London: Does coal have a future? Climate change protesters and coal traders alike say it’s a daft question, but agreement ends there.
For protesters, the shiny black lumps of fossilized wood and plants are contributing to drastic climate change. For traders, coal is an energy no-brainer which offers a ray of hope for 1.6 billion people living without electricity.
They’re probably both right.
By mid-century, the world may have an extra 3 billion people and four times the wealth but somehow it must also at least halve carbon emissions from its main energy source—fossil fuels—to rein in dangerous global warming, scientists say.
Power generation accounts for about two-fifths of emissions, from burning fossil fuels, of the main man-made greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and coal for most of that.
“You’ve got to say—‘Right, here’s the line in the sand, we’re going to stop it here because it’s madness to continue’,” said Connor O’Brien, spokesman for protesters against a proposed new coal-fired power station in southern England, which would be Britain’s first for nearly 30 years.
The Camp for Climate Action in Kingsnorth, Kent, has so far recruited about 600 people, organizers say, and joins four similar protests worldwide this year, targeting the coal industry in Australia, Germany and North America.
Despite the concerns, energy companies say they are racing to meet demand for coal.
“It doesn’t paint a very good picture of the future for carbon emissions but there is no other real choice—coal is one of the few fuel sources which has a real capacity to expand,” said Francisco Blanch, head of global commodities research at Merrill Lynch and Co. Inc.
Dilemmas of choice, to balance competing benefits and trade-offs, have left the world’s energy future wide open. Nuclear, for example, is hemmed in by public opposition in much of the developed world, while developing countries may be geologically unstable, or else, such as India, face a political leap to sign a non-proliferation treaty which grants access to imported uranium. Wind farms are growing but grid connection poses an extra expense. Solar power is booming, but only provides a tiny fraction of all power.
Environmentalists stress the benefits of renewable energy, which is often more expensive than oil and coal, in saved fuel and avoided climate change, and have won some battles.
Still, coal’s future looks safe.
In the US, utilities are building 28 coal-fired plants and another 66 are in early planning, as gas price hikes motivate new interest. Germany is building 16 new plants.
In?developing?nations?growth is rampant. Over the past three years, China added new coal plants each year equivalent to Britain’s entire electricity generating capacity. India has approved?eight?“ultra?mega”? plans which?will?add?nearly?half again to its present capacity.
The biggest brake on these plans is not climate protests but a shortage of steam turbines, with a three year backlog in the US and Europe following exceptional demand and a 12-18 month lag between order and delivery in China, say utilities.
Confronted by this scramble, politicians and scientists are reviewing an untested technology called carbon capture and storage, or CCS, which could trap and bury underground, in disused oil wells and coal seams, the carbon emissions from coal plants.
The Paris-based International Energy Agency, or IEA, says CCS equipment must be fitted to all coal plants to halve carbon emissions by 2050.
But the agency’s own scientists have personal doubts. “I don’t think in my lifetime I will ever see more than 50% of the coal-fired plants in China being fitted with CCS,” said Sankar Bhattacharya, senior IEA coal analyst.
CCS will add about $1 billion (Rs4,230 crore) to the capital cost of a power plant, not including efficiency losses which will demand a quarter more coal burn just to maintain output, and extra water for steam to make up the lost power.
“The Indians are (also) vehemently against it,” Bhattacharya said, citing cost, efficiency and water worries.