Rather than crucifying the use of coal, why not develop newer and better coal-fired power plants, operating at higher temperatures and pressures while emitting fewer emissions.
Actually such plants can be built. They are referred to as ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants. They deserve the moniker of clean coal.
- Coal is cheap and available in many parts of the world.
- Coal is the hope of millions of people for access to electricity.
- Without electricity, people live in poverty and die at a young age.
- Depriving the poor of coal-fired electricity is a crime against humanity.
No other energy source is so abundant and so widely available, with the ability to generate large amounts of electricity, cheaply and reliably … 24 hours per day, 12 months per year.
We in the United States are lucky. We can toy around with mindless ideas, because we have abundant supplies of natural gas that can supplant coal, but even here, we are causing people economic harm with the war on coal.
First, a look at the technology
Ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants operate at very high temperatures and pressures of over 1100 degrees F and 4300 psi respectively, with a thermal efficiency of 44% HHV.
In contrast, virtually all U.S. coal-fired power plants in service today, operate at lower temperatures and pressures, with an average thermal efficiency of only 32%.
As a result, USC power plants are nearly 40% more efficient than existing coal-fired power pants.
In addition, they emit nearly 40% fewer emissions of all types, simplifying the elimination of emissions of SOx, CO2, particulates etc. by comparable amounts.
USC power plants can meet all EPA emission requirements, except for CO2.
These improvements are made possible by advances in metallurgy. Research in materials is continuing, so it may be possible to develop Advanced Ultra Supercritical (AUSC) power plants, where temperatures are over 1300 degrees F, and where efficiencies of 50% HHV may be possible.
Only one Ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plant has been built in the united States.
It’s the obsession to eliminate CO2 emissions that is keeping the United States from benefitting from USC power plants that use less coal and produce fewer emissions.
Second, a look at the global importance of coal-fired electricity
Access to electricity is essential for eliminating poverty, and coal is the only cheap and widely available source for generating the needed electricity.
It’s for this reason that China, and developing countries in Africa and elsewhere are building coal-fired power plants.
China is building USC plants, reportedly one each week.
Globally the use of coal in 2013 grew by about 50% more than the use of oil and three times that of natural gas.
A new report by Robert Bryce, Not Beyond Coal, How the Global Thirst for Low-Cost Electricity Continues Driving Demand for Coal, contains considerable information on the use of coal, and is quoted here.
For example, from Not Beyond Coal:
“Coal remains an essential fuel to address ‘energy poverty’, the lack of access to modern energy services such as electricity and clean cooking fuels. From 1990 to 2010, some 832 million people gained access to electricity due to coal-fired generation, the vast majority of whom live in developing countries.”
“The International Energy Agency (IEA) defines electricity access at levels that are a minute fraction of the levels common in the developed world. For instance, the Paris-based agency describes electricity access as 250 kilowatt-hours per year in rural areas and 500 kilowatt-hours in urban locations. For comparison, the average resident of France consumes over 7,100 kilowatt-hours per year.”
In other words, even with energy access, as defined by the IEA, people in developing countries would have access to quantities of electricity that Americans would consider unacceptable.
No one doubts that renewables have been growing at a rapid rate, but in 2013 renewables only supplied 2% of electricity globally, and that was primarily in Europe and the United States where governments mandated and subsidized their growth.
Poor governments can’t afford to spend money on renewables that are costly, unreliable and ineffectual. Coal use will continue to grow, with China being the largest component of that growth.
By 2040, China is expected to add 400 gigawatts of coal-fired generating capacity. For comparison purposes, the United States currently has 300 gigawatts of coal-fired generating capacity, so China will increase its coal-fired generating capability by more than the total existing coal-fired generating capacity of the United Sates.
It’s obvious that CO2 emissions will increase globally, no matter how much the United States cuts its emissions.
Cutting CO2 emissions in the United States is a fool’s errand from any perspective.
But there are also other countries desperately in need of electricity.
- There are 400 million people in India who lack electricity, with the average Indian consuming 600 kilowatt-hours per year (kWh/year).
- Indonesia, where consumption is 629 kWh/year.
- Africa, where only 32% of the people have access to electricity, with many of these located in only a few countries, such as South Africa.
For example, per capita usage in South Africa is 4,819 kWh/year which compares with countries such as the Central African Republic at 29 kWh/year, and Chad at 8 kWh/year.
Coal-fired power generation is the only cheap and abundant source of electricity for people such as these.
Coal should be seen as a life saving, poverty eradicating source of energy.
Ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants can be a boon to civilization, and the United Sates should be taking a leading role in supporting and developing Ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants around the world, including the United States.
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