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Major coal research program launched

THE Brookings Institution’s Energy Security and Climate Initiative has launched a major research program to provide policymakers with an “unbiased assessment of how to deal with coal moving forward, both domestically and internationally”.

Anthony Barich
Major coal research program launched

A coal task force comprising private, academic and government members has been assembled by the institute to inform research, and a brief has been published, titled ‘Coal in the 21st century’

The brief outlines the program focus and includes commentary on the advantages, compromises and challenges that come with coal use.

The report also features a high-level forecast of coal’s position in the future energy mix, paying particular attention to the US and briefly explores technology.

The paper recognises coal as an important tool in poverty alleviation, employment and meeting energy demand.

The Institute cites the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2014, which suggested that while coal’s overall share in the energy mix could decline, total demand by 2040 would actually rise by 15% – a figure which will vary from region to region with non-OECD states, primarily in southeast Asia, Africa, India and Brazil generating most of the demand.

As the report highlights that “without doubt”, coal production and pricing trends will be led by Asia over the coming decades.

By 2040, China, India, Indonesia and Australia will account for 70% of global production.

The report states that despite recent trends, demand for coal in China will remain strong and attempts to expand the role of gas at the expense of coal will not succeed.

While gas, renewables and nuclear energy will all contribute to the Asian mix, the scale of coal use for electricity generation is fundamental, the report states.

India’s economic development, similar to China’s before it, is founded on coal, which accounts for 68% of India’s electricity generation and the country’s Planning Commission projects that two billion tonnes of coal will be required by 2031 to meet energy demands.

However, the report identifies several challenges which must be addressed in order to meet this target:

  • Indian coal is overwhelmingly lignite, a lower quality coal
  • Coal is a major employer, frustrating restructuring efforts
  • Coal is located far from the country’s demand centres and in politically sensitive states
  • In addition to transiting on an out of date rail network, coal is used to subsidise other rail freight.

The report uses the “90-90-70” figure to highlight the future global energy market, and coal’s role within it. By 2030, 90% of global population growth, 90% of total energy demand increase and 70% of economic output will occur in developing economies.

These figures will lead to a demand for energy – a demand which the credentials of coal will play a vital role in satisfying, according to the World Coal Association.

The report highlights the importance of carbon capture and storage technology in limiting global average temperatures to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, but it also identifies some key challenges before large-scale adoption.

Cost is the primary obstacle, according to the report. CCS is also under pressure from falling government financial support.

“This is something that clearly points to the need for more international public investment in cleaner coal technologies, particularly CCS,” the WCA said.

However, the report says efficiency of coal-powered plants will improve over the coming years.

Many developing countries are deploying supercritical and ultra-supercritical technology, thereby resolving many of the environmental challenges identified in the paper.

The WCA believes it will be critical to make sure this trend continues, which is it launched its PACE (Platform for Accelerating Coal Efficiency) initiative last year.

That initiative says that moving the current global efficiency rate of coal-fired power plants from 33% to 40% by deploying more advanced off-the-shelf technology could cut 2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions now.

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