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James Fallows on the Future of Coal

James Fallows is a national correspondent for Atlantic Monthly. ( )  In the last few years he has lived in and written about China. He has written the cover article for Atlantic’s December issue, “Dirty Coal, Clean Future.” I am a big fan of James Fallows; he writes clearly about big-picture issues, is a deep thinker, and does not talk down to his readers. Mr. Fallows’ article is about the future of coal as a source of energy in the world, and how China is developing “clean coal” technology.

Much has been made recently of new discoveries of natural gas in the U.S.; it has been touted as a solution to our dependence on foreign oil and as a way to reduce emission of greenhouse gases, by replacing coal-powered electric generating plants. Mr. Fallows does not write about new gas discoveries, but his discussion of the future of coal puts our domestic natural gas discoveries in perspective. Below are some excerpts from and summaries of Mr. Fallows’ discussion. I recommend that you read his article in full.

Mr. Fallows’ discussion of coal as a fuel centers on its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. He does not engage in the debate about the possible future effects of increased CO2 in the atmosphere, but assumes that reduction of CO2 emissions will be a future goal of industrialized and emerging nations. Here are some facts that are laid out as the foundation of his discussion:

  • All human activity on earth together puts about 37 billion tons (37 gigatons) of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. Twenty years ago, the rate was about 25 gigatons per year.
  • Before the steam engine was invented in the late 1700’s, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million, or ppm. By 1900, it had reached about 300 ppm. Today it is about 390 ppm, probably the highest level in millions of years. At the current rate of emissions, it will rise by an additional two ppm per year.
  • 37 gigatons per year equates to about six tons for each of the earth’s six billion people. But in the U.S., the rate is about 25 tons per person. For Europe, it’s about 11 tons per person. In China, it’s about 8 tons per person. But in China, most of the emissions are the result of construction and heavy manufacturing. India’s per capita emission level is about 3 tons per person. Kenya’s is about one ton per person per year.
  • To stabilize the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, scientists estimate that the whole world on average would have to reduce their CO2 emissions to Kenya’s level — about one ton per person per year. The Princeton Carbon Mitigation Initiative estimates that, to keep CO2 emissions from increasing above 500 ppm in the atmosphere, CO2 emissions would have to be reduced by about 26 gigatons per year.
  • Coal-burning power plants provide about 46% of the electricity consumed in the U.S. Natural gas supplies about 23%, nuclear power about 20 percent, and all other sources about 12 percent. In China, coal supplies about 70 percent of electricity consumed; hydroelectric power provides 20%, and all other sources the remaining 10%.
  • “Between 1995 and 2008, the amount of electricity coming from solar power rose by two-thirds in the United States, and wind-generated electricity went up more than 15-fold. Yet over those same years, the amount of electricity generated by coal went up much faster, in absolute terms, than electricity generated from any other source.” Power generated by coal increased more than seven times as much as power generated by the wind and sun.
  • The countries with the most coal reserves are the U.S., Russia, China and India, who together have about 40 percent of the world’s population and about 60 percent of its coal.
  • The cost of generating a kilowatt-hour of electricity in a low-cost coal plant is about two cents; the same amount of electricty from a new wind farm costs about 20 cents.

These facts, says Fallows, lead to the inevitable conclusion that the world cannot do without coal. The rising demand for energy, especially in China, will simply overwhelm any efforts to develop alternative energy. Whether we like it or not, coal will be a large part of our energy consumption for the foreseeable future. Julio Friedmann is a geologist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who has extensively studied clean coal technologies. Fallows quotes Friedmann:

It is very hard to go around the world and think you can make any difference in carbon-loading the atmosphere without some plan for how people can continue to use coal. It is by far the most prevalent and efficient way to generate electricity. People are going to use it. There is no story of climate progress without a story for coal. In particular, U.S.-China progress on coal.

Fallows then discusses so-called clean-coal technology. He says there are two basic types: “post-combustion” systems, in which the coal is burned normally after which the CO2 is separated from the gas emissions, captured, liquefied, and injected below ground. This capture-liquefy-inject process takes about 30 percent of the energy generated by the power plant. The second, the “pre-combustion” system, treats the coal chemically to produce methane, which has lower carbon content and burns more cleanly, reducing the CO2 emissions per unit of electricity produced. The remaining CO2 is then recaptured and “sequestered” by injection into the ground.

Fallows says that the technology for pre-combustion and sequestration systems, also known as coal gasification, is in its infancy. The only clean-coal technology plant being built in the U.S. is the Texas Clean Energy Project being built outside Odessa. It will use an underground coal-gasification technology to capture 90 percent of CO2, more than any other commercial plant in the world. It is funded with a $450 million federal grant, toward a total cost of $2.1 billion. The CO2 captured will be used in enhanced oil recovery projects in the Permian Basin.

In fact, because of the new supplies of natural gas in the U.S., coal plants are being abandoned in favor of gas-powered generating plants. Facing tougher greenhouse gas emission standards and lower natural gas prices, at least ten electric utilities have announced plans in the last 18 months to close more than 36 coal plants and replace them with natural gas plants, according to Clifford Krauss, a New York Times reporter.

In the U.S., it takes a decade to obtain a permit for a coal generation plant. In China, it takes 21 months to build a coal plant. As a result, China is the laboratory for development of clean coal technology. China has already built many coal gasification plants. China expects to add electrical generating capacity between now and 2025 equal to the entire U.S. electrical system – enough for 350 million people to live in cities that don’t now exist. It is doing so by building new coal plants in collaboration with U.S. companies and with U.S. technological expertise. Duke Energy, one of the nation’s largest electricity generators, has opened an office in China.

Fallows concludes:

… China is where the world’s “doing” now goes on, in this industry and many others. If you want to learn how the power plants of the future will work, you must go to Tianjin–or Shanghai, or Chengdu–to find out. Power companies from America, Europe, and Japan are fortunate to have a place to learn. Young engineers and managers and entrepeneurs in China are fortunate that the companies teaching the rest of the world will be Chinese.


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