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Category — Coal

U.S. Energy Innovation (Part II: Coal Issues)

“The technically recoverable coal resources in the United States are unsurpassed and total 50 percent of the world’s coal reserves. At 486 billion short tons, it can supply our country’s electricity demand for coal for almost 500 years at current usage rates.”

Coal produced on federal lands has decreased less than that of oil and natural gas. Coal production on federal and Indian lands peaked at 509 million short tons in fiscal year 2008 and has been decreasing slightly each year since then. In fiscal year 2011, coal sales from production on federal and Indian lands reached 470 million short tons, a 2-percent decrease from fiscal year 2010 and an 8-percent decrease since the peak in fiscal year 2008. [1]

At today’s prices, the value of the government’s estimated coal resources in the lower 48 states is $22.5 trillion for a total fossil fuel value on federal lands of $150.5 trillion. Most of the coal resources in Alaska are deemed to be federally owned and are estimated to be 60 percent higher than those in the entire lower-48 states but are not included in these estimates.

Over 90 percent of coal in the United States is used for electricity generation. Until recently, coal had been used to produce 50 percent of the nation’s electricity, but is losing market share to natural gas and renewable energy as natural gas prices drop, renewable energy is mandated and subsidized, and new environmental regulations take effect.

EPA vs. Improving Coal

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has produced regulations that essentially ban new coal plants and make its continued use in existing plants extremely costly. As a result, coal produced only 42 percent of our electricity in 2011 [2] and is expected to have produced only 38 percent in 2012. [3]

One of the biggest stated concerns about coal is air pollution. Coal produces more emissions than natural gas when burned. However, due to actions taken by industry and technological advances, our air quality is improving and new coal plants are cleaner than ever before. [Read more →]

February 7, 2013   4 Comments

Energy and Poverty – What is Really at Stake in Cancun

A year ago during the Copenhagen conference on climate change, I published a post, Electricity for the Poor–What Copenhagen Really Needs to Confront, where I noted that some 1.5 billion people did not have access to reliable electricity supplies. To update this, there is more electricity generated this year than last, mostly due to newly commissioned large conventional sources of electric power – gas, coal, hydro, nuclear. The new estimate is 1.4 billion living in energy squalor.

To hear the good and the great at Cancun, the sustainability issue of energy poverty is hidden. Occasionally, one of the climate-change grandees slips up and admits that this the real subject is wealth redistribution, not climate. But that is about as close as it gets.

All the more reason that the international forums on climate change, energy environment, and the like should get to first principles and study this map:  The World At Night (courtesy of Bert Christensen)

When you fly overnight from Johannesburg to Europe the lights thin out just north of Lusaka, Zambia, a few more in Zambia’s Copper Belt and then nothing (and I mean nothing) until the North African coastline.  For most of this 11-12 hour flight there are no artificial lights below.  From the Sahara on south, but excluding South Africa, a region that is home to more than 400 million people consumes less electricity than New York City.

[Read more →]

December 6, 2010   8 Comments

Real Clean Coal: Japan’s Unit #2 Isogo Plant

I’m often asked: what is the cleanest coal-fired power plant in the world?  I am also asked: how “clean” is clean coal?

If emissions levels from a gas-fired combined cycle plant are the measure of “clean,” then there are emissions control technologies available today for coal-fired plants that can produce comparable emissions. To be sure, low emissions from coal-fired plants isn’t a technology problem, it’s a political problem.

Unit 2 at J-POWER’s Isogo Thermal Power Station is an exemplar for low emission coal-fired plants. The second unit at the plant entered commercial service in July 2009, so the plant has been in operation for about 18 months. The 600-MW ultrasupercritical unit 2 joins an earlier, similar plant built in 2002. Together, these two new plants replaced 1960s-vintage coal-fired plants and doubled power generation from the small project site. In addition, the new unit improves the plant’s gross thermal efficiency to about 45%, while reducing air emis­sions to those of a gas-fired combined-cycle plant.

This technology, the real deal, is available today for “repowering” existing coal plants. If the future belongs to the efficient, coal is very much still in the game. [Read more →]

November 4, 2010   6 Comments

Time to Repeal New Source Review? (Up to 30 GW of coal-plant upgrades hangs in the balance)

The typical pulverized coal power plant in the U.S. is about 35 years old, yet the fleet will continue to operate for many years to come. New coal-fired plants, meanwhile, will continue to enter service but at a slow rate. There may not be a future price for carbon dioxide (CO2) given the dramatic scientific and political developments that we are going through, but cheap natural gas makes it difficult to justify the higher up-front costs of a new coal plant.

Still, there is significant new electricity generation capacity is possible from these older plants, perhaps as much as 30,000 MW–twice EIA’s projected growth of coal power over the next two decades. In addition, new technology upgrades have the potential of improving the operating efficiency by 3% to 5%. But the impediment for such win-wins is the risk of a New Source Review violation, years of litigation, and possibly fines.

