If you’re doling out critical feedback via stocking stuffer this year, it might be time to take coal off the list of options. It’s sustainable now.
At least that’s the pitch being made by The World Coal Association, which this week unveiled a rebrand and a new name: FutureCoal — The Global Alliance for Sustainable Coal. The group aims to position one of the planet’s dirtiest fuels as both a major part of the future energy mix, and a climate solution that can help cut emissions.
One piece of that is true: Coal certainly exists. There are about 9,000 coal plants around the world, according to the International Energy Agency. But the best available research contradicts all the other underpinnings of FutureCoal’s new mission. Those coal plants are responsible for more than 40% of the energy sector’s carbon emissions, and spewed nearly 15.5 gigatons of warming pollution in 2022. Put simply, coal is largely incompatible with a world that wants to limit warming to 1.5C.
In 2020, a Carbon Brief analysis found that coal carbon pollution would need to fall roughly 80% by 2030 — twice as fast as oil and gas emissions, because coal “emits far more CO2 per unit of energy.” And while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change considers 1.5C feasible with coal in the mix, the amount is exceedingly small. The latest report found that coal use will need to fall 95% by 2050 — and that’s only if the remaining plants rely on yet-unproven carbon capture and storage technology. (This is the “abatement” Manook references.) In its own outlook, BloombergNEF says coal without CCS “virtually disappears.”
But Big Coal is particularly interested in putting a new sheen on its products ahead of COP28. Fossil fuels will be a hot topic: The talks are being held in the UAE, an oil major, and the conference’s president is also the head of Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. He has said the world needs to focus on reducing fossil fuel emissions, keeping the option of continued use on the table.
This sort of Orwellian spin has become common. “Healthy forests” means increased logging. “Clear skies” means increased emissions.
# Clear Skies Act of 2003
Among other things, the Clear Skies Act:
** Allows 42 million more tons of pollution emitted than the EPA proposal.*
** Weakens the current cap on nitrogen oxide pollution levels from 1.25 million tons to 2.1 million tons, allowing 68% more NOx pollution.*
** Delays the improvement of sulfur dioxide (SO2) pollution levels compared to the Clean Air Act requirements.*
** Delays enforcement of smog-and-soot pollution standards until 2015.*
No surprise at all. Owners see coal as an asset and will continue to devise reasons to increase its value.
And in Germany they are restarting shuttered coal fired power plants in response to the interruption of Russian natural gas leading to high costs and shortages of energy.
Yes, green energy has many new technologies to test and prove before major investment can move forward. But that slows the response. The best example is the construction of ethanol plants after the Arab oil embargo. The technology was proven in a few years and investors built huge capacity.
We need to do the same with many green technologies. When they demonstrate reliable returns, investors will help build them. Until then it will be slow going.
Coal could be “clean burning”, but not as it is used today (or yester-year).
Someone I knew (now dead) designed, patented, and built the system. It was designed to be used in a natural gas powerplant that had micro-fine coal injected with the gas and used as fuel. He sold a few systems to gold recovery firms (i.e. he said the Canadian Mint was a buyer). They would run all the gold-room employees’ cover-suits through the machine in order extract the gold deposited on them during manufacturing. The clothing was destroyed in the process, but the value of the gold made it worthwhile.
On the old boards people were very excited about the potential for integrated cycle combined cycle power plants. I think that was coal gasification (like for gas lighting) with separation of carbon dioxide and sulfur etc at that stage and then combustion of the hydrogen in the second section.
Theoretically clean coal energy is very possible. But is it proven technology? Is anyone building those plants? Or is it end of the coal era?
I have not seen any reports of clean coal being proven technology or economical technology or being built. I believe that coal companies will shrink more and more. We still need to find economical alternatives for concrete and steel.
Regarding steel, instead of developing alternatives, perhaps what is really needed is to make steel without coke. There are ways to do that, but if it is economical or not, I have no idea. One company in Sweden…
Making portland cement for concrete is a different chemical process, and not as readily solved.
Carbon-free steel refers to the production of one metric ton of steel that emits less than 0.5 mt of CO2, which means steelmaking in blast furnace-converter route will need to cut its carbon emissions by over 80%…
Production costs will soar, requiring more than $150/mt extra to produce iron, compared to iron that comes from conventional blast furnaces, according to Baosteel data…
The only way to perhaps make it cost effective is to to gasify it (think 10-15 micron size particles) at the mine, then use pipelines to distribute it. However, that coal gas is essentially toxic if inhaled (even one time), so it would be an onsite use only (IMO). I do not see a residential use for it due to the risk of leaks in so many units.
Another key point is money. NOT the cost to build or use it–because that is less than the cost of nat gas. It is the electric companies. Their profit is based on COSTS INCURRED, so HIGHER COSTS = HIGHER PROFITS. And the cost of fuel (I was told) is about 67% of their annual costs. When costs go DOWN, so does profit. So they are not really interested in reducing costs.
Re: Clean steel. There are reports of using hydrogen rather than coke. The new midwestern hydrogen hub under the Inflation Recovery Act is supposed to try it. Presumably at the Gary IN steel mills. They also plan hydrogen by electrolysis from nuclear power.
Yes, the gas can contain carbon monoxide. The reason people committed suicide by sticking their head in an unlit oven.
The hydrogen shift reaction allows reaction with steam to convert carbon monoxide to CO2 and hydrogen. So need not be toxic for that. But still must worry about sulfur and toxic metals etc. Process probably must be optimized to whats in the coal.
I was told “dirty coal” would work fine, and I understand why. Because the system uses fine particles, it is simple to separate out sulfur and metals as part of the process. The non-coal content tends to be a heavier particle, thus it is easy to process it out using a centrifuge or other method based on mass of each particle.
There’s a fundamental problem removing impurities from solid coal. Most of it get washed to remove stuff like mud on the surface. Grinding it small may let you separate some impurities. Already they remove rocks etc. At the “beakers” we have seen photos of children doing exactly that. I suspect they have it automated now. Personally I would use flotation as I expect the rocks to be heavier than coal.
Once the coal is gasified, the gas is much easier to process. You have many opportunities to removed selected impurities. Mercury is one we hear coal fired power plants have to remove now. Should be easy. Sulfur can be tricky depending on its form. Most likely hydrogen sulfide. I’d be very surprised if its elemental sulfur. If the coal comes from carbohydrates, you expect the sulfur to come from aminoacids in the proteins.
Sharp engineers need to design the system for what is there.
Fine enough to burn like a gas–which is the whole point. So extremely small and thus easily separated by a variety of means (whichever works best). A similar system is used on SAI–surface analysis instrumentation. A target placed in a hard vacuum is hit with a laser. Particles fly off and are detected a short distance away. The fastest particles (of the elements that make up the target) are the lightest ones, and the heavier ones take longer to be detected (i.e. mass of the atom/molecule means its velocity is lower after being hit by the laser). Done in hard vacuum so no interference by atmosphere.