Can we retire coal?

Sugandha Talwelkar
Sep 9, 2020 · 11 min read
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Coal power plant emits 2.21 lbs/kWh of CO2

Anthropogenic emissions have been steadily increasing through out the century and only in the last decade we have concrete scientific proof that it’s affecting the environment. The signs were always there but were shoved under the rug with the assumption that we can deal with it later. Well, “the later” is here. We have warmed the planet by more than 1°C since the industrial revolution. The goal now is to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and this is no easy task. It has been identified that greenhouse gas emissions is the leading cause of this warming and the resulting climate change. There are various sectors responsible for the GHG emissions and one of them is Energy.

Energy Sector is responsible for almost 27% of greenhouse gas emissions as most of our electricity comes from burning fossil fuels i.e. coal and natural gas.

That’s precisely what this article is focusing on. Why do we need Coal powered plants? With all the buzz and investment in Clean Energy, what’s keeping us tethered to Fossil Fuels?

What role does Coal Power play in the Energy System today and does it have a future? and ponder, Are we ready to retire coal for good?

When I think of school, particularly sciences, I remember my teachers telling me that Coal, which was the predominant source of energy then, is Non-renewable. It’s a limited resource and is being used extensively through out the world. The fear of running out of coal, kick started the drive to find the alternative sources of energy. For as long as I can remember, Nuclear and Hydro power were the two alternative sources being considered. While their merits and demerits were being debated, PV and Wind were just cool school project ideas or research papers.

However, somewhere in the last decade, Renewable Energy catapulted from it’s side project status to dominate the global energy scene to drive coal to an existential crisis.

If you follow the news or are closely looking at the transforming energy space you must have stumbled upon the following headlines.

For a Climate Champion like myself, these headlines are victory laps, the very embodiment of successful policy integration and good governance. But what does it really mean?

Well, these headlines merely supplement the fact that Renewable Energy is on rise. The investment in clean energy and the supporting innovation is continuously increasing. As per data, over 27% of global electricity now comes from renewables, up from 19% in 2010, where the share of solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind power has grown more than five times since 2009 — a remarkable rise attributed largely to technological improvements, effective policies and continued cost declines for these technologies. [1]

Through Q1 of 2020, the world was hit by a global health crisis. Lock down implemented as a precaution, caused economic slump and reduced energy demand. Many believed the future of clean energy to be bleak. However, Renewable electricity remained largely unaffected . In fact, Renewable electricity generation increased by almost 3%, mainly because of new wind and solar PV projects completed over the past year. [2] Same can not be said about Coal Power.

Coal powered generation having reigned for years, has been in decline for a few years now due to shift to gas and renewable energy because of lower efficiency and longer start up and shut down time. This makes me hopeful about the future but the global coal use rose for the second straight year in 2018. This rise mainly came from China, India, Indonesia and some other countries in South and Southeast Asia, regions where demand for electricity has continued to grow and coal remains the largest source of generated electricity. Which makes me question, If Coal power generation is decreasing across the globe, but not uniformly, what makes it easy for some countries to go coal free?

To answer this question, first, let’s look at the journey of Coal Powered plants over the years.

Coal is the most plentiful fuel in the fossil family and it has the longest and, perhaps, the most varied history. It’s believed to have been used by cave men and by Romans around 3rd — 4th Cen. B.C for heating. In 1700’s English discovered that Coal produced a fuel that burns cleaner and hotter than wood charcoal. This led to it’s widespread use during the Industrial Revolution.

Soon after, James Watt invented the steam engine, where he used coal to make steam to run his engine. This was a game changer for coal and it became the go to source for boilers and blast furnaces. The burning of coal to generate electricity is a relative newcomer in the long history of this fossil fuel. It was in the 1880’s when coal was first used to generate electricity for homes and factories. By 1961, coal had become the major fuel used to generate electricity in the United States.

Although this explains, how coal started being used to generate electricity, why did the adoption accelerate?

  1. This was simply because, in places like United States and some other countries, coal was available in abundance. Almost 1/4th of the world’s coal reserve are in United States. This helped the country become Energy Surplus and aided to it’s development.
  2. Coal being domestically available became a cheap source of generating electricity as it was free of import taxes and created jobs in mining, power plants etc. It also meant for countries to not have to depend on Arabic oil and the many fluctuations associated with it.
  3. If coal wasn’t available in plenty, it was easy to transport and store.
  4. Early on, the Environmental Impacts of mining and generating electricity using coal were not highlighted. This meant the only problems that were optimized were for production and operations.