Given the Obama Administration’s stance against coal, many attendees of the National Coal Council’s December meeting were caught flat-footed when DOE Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy James Markowsky suggested an exception be made under Clean Air Act’s New Source Review (NSR) program. Mr. Markowsky proposed easing the NSR requirements for power plants that make modifications to improve their operating efficiency–assuming those plants would be good candidates for a later retrofit of a carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) system.

Markowsky’s trial balloon also suggested that candidate plants would already have installed flue gas desulfurization (FGD) systems. The concept is intriguing but doesn’t go near far enough in solving the nation’s energy woes.

NSR Definitions Remain Murky

NSR is the process established by the Clean Air Act (CAA) that requires utilities to add a host of new and expensive emission controls should they make any “major modifications” to the plant that increase emissions. The definition of a major modification has been the subject of numerous court battles since the Clinton Administration yet stills remains murky. Even when upgrades were discussed with the EPA in advance of their installation, Justice has routinely lowered the legal boom on utilities that made common maintenance changes to their plants The usual result has been a decade of legal maneuvering followed by a consent decree agreement where the utility agrees to install new emission controls and pay a fine. [Read more →]

February 4, 2010   2 Comments

Power Generation Industry Forecast: Natural Gas as Fuel of Choice, Little Change for Other Technologies (Part I of II)

“It’s déjà vu all over again,” said Yogi Berra. The baseball Hall of Famer could easily have been predicting the coming resurgence of new natural gas–fired power plants. A couple of nuclear plants may actually break ground, but don’t hold your breath. Many more wind turbines will dot the landscape as renewable portfolio standards dictate resource planning, but their peak generation contribution will continue be small (and disappointing).

The most interesting story for 2010 is that the dash for gas in the U.S. has begun–again. In Part II or this two-part report, we will explore the challenges facing nuclear, coal, and renewable energy electricity sources in 2010 and beyond.

Business Climate–Energy Demand

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century and a second year of avoiding an economic collapse, the U.S. business climate seems to have become more positive. A growing sense of cautious optimism is appearing. A mid-October survey by the National Association for Business Economics concluded that the largest recession since the 1930s Great Depression is over, and economic growth is likely for the U.S. economy in 2010. The government announced that third-quarter 2009 economic growth hit 3.5%, the first positive growth in five quarters, suggesting an end to the recession (Figure 1).

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Figure 1. Electricity growth resumes in 2010. After a two-year contracting market, total electricity consumption in the U.S. in 2010 is expected to increase. Source: EIA, November 2009 Short-Term Energy Outlook

The implications for electric generation are mixed. What gets built depends on a complex stew of credit markets, regulatory responses, economic growth, technology, and national politics. Some of those are leading economic indicators, some lagging, some not clear at all.

Renewable generation has not made a convincing economic case in the market. But politically it has the upper hand. Coal and nuclear continue to take a political battering at the hands of the renewables advocates. The politics of energy is being upended by new implications for natural gas. The political and regulatory landscape is a dog’s dinner (a Britishism for an undigested mess).

The need for new generation to supply load appears less urgent than in previous years. According to the EIA, demand for electricity has fallen since the economy tanked in 2008. The demand down-tick is the first since the EIA has accumulated these statistics in 1977.

Facing a sluggish economy, consumers have reduced thermostats, cut off air conditioning, and dialed down appliances, leading to the decline in electricity demand. A cool 2009 summer in most of the U.S. helped to reduce air conditioning load. Net electric generation dropped 6.8% from June 2008 to June 2009. That was the 11th consecutive month that electric generation slid downward, compared to the same month in the prior year.

Analysts say they expect the declining demand trend to reverse when economic growth shows up at the beginning of 2010 or thereabouts. But they have been wrong before and may be wrong again. The EIA, the U.S. Department of Energy’s statistical agency, says it suspects the decline in demand will continue into early 2010, despite what appears to be a bottoming-out of the recession.

Many electric power company long-term capital spending plans have been built on the dire forecasts of the past decade, particularly from NERC. For years, the conventional wisdom in the generating industry was that the U.S. was running out of generating capacity. Year after year NERC had the same message: It’s time to build baseload, particularly nuclear and coal, and make major investments in high-voltage transmission.

Maybe not. Intermediate-load and peaking units, suggesting new gas plants, may be the ways to hedge big investment bets on future baseload units. A recent Washington Post article quoted anonymous sources as saying that new nuclear plants aren’t economical until natural gas prices are above $7/mmBtu. That’s more than double the current price. [Read more →]

January 13, 2010   2 Comments

Forced Coal-Plant Conversions to Natural Gas: False Hope for "Cheap" Climate Action

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of Waterkeeper Alliance, posits in the Financial Times (July 19) that converting our fleet of coal-fired power plants to natural gas could be accomplished “practically overnight” and will have the effect of “jump-starting our economy….without the expense of building new power plants.” Thus did Kennedy express his new-found love of natural gas: It’s our “bridge fuel to the ‘new’ energy economy.” (Where have we heard that before–wasn’t that Enron’s tag line decade or two ago?)

