Editor’s note: The following is a contribution from Frank Clemente, Professor Emeritus of Social Science at Penn State University, former director of the university’s Environmental Policy Center and editor of the IEA report The Global Value of Coal (2012). Enjoy!
Energy from fossil fuels is the lifeblood of modern society. Coal, oil and natural gas provide 85 percent of our energy and support an ever improving quality of life for billions across the world. Nevertheless, there is movement afoot to demand that universities and other institutions divest their financial holdings in fossil fuels. On February 13th, protesters held a “Global Divestment Day” on college campuses.
Although there is enough misleading information from this group to go around, the most vitriolic of their attacks are against coal– particularly coal power plants. Since the responsibility of a university is to provide education, students and faculty should be given a «cheat sheet» on why they should support coal if they truly seek a better world. Clean coal is the fuel of the future. The protestors apparently are unaware of the environmental benefits of new clean coal technologies as well as the rising tide of population growth, urbanization and energy demand that is sweeping developing nations. As a university professor for over 30 years I can attest that campus rhetoric never produced one single kilowatt hour of electricity.
There are now 7.2 billion people and in the next generation the global population will grow to at least 9.6 billion and perhaps reach 11 billion. Energy demand will increase more than 50 percent and coal will be the continuing cornerstone of supply. Why is coal the world’s fastest-growing major fuel in the 21st Century? It›s not complicated. Coal is abundant , widely distributed, affordable, versatile and the scalable answer to not only improving the human condition but the physical environment as well. There is no substitute for coal. To replace the world›s coal power plants would require: 100 percent of global natural gas production or 5,000 Hoover Dams or a nuclear power plant every four days for the next 25 years.
Coal provides 40 percent of electricity, the foundation of modern society. Electricity means life. But over two billion have inadequate access to electricity and another 1.3 billion have none at all. Almost three billion people use primitive stoves to burn biomass–wood, charcoal and animal dung– thereby be releasing dense black soot into their homes and the environment. Annual deaths from this household air pollution exceed four million per year– one every eight seconds. The gathering and burning of wood and other biomass leads to deforestation, erosion, land degradation and contaminated water supplies.
Electricity from coal is the solution to the human and ecological damage of this energy poverty. Global coal reserves approach one billion tons, are distributed across 70 countries and are accessible through an established and far reaching infrastructure to produce and deliver electricity. By 2030, 60 percent of the world›s population will be urbanized. Coal is crucial to high volume production of electricity, steel and cement – the building blocks of cities. Urbanization protects the natural environment, getting billions off the land, allowing a flourishing biosphere, protecting watersheds and permitting greater agricultural production.
Coal is the environmental solution as well. Clean coal technologies work, as has been well demonstrated in the United States where coal based electricity has increased 125 percent since 1970 while key regulated criteria emissions per kWh decreased 90 percent. New pulverized coal combustion systems, utilizing supercritical technology achieve much higher efficiencies and globally emit almost 40 percent less CO2 than traditional plants. That’s why over 500 of these supercritical units are now operating or being constructed. Importantly, these advanced plants are precursors to development of carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), which itself is broadly recognized as a prerequisite to meeting climate policy goals.
These marchers are behind the global curve. Technological and demographic realities have passed them by. The question is not whether the world will use more coal, but rather how that coal will be used. In a world closing on a population of 10 billion people, the power of coal will not be denied. The road to sustainable energy, a better environment and poverty eradication will be paved by clean coal.