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Coal matters: coal and transport

World Coal,

A new report from the World Coal Association (WCA) explains the significant role coal can play in responding to the growing energy needs of the transport sector.

The report, "Coal Matters: Coal and transport", notes that the ownership of motor vehicles, for example, has increased from around 250 million in 1970 to around 1 billion today. This, among other contributing factors, has led to an immense pressure to provide transport infrastructure and fuels.

Coal-derived fuels and energy carriers, as well as coal-based electricity, can address the growing energy needs of the transport sector, according to the report. Coal is also an important raw material and source of primary energy for the manufacturing of materials used to build transport infrastructure, such as steel, cement and aluminium.

In China, automobile ownership has increased more than seven times in the last ten years, from around 14 million in 2000 to over 100 million at the end of 2011. There could be as many as 219 million motor vehicles in total now in China if all types of vehicles, including motorcycles, tractors and trucks are counted.

This growth trend is expected to continue over the coming decades in China and in the rest of the developing world, as the global middle class continues to grow. In this context, the report notes that there is a pressing need to explore new sources of fuel for the transport sector. If China had the same level of per capita car ownership as the US has today, it would use 99 million barrels of oil a day. Total worldwide production of oil is currently 89 million barrels a day.

Liquid coal fuels in transport

The WCA report says that liquid fuels from coal provide a viable alternative to conventional oil products and can be used in the existing supply infrastructure. Several coal-to-liquids (CTL) demonstration plants are being developed in China. CTL currently provides 20% of South Africa’s transport needs including 7.5% of jet fuel.

The report notes that through either direct or indirect liquefaction of coal, sulfur-free liquid fuels with low particulates and low levels of oxides of nitrogen can be produced.

International Energy Agency (IEA) data also notes that CTL can be produced at a lower cost than gasoline and, together with natural gas, is the only alternative transport fuel able to compete with gasoline – even at very low crude oil prices of US$ 60/bbl.

Co-processing of coal, combined with carbon capture and storage (CCS) can also reduce CO2 emissions from CTLs by up to 46%.

Coal in transport materials

The WCA report also notes the key role coal plays in creating transport materials – both in cars and airplanes, as well as in transport infrastructure.

Aluminium production, a key metal widely used in cars, trains and airplanes to reduce weight, relies heavily on coal. Coal accounts for over 50% of the energy used to produce the metal.

Meanwhile, energy intensive materials such as steel, cement and lime – all used to build key pieces of transport infrastructure like bridges, railroads, tunnels and roads – also rely on coal for their production. The WCA report notes that coal, because of its relative affordability, is the most widely used source of energy in the manufacturing process of these materials.

Hedge against risks

The security of the coal industry is another key reason for the adoption of CTLs, the WCA report says. The development of the coal to liquids industry can serve to hedge against oil-related energy security risks. Coal prices have been historically lower and more stable than both oil and gas on an equivalent energy basis. Using domestic coal reserves, or accessing the relatively stable international coal market, can allow countries to minimise their exposure to oil price volatility while providing the liquid fuels needed for economic growth. Unlike the oil market, the coal market benefits from a very large number of suppliers.

Coal matters

Coal already plays in the transport sector, yet its part in the mix should arguably increase, according to the report.

Not only does the black stuff offer attractive looking competitive advantages over oil and gas, it also stands in an excellent position to exploit any growth in electric vehicles over the coming decades.

According to the IEA’s Roadmap, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) should represent more than 50% of annual light duty vehicle sales worldwide by 2050.

In fact, PHEVs are expected to be the most widespread form of sustainable vehicles over the coming decades, with estimated annual sales of 25 million vehicles in 2030. Coal-based electricity has a role to play in supporting the electrification of the transport sector. With the use of CCS, coal-fired power plants could provide low-carbon electricity for the new generation of personal vehicles.

In comparison to conventional vehicles, PHEV charged with electricity from advanced supercritical coal power plants emit 33% less GHG emissions and 66% less if CCS is installed.

Coal could also be used to produce hydrogen – which could become a major component of clean sustainable energy systems in the longer-term.

Hydrogen is produced from coal by first gasifying the coal to form synthesis gas, or syngas, then processing the syngas further to increase the hydrogen content, and removing other components to produce a pure hydrogen stream. If CCS technology is used to capture the highly concentrated CO2 from the coal gasification process, hydrogen from coal could be used as a zero-carbon fuel to power the transport sector.

With the potential to play such a vital role in the transition to clean energy systems used in future transportation – combined with the pivotal role already played by coal – the WCA report clearly details further reason for investment in and support of ‘black gold’. 

Sections adapted from the World Coal Association report ‘Coal Matters: Coal and transport. Otherwise written and edited by by Sam Dodson

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