Coal expected to play leading role in meeting energy demand

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Coal will continue to play a leading role in meeting growing energy demand if not in the United States, then elsewhere in the world.

“The rest of the world is going to use coal,” said Frank Clemente, professor emeritus of social sciences and energy policy at Pennsylvania State University.

The implications are important for many reasons, Clemente said, not the least of which is the fact he largest coal deposits in the world are found in the U.S. “Our coal resource is an international resource.”

Speaking at the Energy Forum & Expo in Grand Junction, Clemente discussed the socio-economic effects of electrification in developing companies and the likely role of coal in meeting increasing energy demands.

“Electricity is good,” Clemente said, linking electrification to lower infant mortality rates and longer life expectancies.

China offers an example of how development can take people out of poverty. And electricity generated by coal-fired power plants plays a role in that process, Clemente said. “Of course China is going to use coal. It’s been a huge success story.”

Coal likely will be increasingly used to generate electricity in India as well, he said.

The increasing urbanization of the world will further bolster demand for coal not only to generate electricity, but also produce steel and cement, Clemente said. By one estimate, 6 billion people will live in cities by the year 2050. “You can’t build cities without coal,” he said.

The United States is a growing nation as well, Clemente said, with an annual population increase of about 3 million.

But even as China and other countries make progress in constructing some of the cleanest and most efficient coal-fired power plants in the world, the U.S. is falling behind as aging coal-fired plants close and aren’t replaced by new facilities,  he said. “We’re going in the opposite direction.”

Clemente attributed the trend to regulations as well as increasing supplies of natural gas at lower prices.

But relying too much on natural gas to supplant coal constitutes a gamble, he said. “We’re making a big bet on natural gas.”

Questions remain about the long-term price of natural gas and the potential effects of other likely sources of natural gas demand and a growing global market for liquefied natural gas. That’s not to mention the environmental effects, he said.

Moreover, higher electricity bills will affect a lot of people, particularly those living in poverty, he added.

Ultimately, all sources of energy likely will be needed to meet growing energy demand around the world. Given the scale involved, coal will continue to play a leading role in meeting that demand, Clemente said. “There’s going to be coal.”