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Coal’s Future Is Murky But The Need For Investment In Carbon Capture Is Clear

The world may recognize that burning coal is adding greenhouse gases. But the fuel is still set to grow as a percentage of electricity generation: For two straight years it will tick up before flattening out for five years. While it may decline slightly after that, its continued presence means carbon capture and storage is needed.

That’s according to the International Energy Agency in Paris, which says that coal consumption in the globe’s most economically advanced countries is falling. But that progress is being offset by strong growth in India and Southeast Asia where it is affordable and where economies are in growth mode. India, for example, will see a 3.9% increase per year in coal consumption. Increases are also expected in Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Pakistan.

China, however, is a different story: The agency is predicting a 3% decline in coal consumption going forward. In fact, the country’s National Energy Administration reported this week that it will close about 8,600 megawatts of coal capacity by year-end, which is equal to about 1% of its energy mix. Coal makes up about 59% of China’s electricity portfolio, a bit less than in previous years.

Renewables, in comparison, comprise 20% of its electricity base and they are set to expand to 35% by 2030. For China, its ultimate goal is to have wind and solar compete with coal without the benefit of government subsidies, all by 2024. And BP said in its annual energy review that China’s coal use will fall to 35% in 2040, although it will remain the world’s biggest coal user at that time.

“The story of coal is a tale of two worlds with climate action policies and economic forces leading to closing coal power plants in some countries, while coal continues to play a part in securing access to affordable energy in others,” said Keisuke Sadamori, director of energy markets and security at the International Energy Agency. “For many countries, particularly in South and Southeast Asia, it is looked upon to provide energy security and underpin economic development.”

That is why the energy agency is supporting the advancement of carbon capture and sequestration technologies. In the best case scenario, the carbon is captured and is either permanently buried underground or it is used to enhance oil recovery. In the United States, Duke Energy and Southern Company have gasification and carbon capture projects, respectively. Both projects have been costly and Southern’s is still struggling. And that has given green activist the ammunition they need to argue that such limited resources ought to be invested in renewables.

Risky Ventures

StatOil largest demonstration project in the world and is placing 1 million tons of carbon per year into a saline aquifer deep in the North Sea. It’s part of Norway’s strategy to regulate carbon — one that uses CO2 for enhanced oil recovery.

In this country, Exxon Mobil Corp. and FuelCell Energy have a small pilot project going in Alabama — one that tries to capture carbon from a duel coal and natural gas power plant there, using the CO2 to enhance oil recovery. Their technology also cuts nitrogen oxide, or smog-causing pollutants, by 70%. At the same time, ConocoPhillips, General Electric and RoyalDutchShell Corp. are spending billions to gasify coal and to capture and bury carbon.

“If we can put a man on the moon, we can bury carbon and cleanly burn coal,” says Cecil Roberts, head of the United Mine Workers, in an interview with this writer. The mine workers, he adds, believes climate change is real and that humans are contributing to it.

What does all this mean for CO2 releases and for climate change? In 2017, the earth’s surface temperature exceeded that of the 20th century average by 0.84 Celsius, says T. Wang, in Statista. In recent years, temperatures have only escalated and added concern for climate activists — that such warming is leading to a decrease in arctic ice and aberrant weather patterns. In the United States alone, droughts and hurricanes are costing billions to repair.

To this end, China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The United States is second. That is according to the World Economic Forum, which says that India, Russia, Japan, Germany, Iran and Saudi Arabia follow. Importantly, China — with more than 1 billion people — creates double the CO2 as does the United States, which in turn, creates double that of India. Collectively, the forum adds, the 15 biggest emitters cause 72% of the globe’s CO2 emissions. The other 180 countries produce nearly 28%.

“The narrative surrounding coal has been pessimistic across the world. This will result in the gradual slowdown of new coal-fired capacity in Southeast Asia. However, the reality of rising power demand and affordability issues in the region mean that we will only start to see coal’s capacity plateau post-2030,” said Jacqueline Tao, research associate for Wood Mackenzie.

The good news, she adds, is that as the cost of renewables decline, wind and solar will lead Southeast Asia in power mix: 35% by 2040, or 205,000 megawatts.

While coal use may remain a staple of the global energy mix, it is apparent that greener energies are marching forward — especially in the developing world. The central question is thus whether to invest in advanced coal technologies or to allocate those resources toward renewables. Carbon capture and storage is expensive. But if solving the climate dilemma is paramount, then so too is new investment in the technology.

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