Coal is the main workhorse of electricity generation (49%). It is still the cheapest and is expected to stay so for the foreseeable future. It is also a national resource (we are the “Saudi Arabia of coal”). It is also one of the most polluting and one of the greatest emitters of GHG. There is no way to meet our electricity demands in the next 40-50 years without coal. It is possible to reduce its share of electricity generation, but it will depend on the availability of base line replacements.
The national goal should be to solve the GHG emission problem from coal so we can use them (the coal and the technology) as national assets. It is a “landing a man on the moon” type of project. We should pursue at least the following main directions:
- Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) – finding ways to capture and store CO2 for 15-50 years until we develop a better technology for using it. Then the stored CO2 will become a resource. The CCS technology is not ready for mass implementation yet.
- CO2 use – Finding ways to capture and use the emitted CO2. Whether directly from smokestacks or from the atmosphere.
- New ways to build coal power plants – like gasification, that are lower on GHG and are more efficient. Early large scale test projects are promising and should be expanded and accelerated.
A technological solution to coal-based GHG emissions is the most important component of fighting global warming. Given the right investment in R&D and in technology implementation we can and should find a solution. The technological solution must be economical enough to be implemented by developing countries. It is humanityâ€™s best chance to fight global warming. The majority of the growth in electricity generation is not happening in the U.S. but in the developing world. The majority of that growth is and will be coal based. China alone has already passed the U.S. as the largest source of GHG. We all must face the reality that the developing world will not stop building coal based power stations just because of GHG – they simply don’t have any other choice.
Depending on the GHG capture technology solution that will be developed, we should create a sensible and rapid implementation plan across our nation’s coal power plants. Once the technology is proven it will be the right time to reach an international treaty for its implementation (a new “Kyoto”).
As to opening new coal power stations, before a GHG capture solution is found, the decision should remain at the state level. It is a practical approach for the intermediate period.