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Editorial comment

The world is turning to coal. By 2030, coal consumption will increase 53% and coal-fired power generation will grow by 85%. In fact, coal will account for 48% of global incremental electricity generation over the next two decades.

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But it will still not be enough. Despite the massive increases in electricity generation from coal, at least 1.3 billion people will still be without electric power in 2030. Another 2 billion or more will have only partial access. Clearly, if electricity deprivation and its handmaidens, illness and poverty, are to be eradicated, coal consumption will need to be increased further than already projected.

Fortunately, the resource is there and it is affordable. Moreover, rapidly emerging clean coal technologies are opening up the environmental doors for the expanded use of coal. Since 1990, the US electric power industry has successfully invested almost US$ 100 billion to control regulated emissions. Criteria emissions such as SO2 and NOx have declined an average of 84% in the last several decades, despite an increase of 187% in coal-fired generation. The focus now turns to CO2 with research, development and implementation projects to reduce or capture CO2 emissions taking hold across the world.

In Europe, clean coal projects include: the Zero Emissions Platform established by the European Commission in 2006 to make carbon capture and storage (CCS) commercially viable by 2020 and deployed widely thereafter; the 700°C Project to develop super alloys for ultra-critical steam conditions; the Ultra-Low CO2 Steelmaking Project coordinated by ArcelorMittal; and coal/biomass co-firing projects in such countries as Italy, Greece, Poland, the UK and Belgium.

In Asia, highly efficient new coal power plants in Japan and China have demonstrated how supercritical and ultra-supercritical coal-fired generating units use less coal/kWh and reduce the production of CO2, SO2, dust and other pollutants. China is also proceeding with its zero emissions project, GreenGen, being built near Tianjin by a number of Chinese energy companies and the US’s Peabody Energy.

In the US, the secretary of energy, Steven Chu, has written that “we must make it our goal to advance CCS technology to the point where widespread, affordable deployment can begin in 8 to 10 years.” The Obama Administration has recommitted US$ 1 billion to the construction of FutureGen, while the National Research Council (NRC) has indicated that much of the US’s future demand for electricity can be met through a combination of CCS retrofitted and repowered coal-fired plants and new coal-based generation with CCS.

These are just examples of the hundreds of clean coal projects that are taking place around the world. As Chu has cautioned, the reduction of CO2 emissions will not be an easy task, but it is an attainable goal. And the ability to provide electric power to hundreds of millions of families who have never had a lightbulb shine in their home is well worth the trip.