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A vision for cleaner coal

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World Coal,

Benjamin Sporton

As we approach the end of the year, there is one event on the horizon that is of real significance to the energy industry. Before we can think about the challenges ahead of us in 2016, we must first turn our attention to Paris and COP21, where delegates from around the world will meet to discuss climate change and reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Many are billing this meeting as the last chance to build some form of global agreement on climate change, although French President Francois Hollande has been quoted as saying any such agreement would require a miracle.

The challenge facing those at COP21 is finding a way of delivering energy to all corners of the world, while keeping it affordable and reliable, and also reducing emissions from our energy use. Fossil fuels – and coal in particular – have a track record of providing affordable, reliable energy but, as concern grows about CO2 emissions, so too does the scrutiny facing the industry. However, abandoning coal altogether is neither sensible nor realistic. Coal demand in Southeast Asia alone is expected to grow by 4.8% a year through to 2035, while the IEA forecasts that global electricity generation from coal will grow by around 33% through to 2040.

Recent forecasts suggest that by the year 2100, the date set by G7 leaders to complete “decarbonisation”, some 11 billion people will inhabit the earth. As the world’s population is set to grow, so too is its need for energy – and coal will be a critical part of meeting that demand. No other fuel can match coal for reliability or affordability, and this is why in places such as Southeast Asia, where energy is far less available than in the developed world, coal will remain a vital resource.

This does not mean, however, that climate ambitions have to be put on the back burner. On the contrary, 21st Century coal technology is capable of dramatically reducing the amount of CO2 emissions from coal use. Both high-efficiency, low-emissions (HELE) technology in the near term and carbon capture and storage (CCS) after that can dramatically reduce CO2 emissions at coal-fired power plants. To support countries who want to use coal as a key part of their energy mix, utilising these low-emission technologies should be a key focus of the COP21 negotiations.

For this reason, the World Coal Association (WCA) recently launched its PACE initiative. The vision of PACE is that, for countries choosing to use coal, the most efficient power plant technology possible is deployed. Raising the global average efficiency of coal-fired power plants would minimise CO2 emissions, while maintaining economic development and poverty alleviation efforts.

Introducing HELE technology would also be a significant first step towards CCS deployment, which, once operational, can capture and store up to 90% of a plants CO2, saving millions of tonnes in emissions a year. This technology presents countries with the opportunity to continue to benefit from coal’s abundance and affordability, while mitigating a huge portion of the environmental concerns associated with fossil fuel use.

Boundary Dam is the world’s first coal-fired CCS plant and the flagship initiative of SaskPower. The project is located near the small city of Estevan, Saskatchewan, in Canada, and is a fantastic example of how well the technology works. Boundary Dam remains a reliable source of baseload electricity, producing 110 MW/yr, yet managing to do so while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 1 million tonnes of CO2. The project produces enough power for approximately 100 000 Saskatchewan residents each year, while reducing emissions akin to taking 250 000 cars off the province’s road. The CO2 is either used for enhanced oil recovery or it is stored 3.4 km underground in the Aquistore Project. The plant in fact captures 90% of the CO2 which would otherwise be emitted, along with 100% of SOX emissions and 56% of NOX emissions, showing just how innovative a piece of technology this plant is in demonstrating a cleaner future for coal.

Mike Monea, President of Carbon Capture and Storage Initiatives with SaskPower gave the keynote speech at this summer’s World Coal Association workshop entitled ’Building pathways for cleaner coal technologies‘. He was confident that the success of the Boundary Dam project would enable the group to build future plants at 30% less cost.

Rather than shy away from the reality that coal and other fossil fuels are going to be essential to carrying the growing energy burden of a planet with ever more people, world leaders should recognise the potential to improve existing power plants and prioritise the measures to help deploy all low-emission technologies as the best way to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions for all countries. With the help of HELE and CCS, countries in energy starved regions can build their economies, using not only reliable energy-from coal but also energy that is making significant reductions in global CO2 emissions.

Edited by . This article first appeared in the October issue of World Coal.

About the Author: Benjamin Sporton is the CEO of the World Coal Association.

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