Coal: Our Nation's Workhorse


What a week it has been for folks who follow energy and the environment. In the span of just five days, the United Nations opened its climate conference in Bali ; American CEOs said that for the first time ever, energy is tied with health care as the highest cost pressure for their companies; the U.S. Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee sent the first major global warming bill of the 110th Congress to the Senate floor; and energy legislation cleared the U.S. House of Representatives.

While I could write several posts providing details and opinions on each of these events, I'd like to stray off course a bit and look at an issue that is intrinsically linked to all of them -coal - the natural resource that is likely powering the very monitor you are reading from right now. The use of coal solicits a wide-range of passionate opinions, but unless you've found some miraculous way to 'live off the grid,' you cannot deny that it is a vital energy source and essential for the quality of life we've all come to expect.

But what role will coal play in the 21st century? In 2006, nearly half of the country's 4.1 trillion kilowatthours of electricity used coal as its source of energy. Worldwide, coal will continue to play an important role in driving economic development, improving standards of living and alleviating poverty. So the question ultimately leads to how can we continue to use this abundant source of energy in the most efficient and climate friendly way, while maintaining and improving our quality of life?

The answer to this question may be easier than you think. In the past twenty years the U.S. government and the coal and electric power industry has invested more than $6 billion developing and testing "clean coal technologies" in power plants and factories around the country. This investment has led to a number of innovations like coal to liquids and a prototype intended to create the world's first zero-emissions fossil fuel plant. But in the interest of time, let's look at one of the most promising technologies already in use today, a technology known as Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle - or IGCC.

IGCC is a clean coal technology that turns coal into gas at extremely high temperatures which is then moved through pollutant-removal equipment before the gas is burned in gas turbines that drive electric generators. This process results in lower emissions of sulfur dioxide, particulates and mercury. More importantly, many believe that IGCC is now ready to capture and store carbon dioxide. But even without carbon capture, IGCC is more efficient which means that IGCC plants release less carbon while producing the same amount of energy.

Business Roundtable member, American Electric Power(AEP), one of the largest electric utilities in the United States, has embraced IGCC technology understanding its importance in the advancement for power generation and for the coal industry. AEP has plans currently underway to build one or more IGCC units of 600 megawatts each in the company's eastern service area. Currently, the IGCC plant in West Virginia could be online in 2012, if approvals move forward as planned.

No matter where you are on the political spectrum, everyone agrees that we must find ways to create energy more efficiently and with less of an environmental impact. Coal is still the most abundant form of energy available and it will play an important role in securing our energy future and addressing climate change. With continued investment and innovation, coal can be a driver of the climate change solution.

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