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The Unfair Assault on Coal

Issue 7 and Volume 119.

By Gary H. McAuliffe

In the U.S., there is a sense of fairness that often plays out but this has been abandoned over the years in a number of cases and one significant example is The Unfair Assault on Coal. This assault is eliminating consideration of new coal-fired power plants and accelerating the closure of existing plants. The remaining strong plants are in jeopardy, as well, due to proposed carbon emission regulations.

Environmental pressure is the principal driver as supported by the increased availability of competitive natural gas. Important considerations are being left behind such as fuel diversity, reliability, advances in technology and the unique requirements of other countries.

Environmental Pressure

The environmental movement started many years ago and the early fruits of its work include the bipartisan Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972. A number of good things have been accomplished since that time but many believe that environmentalists and government regulators have gone too far.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is very active in continually tightening environmental standards through new regulations and related actions. In addition, many non-governmental organizations that are environmentally focused work ostensibly to press the EPA on its decisions and actions. These NGOs have grown large and spawned a complete industry of specialists that make money on what they do.

In their book The New Leviathan, David Horowitz and Jacob Laksin point out the extent of progressive/anti-capitalist environmental groups and contrast them to the conservative/free market environmental groups. The dominance of the progressive groups is overwhelming in numbers, endowments and federal grants.

The EPA and the current administration are focused on climate change. The debate over climate change has been muted by those that proclaim the “science is settled”. In spite of this effort to declare the debate closed, it is easy to find new information that reinvigorates it. The debate is not only about the cause of climate change but also about “what to do” and the potential economic impacts are huge. Some of the best information on the subject is by Bjorn Lomborg who authored The Skeptical Environmentalist, Cool It and numerous editorials including one published in The Wall Street Journal on February 2, 2015 entitled “The Alarming Thing About Climate Alarmism”.

Fuel Diversity

Over the years there have been statements about the future that proved wrong. In this context, there are many reports which indicate that natural gas is abundant and will be for a long time. The abundance is so evident that new uses of gas are envisioned and as these uses add to the existing uses of gas, demand for gas is rising rapidly.

Solar and wind renewables are making significant headway and with them one can identify what could be called the 24/7 Generation Triad. The Triad includes the power generation systems that can be on line at full load continuously on a 24/7 basis which include natural gas, coal and nuclear. Power generation costs are best addressed when fuel diversity is achieved by these three being a large percentage of installed capacity and energy delivery.

Reliability

The concept of a 24/7 Generation Triad is valuable not only for fuel diversity but also for reliability. Nuclear plants are among the most secure plants against threats of weather and terrorism as they are designed in a robust manner and their refueling cycles are measured in years.

Coal is likewise secure with regard to weather as it benefits from the ability to store several months of coal consumption on site. Coal plants may be less secure than nuclear plants due to the lack of perceived risk but increasing their security could be easily accomplished.

Natural gas has many uses that are critical during times of inclement weather. Gas is backed up by regionally dispersed storage and yet still depends on pipelines to make the final delivery. Such pipelines can be protected but still remain vulnerable to terrorism and gas fuel storage on site is measured in minutes as opposed to months and years.

Advances in Technology

At the POWER-GEN International Conference in December of 2014 one session included a panel entitled Current Developments in Coal Fired Generation. Among the highlights was the discussion of the ultra-supercritical John W. Turk Jr. power plant in Arkansas which achieved the best heat rate of coal plants in the USA in 2013. The Kusile Power Station in South Africa was presented and the scope, design considerations and economic impact of this new multi-unit station are impressive.

The news from EPRI focused on the excellent track record of reducing emissions in coal fired plants over many years and provided insights on new technologies that will bring significant improvements in efficiency and emission reductions in the future.

The multi-unit Samcheok Green Power Plant in South Korea and Manjung Unit 4 in Malaysia were presented which are scheduled for commercial operation in the next two years and which will be economically and environmentally successful in providing power generation requirements.

For coal the overall news is good on the technology side in both performance and control of emissions.

What Others Are Doing

China is the largest owner of coal fired power plants in the world having approximately twice the capacity of the United States and with plans to install additional capacity over the next 10 years. Second to China in the building of new coal fired power plants is India which has about half the coal capacity of the USA and is currently expanding that capacity in a multi-year program.

In addition to the five countries mentioned, at least fifteen other countries are building coal fired power plants. Each of these coal plants is based on specific economic, energy source, and environmental issues for the geographical location.

The role of coal in the USA and throughout the world should be reconsidered. Great strides have been made in making coal fired power plants more efficient and in achieving very low levels of emissions over the last 60 years and additional improvements are planned for the future. Coal remains an important element of the 24/7 Generation Triad due to its contribution to fuel diversity and reliability. With regard to fuel diversity, it is important to note that the USA has the highest level of coal reserves in the world. With regard to reliability, coal ranks with nuclear in being more capable of sustained operation through adverse weather and potential terrorist acts.

Improvement in the lives of people is invariably tied to economic success and coal can be a significant contributor. No source of power generation is without concerns and a balanced portfolio is necessary as a hedge against unforeseen conditions of the future. Coal remains a valuable source for power generation within that balanced portfolio and should be for many years to come.


Author

Gary McAuliffe is an independent consultant with forty years experience working on power generation and energy projects and with fifteen years service on the POWER-GEN International Program Committee.