Coal Is Here for the Long Haul

While renewables and nuclear power are set to be the world’s fastest-growing sources of energy through 2040, it’s fossil fuels that will still account for more than 75% of world power production for decades to come. That’s according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) latest international outlook report, which predicts that global energy consumption will rise by a whopping 28% between 2015 and 2040, with most of the growth driven by rapidly developing Asian nations.

The global energy outlook lays bare what many politicians and energy sector specialists have long known to be true but have been wary of saying above a whisper, especially during the Obama years: coal is here to stay. The numbers – along with major power installation projects underway domestically and abroad – don’t lie. And while green activists might wring their hands, this energy outlook in fact represents a goldmine for the U.S. if we choose the right strategy: one focused on meeting the needs of developing economies hungry for more energy, and on investing in clean coal and similar technologies to maximize the efficiency of our nation’s new plants.

While the liberal media has focused myopically on the one-off shuttering of certain coal plants as a harbinger of a carbon-free future, in fact, it’s coal-fired installations that continue to provide the backbone of electricity generation across the country. In Michigan, for instance, three nuclear power plants powered 28% of the state’s net electricity generation last year, but now, up to 10-20% of that electricity is set to evaporate after the scheduled shutdown of the Palisades nuclear plant. On top of that, U.S. natural gas production has fallen for the first time since 2005, certain states have imposed rules on fracking that could further curtail production, and natural gas prices have shot up by 50% over the past 14 months. This trend, combined with Michigan’s loss of a key source of base load power, makes it abundantly clear that coal-fired plants will have to make up the shortfall. With other states across the country relying on similar energy mixes -- overall, 19.7% from nuclear, 30.4% from coal, 33.8% from natural gas, and 14.9% from renewables -- steady and even growing reliance on coal-fired plants is set to be replicated nationwide.

On top of domestic plans to increase investments in coal-powered installations, new schemes to supply allied nations with coal are also underway. In Longview, Washington, the Millennium terminal, the largest proposed coal export station in North America, is set to help energy-poor allies like Japan meet their power, national security, and economic growth needs. Japan has always lacked adequate energy resources and this shortfall grew even greater after Fukushima and the ensuing suspension of nuclear energy production. As a result, the government reevaluated the importance of imported coal to base load power and has emerged as a leader in the clean coal technology energy space. The government has plans to build an additional 48 high efficiency, low emissions power plants and is constructing two advanced gasification-based coal plants near Fukushima.

Fortunately, highly developed economies like Japan have enough human and financial capital to invest in advanced coal technology projects. But that’s far from the case for developing countries, which will account for the bulk in world production and use of coal for the next 20+ years. According to the EIA, Africa, the Middle East, and other non-OECD Asian states are predicted to increase coal capacity and generation through 2040, with coal consumption in those countries growing on average 2.4% per year and accounting for 20% of total energy use.

Fortunately, a number of these countries, notably India, have seen the writing on the wall and have started to push for more investment in carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technology to meet their energy needs more affordably and efficiently. Earlier this summer, the government announced a new National Mission on advanced ultra supercritical technologies for clean coal utilization at a cost of $248 million, as well as the creation of two centers of excellence on clean coal technology. The government has also been prioritizing ultra high-efficiency, low-emissions technology, with plans to develop an 800-MW power plant with ultra-supercritical boilers within the next three years.

But with New Delhi still struggling to bring electricity to the 20% of the public that is off the grid, it will need to collaborate with more advanced partners to achieve their energy goals. The head of the World Coal Association already said as much earlier this month when he called for India to ally with states like the U.S. to clinch cheaper funding from multilateral development banks to access more efficient technologies. Here, the U.S. has a golden opportunity to export more American commodities and know-how and to catch up with the likes of China and Japan, which have both been pumping colossal funding into power projects overseas and investing in clean energy technologies.

Already, a few steps have been taken towards seizing this chance, with the administration announcing that Washington will use its vote at the World Bank, where it is the biggest shareholder, to help countries use fossil fuels more efficiently and access renewable energy sources. But in other ways, the administration has been falling short. Despite positive words for clean coal, Trump still hasn’t put his money where his mouth is, threatening to cut funding for the very department that researches CCUS by 55%. With the administration’s own EIA making it clear that coal will be on the menu for years to come, the U.S. needs to invest more in exportable technology to help developing nations gain access to reliable, affordable sources of base load power -- and to benefit from a market that is set to explode. 

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