Coal, here today, here tomorrow (Part 1)
As we will most certainly convince the reader in this series of essays, we need not ever worry that coal will be eliminated as a major energy source in the US and the world. We simultaneously want to convince you that we are not talking about your grandfather’s coal plant.
Years ago, if you drove past a coal fired plant you saw a gray cloud emerging from its exhaust tower. The color was caused by fly ash and a few other byproducts of burning coal. More often today, a billowing cloud is white and made up mostly of water vapor. This is a result of considerable investment made by coal plant owners in emission control equipment. Clean power plants did not happen overnight.
Some of the first environmental controls implemented around the world were electrostatic precipitators, which remove fly ash from the exhaust gases. That fly ash now passes through electrically charged plates which pull the fly ash particles out of the stream. When the plates are full, the fly ash is moved to a hopper at the bottom of the plates. The process removes 99% of the particles created by burning coal. The process works much the same way in which an automobile’s catalytic converter removes nitrogen oxide from engine exhaust. Most coal plants continuously monitor the composition of their emissions and thus how well their environmental controls are working.
Another coal burning byproduct is sulfur dioxide (SO2) which was once incorrectly thought to significantly contribute to acid rain. This is now commonly removed by what are called scrubbers, which are simply large tanks of crushed limestone and water. The exhaust gases are sent to the bottom of this limestone slurry. As the gases bubble up, the calcium in the limestone reacts with the SO2 to form water and gypsum which is recycled and sold to wall board manufacturers. In fact, this is so successful that many worry that were coal plants to be eliminated wall board manufacturers would be in economic difficulty finding as good a source for their gypsum (hydrated calcium sulphate CASO4). They need not worry, the elimination or even reduction of coal use is a pipe dream of the Marxist element throughout the world hoping to succeed where Lenin, Stalin, Chavez and Castro failed, turning the world into a communist stronghold. They all ignored where we the people stand.
Ever since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2018 published its highly controversial Special Report on limiting the growth in global temperatures to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius this century, the alarm it generated has led several governments to embrace the thesis that global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced effectively to zero by 2050. A key component of the “pathway’ to this objective, it is claimed, is to eliminate the use of coal for power generation everywhere in the world. It is hard to believe government leaders who are not the Marxist driving forces are so stupid as to think we can continue our ever improving standard of living without coal or that they can replace it with ever undependable wind and solar. Is anyone not aware that the sun does not always shine nor the wind always blow?
The magnitude of the challenge involved and its enormous cost have not dimmed the enthusiasm of the proponents. According to the British Petroleum Statistical Handbook of World Energy 2021, global coal consumption in 2020 was 151 exajoules, 27% of primary energy consumption. This means that, after oil, coal is the most important supplier of the modern world’s energy needs. Most coal is consumed in the generation of electricity. In 2020, coal-fired plants generated 9,421 terawatt-hours which is a trillion watt-hours (TWh) of electricity, 35% of the global total, and the largest share provided by any fuel. Many billions of dollars are invested in currently operating coal plants. Eliminating them in 28 years is both imbecilic and impossible
The purpose of this series of articles is to explore the likelihood of their fantasy occurring by examining the current and near-term trends in the construction of new coal-fired plants.
Current Coal-Fired Generation Capacity
Table 1 may help to clarify the current global situation in terms of the location and generation capacity of coal plants in the fifteen countries where they play the largest role.
Coal-Fired Electricity Generation Capacity by Country in 2021
Country Capacity (MW)
South Africa 41,904
South Korea 36,380
Source: Global Energy Monitor
Readers should note three important points from Table 1. First is the enormous role played by China in global coal consumption; China alone accounts for just over half the world’s coal generating capacity. Second, reliance on coal for power is spread across several countries, largely because of its advantages in terms of cost and security of supply. Third, coal-fired generation is concentrated in Asia, with about 71% of the world’s operating capacity. The OECD countries, which are the main ones whose political leaders have made climate policy a major priority, play a relatively small role.
Over the period 2015 to 2020, over 437,000 GW (Gigawatts which is billions of watts) of new coal-fired capacity has entered service. China has played the major role in that growth. In 2020 alone, China commissioned 38.4 GW of new coal plants, comprising 76% of the global total. Outside China, 11.9 GW of new coal capacity was added. India added 2 GW, Japan 2 GW, Germany 1.1 GW Poland 0.9 GW and South Africa 0.8 GW.
Next week we will offer additional data pointing out reality is moving in the opposite direction of ridiculous government policy and the American electorate are hopefully waking up to this fact as part of the Biden Administration’s energy policy. Why would one vote for a House of Representatives candidate who supports a damaging and absurd idea for where the nation’s energy policy should be constructed?
CFACT Senior Science Analyst Jay Lehr has authored more than 1,000 magazine and journal articles and 36 books. Jay’s new book A Hitchhikers Journey Through Climate Change written with Teri Ciccone is now available on Kindle and Amazon.
Robert Lyman is an economist with 37 years of service to the Canadian government.