Does coal have a future?

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Does coal have a future?

Postby Wilberforce » Sat Nov 16, 2013 8:43 pm

Does coal have a future?
Even emerging markets might not last long

November 16, 2013

For years, the coal industry has pushed a technology known as "clean coal" as the salvation for a disappearing energy source. The technology involves capturing pollutants produced from burning coal and converting coal into a cleaner-burning gas. The idea has seemed to hold potential, but the few large-scale clean coal projects have been enormously costly and failed to meet their promise.

The Wall Street Journal reports that only three clean coal projects are moving ahead in the U.S. One of them, a plant under construction in Mississippi, shows the enormous risk involved. That plant has run into nearly $2 billion in cost overruns. Customers' rates have soared, but the plant hasn't generated any power for them. The company was slated to get $700 million in federal subsidies but will forfeit $133 million of that because of delays.

Some Illinois political leaders have promoted clean coal plants as a way to create jobs in the state. The trade-off, though, is that the projects would lock Illinois consumers into above-market prices for energy. Gov. Pat Quinn's veto stopped one project and two others have faded.

The future of coal looks bleak. That's an important issue for southern Illinois, which has significant coal supplies.

Market forces and federal environmental rules have made coal unattractive as an energy source across North America. Supplies of cleaner-burning natural gas have been booming, thanks to the technological breakthrough called "fracking," which has tapped into previously inaccessible reserves. Utilities are placing their bets on natural-gas power plants and closing coal-burning plants. Solar energy costs are coming down. Advanced conservation techniques, including the smart-grid electric system now being installed in Illinois, will continue to moderate demand for power.

As it turns to cleaner electricity sources and conservation, America over time will continue to reduce its dependence on coal-fired power plants.

The coal industry faces bleak domestic prospects. But coal remains the fuel of choice across some of the fastest-growing parts of the developing world. The latest industry forecasts suggest that China, which has surpassed the U.S. as the top consumer of coal, will keep burning more of the stuff for the next decade and beyond. Same goes for India.

Coal is essential to power China's rapid economic development, including its high-priority plan to move hundreds of millions of its citizens from the countryside into densely populated cities. China has become one of the largest customers for U.S. coal, including coal from the rich reserves in southern Illinois. The U.S. will ship increasing amounts of coal across the Pacific.

But that won't go on forever.

Millions of people in northern China have been choking in recent weeks under a thick cloud of smog primarily caused by coal-fired power plants and coal heating. Public health is being compromised on a vast scale. The environment is being damaged, as hazardous particles and greenhouse gases pour into the atmosphere. Chinese government officials have come under intense pressure to cut back the use of coal.

China does not have the same ready-to-tap gas reserves that the U.S. has. China has a strong economic incentive to adopt technologies that reduce emissions. China and the rest of the developing world could become the new laboratory for clean coal. It doesn't look like it's going to happen here.

Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC

source ... 1600.story
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