In the last column, I introduced three primary categories of energy sources; fossil, renewable and nuclear, that is used to generate electricity to provide heat, light and all those other industrial ‘goodies’ for our standard of living. Mankind has been using the sun for heat and light from the very beginning until they discovered the benefits of fire as an alternative to the sun. Fire became the new controlled energy and has lasted until this day.
Fossil fuel is Mother Nature’s way of storing energy from the decay of plant and animals over billions of years. While technically we can say that fossil is also renewable, it will take billions of years to replace any that we use. Therefore it is not renewable in man’s life time on this earth. Once we use it, it is gone forever. However, too completely ban using reliable coal energy as the advocates suggest would be criminal since 85% of our energy comes from fossil and has given us the life style we all enjoy.
Coal is the most abundant and cheapest energy source on earth and that is why it is the primary ‘burning’ source of energy for generating electricity around the world. While coal has tremendous benefits for mankind it also comes with a toxic footprint on the biosphere from mountain top strip mining extraction to the storage of the waste material after it is burned. It definitely does not pass any atmospheric clean air test that is for sure. Because there are hundreds of years of coal reserves (maybe thousands not yet found) stored in the ground all around the world, it is worth investing in trying to find ways to use it cleanly.
Several attempts at cleaner coal are being tried with some success but at a cost. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is probably one technique you may have heard of and through scrubbing technology has been implemented at some of the newer coal plant construction projects. The aim is to prevent the release of large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere mitigating the contribution of fossil fuel emissions to global warming and ocean acidification by capturing and injecting the CO2 into geological formations. This is not a new technique because the oil industry has been doing enhanced oil recovery with CO2 for decades.
There has been recent research done at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL) that developed Direct Coal Fuel Cell (DCFC), which is a process that will convert the chemical energy in coal directly into electricity without burning it and generate twice the electricity per unit of coal without releasing CO2 and the other toxic pollutants into the atmosphere. While the process is cleaner and twice as efficient then burning the coal, the current political attitude is to avoid coal at all cost. The coal industry has also been a little reluctant to switch generating methods. There needs to be a gradual transition, not a disruptive change, and I trust man’s ingenuity to get it right sooner than later.
Coal energy will be around for a long time because it is still the cheapest form of generating utility scale electricity, regardless of climate change policies. Coal usage is actually on the rise around the world as developing nations are starting to come on-line with their own expanded power grids. In fact, there has been an 80 percent increase in worldwide fossil fuel usage from 1980 to 2012, proving the early doom and gloom predictors had it wrong even though there has been a slight increase in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Okay, so my sense is, coal is here to stay. Coal has made our climate very livable and coal is indispensable for decades to come. The coal industry just needs to be more innovative so its use can be balanced with the needs of mankind and the biosphere.