electricity generation, solar and wind combined account for only 7 percent of U.S. electricity-generating capacity and even less worldwide.
What’s more, 29 states have renewable electricity standards — which mandate the use of solar and wind at prescribed levels — but the mandates have had negligible effect on reducing carbon emissions.
Politicians and pundits who view coal as a relic of the past ignore the importance of innovative technologies in fossil-fuel production and use.
The cost of building ultra-supercritical coal plants is higher than that for comparable combined-cycle natural gas or conventional coal plants, but efficiency improvements result in equal or lower electricity costs and, in the case of coal, provide significant reductions in carbon emissions.
Since coal accounts for nearly a third of the U.S. electricity supply and remains the dominant fuel globally for power generation, with a share of over 40 percent, state-of-the-art coal plants are models for what can be achieved if countries start adopting solutions that are already within reach.
It’s estimated that improving the global electric grid with advanced coal systems like ultra-supercritical coal technology could reduce global carbon emissions by 14 to 21 percent, which is equivalent to all of India’s energy-related carbon emissions.
Even when carbon-free alternatives become cost-competitive with coal, countries like China and India whose economies rely heavily on coal cannot displace coal quickly because of its vast scale and the huge amounts of capital deployed in coal generation.
The reality is that coal is synonymous with economic growth. It is an indigenous fuel in large parts of the world, whereas natural gas isn’t readily available. Abandoning coal to reduce emissions would not only be financially harmful but simply unfeasible.
Instead of targeting coal, policymakers and legislators should focus on solutions such as ultra-supercritical coal technology that are currently available and could potentially be incorporated into new coal plants and many existing plants in future years. Our economy and environment would benefit.