Coal is an abundant domestic energy resource. At current rates, our domestic coal reserves could power the nation for more than 250 years.1 Coal power plants generate electricity by burning coal to boil water. The resulting steam is then used to spin turbines that generate electricity.2 Unlike wind and solar power plants, coal power plants can make electricity around the clock. Historically, this reliability benefit and cheap prices made coal power plants the preferred source of U.S. electricity. In recent years, however, the coal’s dominance of the power sector has declined. Since 2012, no new coal plants have been built in the United States, and utilities do not have plans to build any new plants.3 The main factor is that low-cost natural gas has garnered market share because it is cheap and natural gas plants are becoming more efficient. Environmental regulations, such as President Obama’s mercury and carbon regulations, have also played a role in the decline.4
Source: Energy Information Administration5
Despite the economic and environmental pressures, coal will continue to play a significant role in America’s power system. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal will still generate about a fifth of U.S. power needs in 2050.6 New technologies can make coal even more economical and competitive. For example, scientists are coming up with ways to extract valuable ‘critical minerals’ from coal byproducts. These critical minerals are used in clean technologies such as lasers and other high-tech equipment.7 Carbon capture is another promising opportunity. The technology captures carbon emissions from power plants and industrial sources, allowing the emissions to be sold for economic purposes.
NRG’s Petra Nova, the first U.S. commercial coal-carbon capture project, is designed to capture 5,000 tons of carbon dioxide each day from a Texas coal plant. The emissions are then sold to an oil company that pump them underground where it facilitates oil production, in a process called “enhanced oil recovery”. The project is expected to increase production from 300 barrels per day to 15,000 barrels. Enhanced oil recovery projects can be replicated in many other parts of the United States.9 It is estimated over 100 billion more barrels of domestic oil could be tapped with advanced carbon capture technologies and low-cost carbon.10 Federal energy economists forecast low-cost carbon capture technologies could stimulate a wave of coal power plant investments over the next two decades.11 Our coal industry has a history of innovation and ingenuity. When the country needed affordable energy, the industry learned to harvest coal more than 2,000 feet beneath the surface. When it was discovered coal plants increased local air pollution, the industry figured out a way to fix it. Later, when coal plants were known to contribute to acid rain, the industry addressed it too with sulfur scrubbers and finding lower sulfur sources of coal. In no small part to the industry, sulfur, nitrogen, and particulate emissions from coal declined 90% from 1970 to 2014.12 Despite the coal industry’s proven record of innovation, radical environmentalists lobby to leave our vast coal resources in the ground. We can do more to take advantage of our abundant coal resources. With energy innovation, we can create jobs, boost the economy, and use all our abundant natural resources in a responsible manner.