EPA Restrictions Can Encourage Clean Coal

Posted on November 08, 2013
Posted By: Jessica Kennedy
 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is making the coal industry nervous with a proposed rule that would impose new regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from newly constructed power plants.  This would permit new coal plants to emit no more than 1,300-1,400 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour.  While the rule is more lenient in its standards for coal plants than for those powered by natural gas, coal powered generating facilities will need carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology installed in order to meet the proposed requirement. 

The U.S. has a wealth of coal; an estimated 483 billion tons according to the EIA, and there is a strong industry devoted to converting this resource into affordable energy.  The industry has always been opposed to restrictions on power plant emissions.  Limited emissions likely mean a higher cost for coal power, which can mean a decrease in demand.  With restrictions in place, coal may have no choice but to develop cleaner and cheaper CCS technology. 

Politics

On June 25 2013, President Obama spoke at Georgetown University extensively on climate change, and he stated clearly that reducing emissions from coal is an important component of his climate action plan.  Subsequently, coal industry leaders and their representatives in Washington have reacted as though Obama has declared a “War on Coal.”  Despite the president’s strong rhetoric on reducing carbon emissions, coal will not be out of the energy mix anytime soon.  In an interview with Reuters in June 2013, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz expounded, “[President Obama] expects fossil fuels, and coal specifically, to remain a significant contributor for some time."  Moniz’s statement is firmly supported by energy industry experts such as the Energy Information Administration (EIA).  EIA energy forecasts clearly points to coal as a dominant energy resource in the U.S. and across the world for years to come.         

Assurances from the Obama Administration that coal is not under attack are not appeasing representatives from states like West Virginia and Kentucky whose economies depend largely on coal mining.   In a statement on the Senate floor Thursday September 19th Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) voiced support for these states saying, “I know how important coal is to the state of Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana.  A lot of states feel very strongly about coal.”  McConnell’s statement was in support of his “Saving Coal Jobs Act” for which he attempted to amass backing.  The bill, which did not get widespread support, would have prevented the EPA from regulating coal fired power plant emissions.  While the coal industry benefits from lax emissions standards now, regulations for cleaner air are sure to be implemented at some point.  Investing in CCS would help the coal industry compete in the long term. 

What the president’s climate change plans and the EPA’s proposed rule on carbon emissions do mean however, is that the coal industry must advance technologically in order to survive.  It is estimated that new generation plants will be cheaper and more efficient to build if they are fueled by natural gas rather than coal.  This is because of the cost of CCS devices coal plants would need to install to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.   

New Research

Reports from agencies like the EIA and the Clean Air Task Force suggest that incorporating CCS technology into a new coal power plant will make it about 20%-35% more expensive to build than a standard coal plant.  Coal industry leaders argue that this will effectively make new coal power plant construction economically impossible.

A paper published in September, 2013 in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences entitled “The social cost of carbon: implications for modernizing our electricity system” analyzes the social cost of carbon (SCC).  The EPA defines the SCC as, “an estimate of the economic damages associated with a small increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, conventionally one metric ton, in a given year. This dollar figure also represents the value of damages avoided for a small emission reduction.”  Even though the SCC, by the EPA’s own admission, likely underestimates the real costs of climate change damages, it is still a useful measuring tool, and it ramps up the true cost of coal fired power plants without CCS.    

This analysis indicates that fossil fuels, including coal, are becoming economically unviable, and it is not alone in that conclusion.  That sentiment worries the coal industry, and reinforces President Obama’s call for action on climate change.

Responding to Emissions Regulations

The coal industry should take clean air regulations as a cue that investing in CCS technology is a necessity if it is to survive.  If coal power has a future, it is in clean coal.  Fighting regulations, instead of investing in clean technology, will be an expensive battle.  As renewable energy sources become competitive with fossil fuels in the near future, there will be a definite shift to low-cost, emission-free power sources.  For coal to remain in the long-term mix, it needs to be a power source that is both clean and cheap, or it will inevitably be phased out as old technology. 

 After all, this is the way technology progresses.  As newer and more efficient ways of doing things become available, older technology falls by the wayside.  Wireless communication is fast replacing telephone wires; the typewriter is an antique, and portable computers are ubiquitous; furnaces distribute heat throughout our homes, making the once crucial fireplace a decorative living room feature; even personal computer hardware appears to be challenged by the new “cloud” innovation.  

 Staying Relevant

The coal industry argues strongly that it is crucial to the American economy and supports thousands of jobs nationwide.  Research and development of carbon capture equipment will not only increase the number of jobs supported by the industry, but increase the number of jobs in fields such as the sciences, that have been scarce in the U.S. for decades.    

Fighting against the current to keep clean air regulations away from coal power is a losing battle in the long term.   Proponents of allowing unlimited emissions to remain the norm for coal power plants are not thinking about long-term ramifications for the industry.  Without clean coal technology, coal power will become obsolete as clean and renewable resources filter into the market at ever more affordable prices.

 
 
Authored By:
Jessica Kennedy has worked in the energy industry since 2008. She earned her bachelor's degree in English from the State University of New York at Geneseo. She earned her master's degree in Physical Geography & Environmental Systems from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Jessica's primary area of study is environmental conservation and climate change. Jessica is also an avid reader, painter, and guitar player.
 