However, it was soon discovered that coal is not a perfect fuel it was pegged to be.

Coal has trace impurities like sulfur and nitrogen which are released in the air when coal is burned. Sulfur upon oxidation forms sulfur dioxide which is one of the most harmful air pollutant, releasing 2.5 particulate matter (PM), a known cause of respiratory ailments.

Sulfur dioxide and Nitrous oxide when mixes with water vapor forms sulfuric and nitric acid causes acid rain, resulting in widespread acidification of the ecosystem.

Coal smokestack emissions cause asthma, reduced intelligence, artery blockages, heart attacks, congestive heart failure, cardiac arrhythmia, mercury poisoning, arterial occlusion, and lung cancer. Not to mention, smog which is the best indicator of intense air pollution resulting in as many as 800,000 premature deaths annually especially in India and China.

Huge amount of coal ash and other waste is produced annually. Almost 10% of coal is ash. This is highly hazardous and contains non-metals such as selenium and heavy metals such as mercury, uranium, thorium, arsenic etc, proving to be dangerous for anyone who comes in contact with these byproducts.

Another gigantic issue with coal is, it is made of carbon which upon oxidization (burning) becomes carbon-dioxide which is one of the primary greenhouse gases, causing the earth’s atmosphere to heat up.

This piling evidence against Coal should have been enough to drive us away to a newer form of energy source. However, with increasing Energy Demand, Coal became the dependable source of energy and served as Base Load Plants.

What is a base load?

Base Load:

  • The utility must generally supply some minimum power level or base load 24 hours per day every day of the year.
  • Industrial plants, hospitals, and even residential customers with their refrigerators all contribute to this base load.
  • The generating plants that are the most economical to operate are used to supply this base load.
  • These base load plants are usually large steam generating plants that cannot be started and stopped quickly.
  • Since these are some of the least costly plants to operate, they are usually loaded or dispatched close to their maximum power level.

Coal, Hydro and Nuclear are some of the common base load plants. Building a Nuclear and Hyrdo power plant is an expensive and multi step process. Not to mention, each requires some particular generation source which is not as easily available as coal. Hence, we stuck with coal.

Clean coal technologies were developed to capture the pollutants trapped in coal before they can escape into the air. However, the major issue till date is the high carbon dioxide emission as a result of burning coal.

So the next question I have is: Are we ready to retire coal?

If we continue with business as usual scenario, we are looking at increasing global atmospheric temperatures beyond 2°C which will catastrophically affect our planet, permanently altering the ecosystem and rendering damage beyond control. Contrary to whatever your world leader says

(read Donald J. Trump), Global warming is real and estimated anthropogenic global warming is currently increasing at 0.2°C (likely between 0.1°C and 0.3°C) per decade[3] due to past and ongoing emissions.

So currently, the immediate goal should be to focus on temperature control. However, compromising the energy security and energy abundance of a country is not wise and will have a significant economic and political impact.

Does that mean this is impossible in the near term? NO.

While the world was battling Covid-19, Great Britain was busy hitting a milestone.

As of June 10, 2020 Great Britain has gone 2 months without burning coal to generate electricity. Per National Grid, a UK based Electrical Utility, Coal has not been burned since April 10, the longest hiatus since 1790.[4] Lower Energy demand and the sunniest May on record, helped Great Britain to shift it’s reliance totally on solar, wind and other renewable sources. May was the greenest-ever month for electricity production.

For the first time since industrial revolution, Great Britain hasn’t burned coal for consecutively 60 days and counting. This is a crucial and exemplary step in energy transition highlighting not just the obvious (huge) environmental benefit but proving that renewables are resilient to lower electricity demand as they are generally dispatched before other electricity sources due to their low operating costs or regulations that give them priority.

This is no ordinary feat and certainly all the National Grid energy operators deserve a huge round of applause to pull this off. Maintaining continuous power supply is no easy task esp. because loads fluctuate and peak demand could increase. There are enough load forecasting technologies and software available to accurately estimate the demand but what about the supply?

Well, UK’s energy mix comprises mostly renewables at 38.9%. U.K. is home to one of the largest off-shore wind farms and it’s renewable energy mix comprises of biomass and nuclear energy. Since Q4 of 2019, Renewables have out-performed gas power plants and in the 2 months since April 10, 2020 have proved to be a dependable source of energy.