Yet Kennedy’s proposal ignores the extremely high cost of fuel conversion (upwards of $100 million for a medium-size coal plant) and the added fuel cost to burn gas. He seriously mischaracterizes how an electricity market operates. And Joe Romm (Climate Progress) had added to the confusion by calling Kennedy’s proposal a “game changer.” For Romm plentiful gas means “damn easy and cheap” compliance with the Waxman-Markey climate bill (HR 2454).

Environmentalists looking to draft the natural gas industry in a forced conversion effort against coal do not know what the gas industry does: it is highly uneconomic and would overload the pipeline system that was not built with coal conversions in mind. [Read more →]

July 23, 2009   9 Comments

Energy as the Master Resource: Where Left, Right, and Center Agree

“A reliable and affordable supply of energy is absolutely critical to maintaining and expanding economic prosperity where such prosperity already exists and to creating it where it does not.”

- John Holdren, “Memorandum to the President: The Energy-Climate Challenge,” in Donald Kennedy and John Riggs, eds., U.S. Policy and the Global Environment: Memos to the President (Washington, D.C.: The Aspen Institute, 2000), p. 21.

Julian Simon (1932–98) is an inspiration to many of us here at MasterResource. Indeed, this blog is named for Simon’s characterization of energy as the master resource. In honor of Simon, I have reproduced some quotations from the vast literature on that theme.

The primal importance of energy is recognized across the political spectrum as the views of John Holdren, Paul Ehrlich, and Amory Lovins attest. Affordable, reliable energy is thus the starting point for public policy debate. And oil, gas, and coal are the backbone of energy plenty, as even politicians are realizing now that government-forced energy transformation (energy rationing) is under debate.

“The future belongs to the efficient,” it has been said. And the foreseeable future belongs to the carbon-based energies.

Here are some quotations, beginning with Julian Simon’s classic. [Read more →]

July 3, 2009   4 Comments

W. S. Jevons and UK Coal Revisited (worth re-reading weekend)

In an earlier post at MasterResource, W. S. Jevons (1865) on Coal (Memo to Obama, Part III), the hall-of-fame-economist explained how coal was a godsend to Britain, powering the industrial revolution in a way that renewable energies could not.

I am reminded of Jevons with the headline from the June 17th Guardian, “Carbon capture plans threaten shutdown of all UK coal-fired power stations.” It read in part:

All of Britain’s coal-fired power stations, including Drax, the country’s largest emitter of carbon, could be forced to close down under radical plans unveiled by government today. Ed Miliband, the energy secretary, is proposing to extend his plans to force companies to fit carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) onto new coal plants – as revealed by the Guardian – to cover a dozen existing coal plants. The consultation published by his Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) conceded that if this happened “we could expect them to close”.

Timeless Wisdom from 1865

Here is the MasterResource post (January 31) on Jevons and coal. What would he think today of the politics and policies of climate change in his home country? [Read more →]

June 20, 2009   No Comments

Air Quality Compliance: Latest Costs for SO2 and NOx Removal (effective coal clean-up has a higher–but known–price tag)

Editor Note: Robert Peltier, Ph.D., PE, is editor-in-chief of POWER magazine. His bio is at the end of this post.

Environmental retrofits at coal plants have experienced costs greater than estimated by the Energy Information Administration. That is the bad news. The good news is:

  • There are no significant technical problems with flue gas desulphurization (FGD) or selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technologies.  Utilities are not buying “serial number one” so the performance or compliance risk is negligible.  Completion risk for any project also appears to be minimal.
  • The costs to construct either technology are reasonably well understood so that project capital cost estimates should be on the money.
  • The cost escalation (updated below) during the boom is now subsiding.

The overall result is that the “dirtiest” power plants have been and are being cleaned up to current stringent air-emission standards via the Clean Air Act and other pollution regulation. This is real news–cleaned-up coal versus the political moniker “clean coal” (a separate issue dealing with a non-criteria air pollutant, carbon dioxide). [Read more →]

June 13, 2009   1 Comment

Cleaned-Up Coal: Technology Improvements, Low-Sulfur Resources Are Winning the Day against Air Pollution

Air quality from America’s coal plants have been improving for decades, even before Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1970. And since 1970, the six so-called criteria pollutants have declined significantly overall and in the generation of electricity, even though coal-fired generation has increased by more than 180 percent.[i] (The “criteria pollutants”—those for which the EPA has set criteria for permissable levels—are carbon monoxide, lead, sulfur dioxide [SO2], nitrogen oxides [NOx], ground-level ozone, and particulate matter [PM]).

Specifically, total SO2 emissions from coal-fired plants were reduced by about 40 percent between 1970 and 2006, and NOx emissions were reduced by almost 50 percent between 1980 and 2006. On an output basis, the percent reduction is even greater, with SO2 emissions (in pounds per megawatt-hour) almost 80 percent lower, and NOx emissions 70 percent lower. [Read more →]

June 12, 2009   3 Comments