What, If Anything, Is the Future of Coal?

What, If Anything, Is the Future of Coal?

One reason why the energy business is so fascinating is that smart, thoughtful and well-meaning people can look at the same facts and come to dramatically different conclusions.

Two examples just came across my desk: the cover story in the new issue of The Atlantic and a report out today from DB Climate Change Advisors, both with a focus on coal.

In The Atlantic, James Fallows -- one of my all-time favorite journalists, who's worth reading on a wide range of topics -- argues that clean coal offers the best hope of dealing with the threat of climate change:

To environmentalists, "clean coal" is an insulting oxymoron. But for now, the only way to meet the world's energy needs, and to arrest climate change before it produces irreversible cataclysm, is to use coal -- dirty, sooty, toxic coal -- in more-sustainable ways. The good news is that new technologies are making this possible.

He reports in detail on China's efforts to "decarbonize" coal by investing in carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Duke Energy is engaged in a joint venture with a big Chinese energy firm, Huaneng, to research clean coal.

Essentially, Fallows argues that we need an "all-of-the-above" approach to reduce greenhouse gas emissions -- one that encompasses renewable energy, nuclear power, efficiency and especially coal, which is abundant in the U.S. and China. Fallows quotes Duke's chief technology officer, David Mohler:

"Emotionally, we would all like to think that wind, solar, and conservation will solve the problem for us," David Mohler of Duke Energy told me. "Nothing will change, our comfort and convenience will be the same, and we can avoid that nasty coal. Unfortunately, the math doesn't work that way."

Fallows goes on to say:

Precisely because coal already plays such a major role in world power supplies, basic math means that it will inescapably do so for a very long time.

But can we forecast the energy future using "basic math"? Perhaps. As Fallows notes, technological process in the energy arena has been painfully slow, not just in recent years, but for decades. The energy business is not like infotech or telecom; it's slow to change and hugely capital-intensive, as Silicon Valley venture capitalists are learning, to their dismay. "Energy production is essentially what it was in the time of James Watt," Fallows writes, citing nuclear power as the most important exception.

But nuclear power as a potential climate solution gets passed over lightly by Fallows. Might a major ramp-up of nukes be preferable to investing in clean coal, a technology that's still unproven at scale? I don't know but I suspect that many utility executives in the U.S., if given a choice between the two, would choose nuclear. China is certainly placing a big bet on nukes, as well as on coal, and of course on solar as well.

And, while Fallows allows that "a [technology] breakthrough is what it would take to move beyond reliance on coal," I think he's too quick to dismiss the possibility of such a breakthrough -- in solar thermal power, or geothermal power, or energy storage, or some form of alternative alternative energy that hasn't yet been deployed commercially. He also does not give much consideration to the considerable technical, political and legal problems associated with storing vast amounts of CO2 -- forever -- in the ground.

Read the article, and make up your own mind. It's provocative and, as always with Fallows, it's beautifully argued. He was once a White House speechwriter so he knows how to make a case. (And if you are interested in China, aviation, information technology or beer, by all means follow his blog.)

Then read Natural Gas and Renewables: A Secure Low Carbon Future Energy Plan for the United States, available here for download. This detailed analysis of the U.S. energy market for the next 15 years reaches a surprising conclusion: that the use of natural gas, which is now in abundant supply, thanks to new techniques of extracting gas from shale, when combined with solar and wind, can cut coal's share of the U.S. electricity market from a little under 50 percent to less than 25 percent by 2030.

What's more, the report says, very little in the way of new policy -- other than current EPA regulation of health pollutants (not GHG emissions) from coal plants -- would be needed to drive the change. Cheap natural gas prices and aging coal plants will do the rest.

Here's the introduction to the study, from Kevin Parker, the global head of asset management for Deutsche Bank, and Mark Fulton, who is DB's global head of climate change investment research:

With a Republican controlled House of Representatives, we can now expect a significant change in approach to U.S. energy policy for at least the next two years. There is likely to be, for instance, more resistance to renewable energy incentives in a constrained budget environment. Attention is likely to focus on expanding the use of natural gas which President Obama has identified as an area of bipartisan agreement. The ideas outlined in this report could, we believe, deliver a realistic, low carbon energy pathway over the next 20 years, with a mix of natural gas, renewables, and nuclear replacing old and inefficient coal plants. This energy plan provides a credible, low risk and affordable way for America to achieve a 44 percent reduction in CO2 emissions from the power sector by 2030 from 2005 emissions levels.

Our key finding is that a significant switch by the U.S. electricity sector from coal to natural gas would be the most secure, least cost approach to lower emissions. (Burning natural gas creates approximately half the amount of CO2 compared with coal). When combined with further renewables and nuclear deployment, this plan would involve a reduction in coal's share of energy generation from 47 percent currently to 22 percent by 2030. This would make the Obama Administration's targets of a 17 percent over all economy-wide reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and an 83 percent reduction by 2050, realistically achievable. And these reductions would be realized by using domestically abundant and secure sources of energy based on known technology that can easily be deployed at reasonable cost. Importantly, our energy plan ensures a reliable electricity system that is not only much cleaner but also more environmentally sustainable.

We emphasize, however, that efficient coal units, renewable and nuclear energy must remain as important components of the over all energy mix portfolio. We envisage wind and solar energy, for example, increasing to 14 percent of the U.S. energy mix by 2030 compared to just 2 percent today.

A large-scale switch from coal to natural gas in the U.S. has become possible largely thanks to the major increase in supply from unconventional shale gas. Increasing supply is causing a long term fall in the price of natural gas, making it a far more economic fuel than in the past. We believe shale gas is environmentally sustainable with best practices. And because it is domestically abundant it also provides a high level of energy security.

On a conference call this morning, Mark Fulton said he expects natural gas, wind and solar all to grow at the expense of coal for the next two decades. More than 60 gigawatts of coal plants, he said, are more than 60 years old (!), terribly inefficient and likely to be retired by 2020. They can be replaced, to a great extent, simply by greater utilization of the existing stock of gas plants.

As for CCS, Fulton and Nils Mellquist, a senior research analyst and lead author of the report, both expressed skepticism about the technology. "CCS is not proven at scale," Fulton said, calling it a post-2030 issue. Mellquist called CCS "very experimental at this point." This echoes what I've heard recently from those inside the utility industry.

The truth is banal but worth remembering: that no one can confidently predict the energy future.

This argues for an energy policy that avoids betting on any particular technology, but provides a broad incentive -- i.e., a carbon tax or simple cap-and-dividend scheme -- to drive investment in a low-carbon future.

Photo CC-licensed by Bert K.