The Death of Old King Coal Is Greatly Exaggerated

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The Death of Old King Coal Is Greatly Exaggerated

As recently as last year, coal seemed to be in danger of becoming as obsolete as a source of energy as whale blubber oil.  Coal was threatened by a combination of politics, technology, and economics. 

On the political front, the Paris Agreement on climate change signaled that demand for coal would plummet as the world’s economies, including the U.S. and China, focused on renewable sources of energy like wind and solar.

But in mid-2017, the winds have suddenly shifted.  President Trump announced in June that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change.  He also eliminated the Clean Power Plan regulations as well as other EPA regulations that were unfavorable to the coal industry.

In April, the nation’s largest producer of coal, Peabody Coal, emerged from bankruptcy.  Last October, the second-largest producer, Arch Coal, completed a financial restructuring and also exited bankruptcy.

Demand for electricity generated by coal is soaring in India.  As we’ll discuss a bit later, China’s agreement to stop building coal-fired plants within its own borders hasn’t stopped Chinese companies from building them in dozens of other countries.

According to The American Spectator, the U.S. enjoys access to 500 years’ supply of coal, more than any other country, and still derives about one-third of its power from coal.1  Coal is becoming cleaner, with emissions from coal plants of lead, sulfur, carbon monoxide, and other air pollutants dropping between 50 percent and 90 percent compared to a generation ago.

And coal is going to become even cleaner.  According to Reason Online, a new technology promises to increase the energy efficiency of coal by 30 percent, while producing 40 percent less carbon dioxide.2

Today’s coal-burning power plants burn coal at 700 degrees Celsius.  The Osaki CoolGen, developed by a Japanese company, nearly doubles the temperature to more than 1,300 degrees Celsius.  While the coal is burning, oxygen is blown over it to transform the solid fuel into a gas, and then hydrogen is extracted from the gas to use in fuel cells to generate electricity.  The heat from the exhaust is also captured and used to generate power, which dramatically reduces the carbon dioxide emissions. 

As the article points out, “Using conventional technologies, burning enough bituminous coal to produce 1 million BTUs emits 205 pounds of carbon dioxide.  If the new technology reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent, that would cut emissions to roughly 123 pounds.  Getting the same energy yield from natural gas emits 117 pounds of carbon dioxide...

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