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Coal Has Certainly Got a Future




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


Steve Winberg

November 17, 2021 - On March 3, 2000 Science News reported: “100 years ago, life was a constant struggle against disease, pollution, deforestation, treacherous working conditions, and enormous cultural divides unbreachable through current communications technologies.  By the end of the 20th century, the world had become a healthier, safer, and a more productive place, primarily because of engineering achievements”.  A few weeks earlier, astronaut and engineer Neil Armstrong had announced the National Academy of Engineering’s top 20 engineering achievements that had the greatest impact on quality of life in the 20th century; electrification was number one.  During the 20th century, the United States’ largest source of electricity was coal. 

Since 2000, the value of coal has continued to prove itself as an affordable, reliable source of electricity.  However, over the last 20 years, U.S. coal-based electricity has declined principally due to the significant drop in natural gas prices and environmental concerns.  At present, the focus of environmental concerns is climate change.  While these concerns have been advancing across developed countries, China and India have become a massive growth market for coal-to-electricity.  China and India are now by far the largest coal users with a combined population of almost 2.8 billion people.  Both are blessed with large coal reserves, and both import coal due to their large population and industry expansion on their coasts.  China and India remain under-developed, India particularly, with a large population yet to enjoy the benefits of modernity brought through affordable, reliable electricity.  Africa collectively has many countries, many people and abundant coal reserves.  At a total population of 1.4 billion, too many on the continent live in energy poverty, burning wood and dung and living shorter lives from indoor air pollution--all unheard of today in the industrialized west. 

In these three geographies, with a combined population that exceeds 4 billion people, as evidenced by the late changes seen at COP26, they have very little, if any, sentiment to give up coal in the name of CO2 emission avoidance.  Nonetheless, U.S. and European political leaders, representing small populations relatively speaking, demanded China, India, and Africa phase out coal and implicitly forgo part of their economic development – an economic development the U.S. and Europe have enjoyed.  Of course, they will not forgo their use of coal, and they made that clear at COP26.  Ironically, coal can play a major role supporting economic development, improving the quality of life, and meeting climate change goals.  What is this major role?  We call it Net-Negative CO2 Coal Technology.

Coal plus biomass used together as fuel in power plants equipped with carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) results in net-negative CO2 emissions.  The process is simple.  As biomass (trees and crops) grow, they absorb CO2.  When the biomass is burned at a power plant to make electricity, the otherwise emitted CO2 is captured.  The result is net-negative CO2 emissions from the power plant.  Net-negative CO2 coal technology is part of a path forward for 21st century electricity.  Also, net-negative CO2 coal technology can produce hydrogen, a CO2 emission-free energy source, which is getting global attention as a future fuel for electricity generation, industrial decarbonization and transportation.

Other Major Points in Favor of Net Negative CO2 Coal Technology

- For wind and solar, massive storage systems will be needed for when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.  These systems at true security scale, which will assure grid reliability, are yet to be deployable at anywhere close to an affordable cost.

- Deploying net-negative CO2 coal technology avoids the massive environmental impacts, and the cost and supply risks associated with foreign-mined minerals and manufactured materials necessary to build solar panels, wind turbines, transmission lines and the large battery storage needed, if we transition to 100% renewable energy.  IEA has studied minerals expansion and says that current development plans are “inadequate” calling the long-term prospects an issue for renewables and the challenge large. 

- Deployment of net-negative coal technology could occur at existing coal power plant sites, using existing transmission infrastructure.  This would avoid much of the cost that would otherwise be required by a new wind and solar footprint.

- While not all inclusive, a white paper by Wood MacKenzie estimated the capital cost to deploy a renewable electricity system in the United States as $4.3 trillion.  There is no reason to bear this cost.  Numerous energy-economic studies have concluded that a portfolio of technologies is the best route to control costs and net-negative coal technology is part of this portfolio.   

Finally, right now, Congress is attempting to finalize the Reconciliation Bill—a Bill filled with incentives for renewable energy.  This is an unbalanced approach, but there remains time to rebalance it by incorporating legislation introduced by Representative McKinley that encompasses net-negative CO2 coal technology.  The Bill number is H.R. 4891.