Regulations could hobble coal-fired power “workhorse”

Jason Hayes
Jason Hayes

Coal constitutes a “workhorse” fuel that’s expected to continue to account for more than 40 percent of electrical generation in the United States over the next two decades.

But a flurry of proposed regulations could hobble that horse — along with the ability of the country to keep pace with growing energy demand, said Jason Hayes, communications director for the American Coal Council. The problem, Hayes said, is that coal-fired electrical generation is defined more by its emissions than its benefits.

Hayes offered his update on the coal industry at the Energy Forum & Expo in Grand Junction. His group represents about 170 companies that mine, sell, trade, transport and consume coal — everything from the “hole in the ground to the plug in the wall,” he said.

Coal fuels 45 percent of electrical generation in the U.S., Hayes said. By comparison, natural gas accounts for 23 percent of generation, nuclear power 20 percent, hydroelectric power 7 percent and wind power 1 percent. “Coal is the workhouse,” he said.

It would take 250 nuclear reactors, 500 hydroelectric facilities the size of Hoover Dam and 17 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to replace coal in U.S. electrical production, he said.

Moreover, the proportion of coal-fired electrical generation is expected to decline only a point or two between now and 2035 even as energy demand increases 30 percent, Hayes said. Nearly 40 percent of new electrical generation facilities installed in 2010 were fueled by coal. Fifteen new coal-fired power plants have been announced and 12 more are progressing.

Even as U.S. coal consumption increases to keep pace with energy demand, global coal consumption is expected to increase 56 percent by 2035, Hayes said. Rapidly growing economies in China and India will help drive that increase.

The U.S. is well-positioned to meet increased domestic and foreign demand for coal with an estimated 267 billion tons of recoverable coal, about 27 percent of the world supply, Hayes said. That makes the U.S. “the Saudi Arabia of coal.”

In the U.S., coal-fired generation produces more than $1 trillion in gross domestic product, creates more than $360 billion in household income and supports nearly 7 million jobs.

In addition, there are a number of benefits to the abundant, inexpensive electricity coal makes possible, he said. Societies with widespread access to electricity tend to drink cleaner water, live longer and enjoy higher educational levels.

While regulations reduce deaths related to health and safety factors, regulations also can increase deaths because of higher costs, Hayes said. By one estimate, the effects of removing coal as a source of fuel in the United States on the supply and price of electricity would result in 14,000 to 25,000 premature adult deaths a year. Moreover, higher energy costs tend to disproportionally affect the poor.

While proposed cap-and-trade legislation regulating carbon emissions isn’t likely to proceed, a flurry of new regulations proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency could affect coal-fired generation, Hayes said.

The regulations come after decades of decreases in emissions, he said. Since 1970, the U.S. population has increased

48 percent and coal-fired electrical generation has increased 184 percent, but emissions have decreased 60 percent.

A number of clean coal technologies offer promise to further reduce emissions, Hayes said, including activated carbon injection, fluidized bed combustion, flue gas desulfurization and simply washing coal before it’s burned.

Carbon capture storage, a process in which carbon dioxide emissions are captured and stored underground, offers one of the best solutions to both increasing coal-fired generation to meet demand while decreasing emissions, he added.

It’s also possible to treat coal to reduce emissions or even mix coal with biomass to create a more homogenous renewable energy source.

Nonetheless, coal-fired electrical generation continues to come under attack, as do other forms of power production, including natural gas and even renewable energy projects, Hayes said. “Heads up, it’s energy that’s being attacked.”