Sweden and Austria are on it’s way to shut their last coal plants and fully phase out coal by 2020.

Belgium has been coal free since 2016 and 8 of the 28 countries in EU have declared their plan to phase our coal by 2030 and are working are working to move beyond coal by a mixture of Renewable Integration, technology neutral policies and carbon taxes.

I am impressed by the foresight of these countries but forced to focus on the fact that their energy demand and their dependence on coal is not as significant as that of United States, India and China. With a population of 1.4 billion and one of the world’s fastest-growing major economies, India will be vital for the future of the global energy markets.[5] It is believed that India’s Energy Demand could double by 2040 as a result of increased appliance ownership and cooling needs.

And although India has ambitious targets for scaling up renewable generation, its current renewable electricity generation stands at 17.2% only.

Recently, I stumbled upon the Global Coal Plan Tracker, a coal powered plant tracker developed and maintained by Carbon Brief and was disappointed to find almost 99 coal fired units are in phase from pre-permit to construction in India, out of which 56 units are currently under construction. There is no mention of Carbon capture, storage and sequestration technology deployment along with these plants.

Globally, 385 coal fired units are under construction and 212 units have been announced.

It is surprising that with all the known Environmental and health hazards, with the low and falling cost of renewable deployment and the technical challenges of operating a coal powered plant such as lower efficiency and longer start-up, shut down time, there are still many more of these plants being built.

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Natural gas is a fossil fuel and no where near an ideal energy source, but that’s the green in me talking. Practically speaking, Natural Gas is cleaner and much more efficient than coal. It is cheaper than coal and can efficiently integrate with renewable energy and energy storage. It is also more cost-effective than coal when gas plants are combined with CSS technologies.

With Berkshire Hathaway betting on Natural Gas as the bridge to energy transition, it is evident that the days for coal powered plants are numbered.

Which brings me back to my original question: If Coal power generation is decreasing across the globe, but not uniformly, what makes it easy for some countries to go coal free?

We clearly see there is global decline in the use of coal however, due to various socio-economic and political factors, it’s easier for certain countries to transition to zero carbon energy sources.

I personally feel, all countries who have or haven’t signed the Paris Agreement, should reconsider their domestic energy policies and aggressively work to reduce their dependence on coal and other fossil fuels. Almost all countries have at least one fully developed and functional energy source ex:

  1. USA can phase out coal and ramp up the use of Gas powered plants while developing off-shore wind farms, PV and on-shore wind and create incentives to integrate battery storage while investing in CSS technologies and pushing R&D.
  2. India has a fleet of 7 Nuclear Power plants, with plans to build more and include thorium based reactors. Although, globally the stance on Nuclear Energy being Renewable and green is highly debated, it is a reliable transitional energy source.
  3. China is heading into an energy revolution and has seen a decline in coal power but it can ramp up faster with deployment of PV + Wind and Battery storage while continuing it’s reliance on Hydro power, seeing that it is the global manufacturing hub for cheap solar cells and batteries.

The next decade is action packed and testing time for all the countries in the world.

The goal is outlined : limit the global temp rise to 1.5°C, the steps to achieve it have been detailed and many Intergovernmental panels, NGOs and startups are scaling up to help governments and local authorities to optimize their strategies to meet this goal. There are many EU countries which have a template of sorts to follow and optimize on.

As an Electrical Engineer, it’s an exciting time to be smack in the middle of the biggest and most challenging Energy Transition the world will undergo. The winner will be Energy Independent, Global Energy Leader and Carbon Free. The stakes are high and the trophy is up for grabs.

Sugandha Talwelkar

Clean Tech | Climate | Conservation

Sugandha Talwelkar

Written by

Clean Tech | Climate | Conservation

Sugandha Talwelkar

Sugandha Talwelkar is an Electrical Engineer who is passionate about Clean Energy Tech and Sustainability. She practices a Zero Waste lifestyle (imperfectly) and is an advocate for wildlife conservation. In her free time, you will find her reading or walking in Boston Commons.

Sugandha Talwelkar

Written by

Clean Tech | Climate | Conservation

Sugandha Talwelkar

Sugandha Talwelkar is an Electrical Engineer who is passionate about Clean Energy Tech and Sustainability. She practices a Zero Waste lifestyle (imperfectly) and is an advocate for wildlife conservation. In her free time, you will find her reading or walking in Boston Commons.

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