Coal, Emissions

Column: Maybe the world doesn’t have a coal problem (but an elevation problem)

(Editor’s Note: Some thoughts wondering where the week has gone and where the world is going. This is not an advocacy piece on any level; it’s just an observation of where the world is right now).

The overwhelming consensus of climate experts is that carbon emissions are damaging the planet, and certainly coal-fired power generation accounts for a large part of that pollution.

Throw a lump of coal in the air and you’ll hit someone guilty, to paraphrase Bono. But you can’t blame U.S. utilities. Statistics show that they are listening and, for both economic and environmental reasons, retired dozens of coal-fired units totaling close to 15 GW in capacity last year. That’s nearly a coal-fired unit per week being stilled and replaced.

Xcel, Exelon, Idaho Power, Duke and numerous California utilities are only a few of the companies making moves to clean up their power generation and even go 100-percent renewables someday. Tech giants like Google and Amazon are buying into long-term wind and solar power purchase deals that essentially finance projects. The race is on to scrub the grid.

So how to explain what comes next? The U.S. Energy Information Administration recently reported that U.S. coal exports topped 116 million short tons in 2018, the highest level in five years according to foreign trade data collected by the Census Bureau.

In fact, coal exports have risen over the past three years even as the coal-fired portion of the U.S. generation mix has fallen into second place behind natural gas. If the current pace of plant retirements holds true, coal-fired generation may drop below 30 percent of the U.S. mix soon.

U.S. coal producers export about 15 percent of their production, according to the EIA. Falling prices have made U.S. coal more attractive to foreign buyers and making 2018 the largest year for coal disposition on record.

Fifty-two million short tons of that exported was steam coal and 62 million was metallurgical coal.

Where’s it going? U.S. team coal exported to Asia has quadrupled over the past few years, according to reports.

The developed world, with all of our wealth and refinement, can turn up our noses at coal and mitigate its worst impacts relatively easily. It’s only a matter of dollars. Everywhere else, though, desperately needs and wants the electricity that we take for granted and will generate it the best and most cost-effective ways they can. It fuels stability and it fuels economic growth.

Coal is also bountiful which will keep it cheap independent of regulatory headwinds. In the U.S. alone, recoverable reserves total close to 500 billion short tons, enough to last us 325 years, maybe more. And that’s less than a third of what’s recoverable throughout the globe.

Yes, solar and storage are getting cheaper, and those certainly need to be part of the solution, whether it’s microgrids in Puerto Rico or Myanmar. But the former resource falls victim to weather patterns while the latter has its own safety concerns that still need working out.

Places like China and India are also embracing clean energies, but coal is still the most immediate, cheapest pathway to power. The International Energy Agency reported earlier this year that higher energy consumption drove carbon emissions to a new record of 33.1 billion tons globally.

And despite the coal-fired retirements common in the U.S., this nation is still a top three carbon polluter as the industrial sector heated up. A 3.7 percent global economic expansion fueled the rise in energy and emissions, with China, the U.S. and India accounting for nearly 70 percent of the increase.

China and India have accounted for at least 75 percent of new coal-fired capacity built so far this century, while only one such plant has been built in the U.S. in recent memory.

So it seems like the goals of environmentalists in the developed world, however well-grounded, are running up against the economic needs found in many places elsewhere. And the goals are losing to the needs.

Fixing carbon emissions, then, is not a coal problem. It’s an economic disparity problem-an issue of elevation-and those are never fixed easily.

(Rod Walton is content director of Power Engineering and POWERGEN International, happening Nov. 19-21 in New Orleans. He can be reached at 918-831-8457 and [email protected]).