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Coal and Biomass - A Path to Net-Negative Emissions



By Steven Winberg, Former Assistant Secretary for DOE Fossil Energy Office, Chairman and CEO, Net-Negative CO2 Baseload Power, Inc. 


Steve Winberg 


July 13, 2021 The volume of coal sales, and for that matter, all fossil energy sales are increasing, as are prices. It is clear that fossil, including coal, will be used for decades to come both here in the U.S. and around the globe. There is much discussion about the need to stop producing and using fossil energy as soon as possible and, for some, that means now. But what will replace all of the baseload coal-based electricity generation required to keep the lights on, to keep our air conditioners running and to power our factories at a price point that does not drive them offshore?


Everyone knows that renewables are intermittent. There is great hope that energy storage, mostly through enormous battery banks, will provide the needed energy when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining. And perhaps somewhere in the murky future, we will have all of this storage. But it will take enormous investment in mining to obtain the materials needed for a transition away from fossil energy. Where will we obtain the necessary quantities of lithium, cobalt, copper, silver and rare earth minerals needed for this transition? Certainly, China will be happy to supply not only the materials but the finished products including batteries, solar panels and wind turbine components. Becoming increasingly dependent on China for these minerals and the renewable energy equipment eliminates family sustaining, generational U.S. jobs and makes the U.S. more vulnerable to Chinese suppliers.


For those that question the absolute need for baseload electricity, just look to California for the last two Summers, Texas this past Winter and the heatwave in the Pacific Northwest this Summer. Rolling blackouts have become commonplace and will continue until we address the increasing shortage of baseload electricity generation in the U.S.


Many in the climate movement have lost sight of the agreed international goal of stabilizing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, which requires a transition to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Those that have lost sight of the goal spend countless hours vilifying fossil fuels and advocating with religious fervor for renewables while ignoring the engineering and science associated with both. Both have limits...both have benefits. 


It started decades ago and has become an emotional issue rather than a climate science-based issue. Calls for the immediate termination of fossil fuels are becoming increasingly shrill. Many of those opposed to fossil fuels are then quick to add large-scale biomass and nuclear to the list of unacceptable fuels yet they have shown no practical alternative that is economically viable on a U.S., much less global scale. 


Pragmatic individuals who are concerned about climate change, value science, and respect the economic importance of the energy system, understand that addressing climate change is not about banning one fuel type in preference for another but rather that it requires “closing the loop” on greenhouse gas emissions; meaning that they are captured and recycled or stored, and thus removed from the atmosphere. The focus needs to be on the emissions, not fuel types.


While there is no viable roadmap to an all renewable world, there is a roadmap that manages emissions and involves a diversity of fuel types. It is a roadmap that includes a transition of the existing coal-fueled power fleet, and one that preserves hundreds of billions of dollars of existing infrastructure and hundreds of thousands of family-sustaining, generational jobs in coal-mining communities across this Country.


What is that transition? It is a transition from today’s carbon emitting coal fleet to a coal fleet that generates Net-Negative CO2 Baseload Power. Yes, coal can be part of achieving the Biden Administration climate targets, as well as even the most aggressive climate goals, and solve the need to continue to supply baseload power. Ironically, the Biden Administration’s climate targets are unachievable without some net-negative emissions and coal can actually be part of a fuel mix that delivers those negative missions. 


The technology to reach net-negative CO2 emissions is straightforward and involves coal, biomass and carbon capture utilization and sequestration or CCUS. The various components of net-negative technology are available but have not been integrated together at commercial scale. Decades ago, Congress tasked DOE with solving this integration challenge, at a commercial- scale, as it relates to renewables. After over $100 billion of taxpayer investment in renewables, and more being spent each day, renewables have finally reached the point where they are widely commercially available and competitive with other sources of energy, but renewables alone cannot achieve the Biden Administration climate targets—it is mathematically impossible.


However, if the nation commercializes net-negative CO2 Baseload Power, achieving those targets becomes ever more attainable. Consider that in a 1.5 degree C scenario, zero CO2 emissions from renewables is not sufficient. We need to go to net-negative and ironically, coal and biomass fuels can get us there. Some suggest that we fuel baseload power with 100% biomass and CCUS, which would indeed be net-negative but the concern is the amount of biomass required to replace baseload coal and nuclear. Where do we get all of the acreage necessary to grow the biomass and does this result in a food vs. fuel policy challenge. Under a coal, biomass and CCUS scenario, net-negative can be reached with less than 30% bio- mass.


So, what we have is a unique opportunity for Congress to task DOE to develop and commercialize Net-Negative CO2 Baseload Power technology working with both the energy and agriculture communities and to do so at a fraction of the cost that has been spent on renewables development. There are clear opportunities to use reclaimed mine lands for biomass growth and opportunities to better use agricultural waste. Coal is the most energy intensive resource and the U.S. has the highest quality coals in the World. Let us not abandon our lowest cost source of fuel for baseload electricity, but rather invest in the development and commercialization of 21st century baseload power. For decades the U.S. has led the world in energy and agriculture innovation thus providing energy and fuel to billions the world over. President Biden has talked about the U.S. leading the global climate effort. A significant element to this leadership is technology development and commercialization.


While abandoning our nation’s most energy intensive natural resource is a popular position by many, it is not a wise position. First it will erode our global competitiveness. Second it will not resolve the global climate challenge because other countries will continue for decades to use coal. And third, the U.S. will cede technological leadership to other countries and will not meet President Biden’s goal to be the global leader in resolving the climate challenge.


We have the coal, we have the biomass, and we have the technological capability. What we need is for Congress to provide the funding and to direct DOE to develop and commercialize Net-Negative CO2 Baseload Power.