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Coal’s Future Burns Brightly

A statement by U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu last fall, that coal “is likely to be a major and growing source of electricity for the foreseeable future,” surprised a lot of people.

To hear others forecast the future, as more solar, wind, and nuclear power plants begin producing electricity, coal will soon fade out of sight.

Two carefully researched studies show a much different view. Over the next two decades, worldwide coal use will increase dramatically. Coal is still very much on the energy map.

Worldwide demand
One report, the International Energy Outlook 2009 issued by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, says that by 2030 the amount of coal used to produce electricity worldwide will increase from about 6,000 megatons to almost 9,000 megatons.

Another report, from the World Coal Institute in London, England, looks at the use of coal for industrial processes, such as making steel, and for generating electricity. Looking ahead to 2030, the institute predicts that overall coal use will increase by 60 percent.

Why the big jump?

Both reports show that the biggest increases in the use of coal to generate electricity will occur in rapidly developing regions of the world.

Hundreds of millions of people around the world have never had the benefits of electricity in their daily lives–and they want electric power as quickly as they can install it. People in these countries want reliable electric power for hospitals and schools. They want electricity to help provide safe drinking water and improve sanitation, to improve food production and refrigerated storage, and for all kinds of business activities.

As their populations and economies grow, these nations are choosing coal for several reasons. Coal is a so-called “hard path” fuel that can provide steady electric power 24 hours a day, with none of the on-again, off-again issues of intermittent sources such as wind or solar.

The price of coal typically does not vary as rapidly as some other fuels, making it simpler to predict annual operating costs. In many places, coal is a locally abundant domestic natural resource. It’s also relatively simple to transport power plants using simple infrastructure such as rail lines and barges.

Both reports studied regional supplies of coal, transportation networks, the amount of money available to invest in new power plants, and the number of building permits already requested. The reports also examined population trends.

The Energy Information Administration report says that China’s fleet of coal-based power plants, which generate 350 gigawatts of electricity today, will continue to expand rapidly. By 2030, China will produce an astonishing 950 gigawatts of electricity from coal. During the same period, India’s fleet of coal-based power plants will grow from 78 gigawatts to 142 gigawatts. In South Africa, three coal-based power plants that had been closed for a decade are now operating again, with 12 new units in other areas under construction.

Using coal is part of many nations’ plans to catch up with the highly industrialized economies and lifestyles of the countries in the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia, and the rest of the developed world. Improved technology for coal could speed the process.

American innovation
A multi-purpose group of energy activities northwest of Beulah, N.D., provides a glimpse of coal�s future. The three-part site includes a coal mine, a gasification plant, and a generating station. Antelope Valley Station is a part of Basin Electric Power Cooperative, which generates and transmits electricity for 136 member cooperative systems throughout North Dakota and eight other states.

Today, the coal mine supplies the raw material to produce a gas at the Great Plains Synfuel Plant. The synfuel process requires 2-inch or larger chunks of coal that are processed to release gases; the smaller leftover pieces are sent over to Antelope Valley where they are used in a combustion process to generate electricity.

Floyd Robb, Basin Electric’s vice president of communications, says, “The natural gas from coal that is produced at the Great Plains Synfuel Plant is injected into a pipeline that transports it to consumers throughout the United States. A different gas, carbon dioxide, that is captured from the synfuel process is compressed and travels through a separate pipeline into Canada, where it is used for enhanced oil recovery.”

Robb says, “If we are successful in developing a carbon dioxide capturing process at the Antelope Valley Station, that carbon dioxide could be injected into the same pipeline that goes to Canada. We are getting calls from all over the world from companies and people who are interested in the capture and transport of carbon dioxide from the combustion of coal.”


The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association also conducts studies of energy trends. Dave Mohre, executive director of the association’s Energy and Power Division, says, “For the last 10 years, about 80 percent of the electricity generated by co-ops has come from coal. Today, that is changing. In the future, there may be some increase in overall coal use, but not much. The number of tons of coal we use may not change much, but it will be a different percentage of the generation mix.”

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