Other Posts by: Jessica Kennedy

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Comments

November, 09 2013

Fred Linn says

There is no such thing as "clean coal".

No matter how much you try to clean up smokestacks, or capture CO2, coal still comes from strip mines, and it still produces mountains of ash, soot and creosote.

Our chances of finding the lost continent of Atlantis are FAR better than our chances of some day having "clean coal".

November, 10 2013

Ferdinand E. Banks says

Better get on the horn to Angela, Fred, because she and her buddies have just ordered a big slice of coal burning Equipment. They are leaving nuclear, you know.

November, 12 2013

Michael Keller says

The EPA unquestionably intends to kill coal.

There is no sound reason to send vast amounts of CO2 into the ground and expect that no major problems will occur with the material. Does liquid CO2 exist in nature deep underground? Nope. Strongly suggests the "law-of-unintended-consequences " will rear its ugly head.

As to the financials, currently new coal plants are unable to compete with new natural gas plants. There is simply no way even more costly CO2 sequestration power plants can ever compete.

Is there a way for coal to compete? Maybe, but the government is unlikely to support other approaches that do not actually kill-off the use of coal, as that is the actual objective.

November, 12 2013

John Parkes says

Michael,

There are very large deposits of CO2 underground in the four-corner states and other states and around the world that have been there for a very long time. Google St. Elmo's dome, which is one of the largest natural CO2 deposits in the world. It is currently used for Enhanced Oil Recovery in Texas.. Jessica,

I'm not sure where the 1,300 - 1,400 lbs/MWhr came from. By my reading of the proposed rule the number is 1,100 lbs/MWhr for coal-fired plants - and 1,000 lbs/MWhr for gas-fired plants.

I believe it is totally unrealistic to think that this rule will encourage clean coal. Given that it is patterned after California's AB 32 law that, in part, was put in place to kill any new-build coal plants from being built in the state, it will have the same affect throughout the US. It is also similar to the recent Canadian CO2 performance standard which is having a severe impact on new coal plants being built in Canada.

I also believe that the rule totally misses the point relative to what is needed to reduce the impact of global warming. It is a political palliative that shows a lack of political will and leadership. Since we are eating through the earth's carbon budget at a rapid pace, we will need near-zero emissions power plants ASAP - 90% plus reduction in CO2 emissions. This translates to power plants emitting under 200 lbs/MWhr of CO2. Accordingly, we must designate natural gas as a "dirty" fuel. Given that the EPA designates CO2 as a pollutant then natural gas fired plants are basically in the same boat as coal - CO2 polluters. California will not be able to meet its AB 32 standard unless we do so and they put CCUS on their gas-fired plants.

But the real action is not in the US, it is in Asia - China, India and Indonesia - where over 80% of the new coal-fired power plants will be built before 2035 without CCUS (and adequate scrubbers and SCR's). This amounts to ~1,400 new coal-fired plants. Given the vast cost of CCUS development, demonstration and deployment, and the fact that renewables are not up to the task, this calls for a major global effort to produce low-cost coal technologies that incorporate CCUS. With the state of politics in the US and around the world that will be a tall order. Looking at what France has achieved with their power system, it seems the best answer may be nuclear power using breeder reactors.

Jack Parkes

November, 12 2013

Michael Keller says

You may have a point about natural CO2, but it is not in liquid form, being dissolved in something else and usually associated with volcanic actions of one kind or the other. Pumping highly compressed liquid CO2 into underground formations is entirely different. Again, unclear what mischief it will cause, but there have been instances where gases belched out of lakes and killed animal life (including humans) in the vicinity.

Also, what global CO2 budget? Rather doubt there is some accounting firm in charge. There is no compelling scientific facts requiring zero CO2 emissions, just a bunch of speculation, bordering on hysteria.

Designating natural gas as "dirty" strikes me as more hysteria.

By the way, I believe the proposed limit is 1100 pound, per megawatt goss output, which is around 1400 lbm per MWh net, as Jessica observed.

November, 13 2013

John Parkes says

Michael,

I'm not sure what your point is here on CO2. If the CO2 is at 4,000 meters depth - which a lot of it is, it must be in liquid form due to the pressure at that depth. Plus we have been pumping liquid CO2 into the ground in Texas for many years for EOR and it hasn't caused any mischief yet.

Fred,

Rather than scoff at things, what is your proposed solution to Anthropogenic Global Warming (if it exists). Germany is on its way back to coal given that renewables is causing them major problems on their grid and has not done the job for them - and they are giving up on nuclear. Coal and gas are growing as CO2 producing fuels for power generation and other uses around the world. Making bad jokes about the situation is not helpful. A serious consideration of our generation options globally is in order - and like it or not coal and gas are going to be a major part of the mix for 50 or more years to come. So again, what's your proposed solution to AGW.

My concern in writing the comment was to point out that the EPA's new performance standard will not "encourage clean coal" or clean gas for that matter and provide false hope of a partial solution. A global effort will be required to address the problem and I see no political will to do so. We are in the process of being boiled like the toad and if we don't do something about the situation soon it will be too late.

November, 13 2013

Michael Keller says

My point is liquid CO2 does not exist on the planet unless we create it and pump it into the ground. That strikes me as the recipe for completely unexpected results, likely bad.

I do agree the EPA proposed standards will not encourage clean coal as the objective is to get rid of coal.

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