The Feasibility of Bringing Back Coal

Power generation and energy sectors happen to be very politically volatile. With our new leader in the USA taking control, we are expecting a shift in technology trends. The topic of bringing more coal fired power plants back to the equation has been brought up quite often, coming after Trump’s skeptical statement regarding global warming and climate-change. To follow that statement, Donald Trump pledged to lift restriction on US agencies funding new coal plants in other parts of the world. In addition, Australia’s minister also has been arguing regarding adding new coal power plants into the mix. As world’s largest coal exporter, it should economically make sense for Australia to forego with the plan.

There are three major categories that typically determine whether a technology would be suitable to be implemented: cost to public, reliability of supply and environmental impact. The old coal power generator is found to be less reliable as well as less environmentally friendly. Consequently, a new technology must be used to provide “cleaner” energy from coal. Southern Company has become one of the first private sectors using new technology to produce energy from coal.  The technology is said to be generating electricity while at the same time capturing carbon dioxide from coal. Maybe if this technology is implemented, we will come back to coal.

Power Plant

That being said, what is clean coal technology? Coal is currently known to be the biggest enemy to environment, however clean coal seeks to reduce emission. Before burning the coal, some technology purifies the coal to remove unwanted minerals. Then control the burning to minimize the harsh emission, installing wet scrubbers or desulfurization systems, electrostatic precipitators and Low NOx burners among many other processes.

There are two main problems with clean coal: unproven and expensive. Operating cost for Southern company quadrupled to about $1 billion from the original estimate according to a report. Not only that, the initial cost of investment of this power plant is also two times over budget. Not to say that the same case would be applied to other clean coal power plant, but at the time being, installation of this technology is expensive. Until this could be studied further, seems like cost would be hovering well above standard normal. Another downside is that coal plants are inflexible. While they do give a very constant supply of power, they can’t easily increase or decrease supply –and when they do, it’s economically unreliable. This doesn’t eliminate the chances of coal making a comeback in the future, however, for the time being coming back to coal seems unreasonable since the renewables seems to be making a very positive growth towards the future.

References: 

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/24/no-new-coal-is-not-feasible-on-price-reliability-or-emissions

http://www.bloombergquint.com/technology/2017/01/27/after-2-6-billion-writedown-clean-coal-giant-set-for-opening

One thought on “The Feasibility of Bringing Back Coal

  1. When you were researching “clean coal” did you look at the recent built plant In Arkansas, Texas, and North Carolina? I understand that since 2012 these facilities have been in operation and providing a stable and clean product. In fact, some would argue with all the technology on the back end that the emissions would rival that of a combined cycle for the equal amount of megawatts produced. The past indicates we need a proven base load and also machines that can flex based on wind and solar output (see the power crash in ERCOT in 2013 from a sudden loss of wind generation). I believe we need a portfolio of reliable base load (nuclear, coal, large frame CC Units), and machines that are flexible to start and stop like small combined cycle units to fill in unreliable renewable portfolio.

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