A Comment on Coal

by Quin Shea

America’s demand for electricity continues to rise. Electric output last year was the second highest yearly total ever, falling just behind 2005’s record demand. Looking ahead to 2030, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that the nation will be using almost 40 percent more electricity than it does today.


Coal offers substantial economic advantages for generating electricity.
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As the demand for electricity grows, so too does the commitment of the nation’s electric utility industry to supply it in a reliable, affordable and environmentally responsible manner. Coal remains a vital element in the nation’s ability to do so.

Coal offers substantial economic advantages for generating electricity. At present consumption rates, the U.S. should have enough coal to last 250 years. The country’s ample coal supplies create a domestically secure fuel source that can help the nation to keep electricity prices stable for many years to come.

At the same time, though, coal presents significant environmental challenges. We recognize this and we are addressing them. Reducing air emissions is one way. Since 1980, the industry’s coal use has increased 75 percent, but, during this same period, the industry cut its nationwide emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides by more than 40 percent. Mercury emissions, which have never before been regulated for electric generators, have also fallen by approximately 40 percent as a co-benefit of technologies designed to control non-mercury emissions.

Through compliance with new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations-the Clean Air Interstate Rule and the Clean Air Mercury Rule, and the Clean Air Visibility Rule-the industry will raise these emission reduction numbers to more than 70 percent each.

The industry is also investing in advanced pulverized coal and gasification technologies for generating electricity, such as fluidized bed, ultra-supercritical boilers, and integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technologies. These technologies generate electricity using less coal and consequently produce fewer emissions. IGCC technologies in particular also offer the potential for capturing and storing carbon dioxide.

Keep in mind that IGCC plants with carbon capture and storage technologies will cost approximately 20 percent to 50 percent more to build than conventional plants. As a nation, we will have to create a commercial track record for them as well. And there are significant issues surrounding procedures for siting and permitting them. But they will be a vital tool for the industry to address global climate change.

There is no silver bullet to solve the climate issue. It will take technology that can capture and store CO2 emissions from coal and other fossil-fuel plants, along with a full suite of other climate-friendly technology options, for the electric power industry to address climate change. These technology options include an expanded role for energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, greater nuclear capacity and advanced nuclear designs, and the wide-spread use of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

Some of these options are currently available-although at a higher cost than conventional generation sources-but many are not. All have different time horizons, but all are critical to reducing the electric utility industry’s greenhouse gas emissions.

As discussions continue in Congress about possible solutions for reducing the country’s CO2 emissions, the power industry will recommend that to be effective, any long-term strategy must be technology-driven, economy-wide, and minimize cost increases to customers. We will continue our voluntary efforts to lower both the industry’s CO2 emissions and its emissions intensity. We began these activities in 1994 with the public-private Climate Challenge Initiative and we are continuing them today through the Power Partners program. As was the case in 2004, the electric power sector led all sectors of the economy in 2005 (according to the latest data available) in taking voluntary actions to reduce, avoid or capture greenhouse gas emissions.

Last year the industry also helped the U.S. government to launch the country’s newest voluntary program to reduce greenhouse gases, the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. The APP partner countries, Australia, China, India, Japan, Republic of Korea and the U.S., together produce about half of the world’s CO2. These nations have agreed to work together to meet goals for climate change, energy security and air emissions in ways that promote sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction.

Coal offers the country a secure, reliable and economical energy source for meeting its growing demand for electricity. By pursuing a variety of measures, the nation’s electric utility companies are helping to ensure that coal can meet that demand in an environmentally sensitive manner as well.

Author

Quin Shea is executive director, environment, at the Edison Electric Institute.

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