Science & Tech

Mining exec: Coal vital to energy mix

5 min read

The leader of one of the nation’s largest coal mining companies said Tuesday (Feb. 3) that coal is a vital part of the nation’s energy mix and that clean coal technology must be developed if the atmosphere is to stop warming.

Arch Coal Inc. chairman and chief executive officer Steven Leer said that though renewable energy technology is poised for growth, it makes up such a small part of the nation’s energy supply today that coal and natural gas will generate much of the nation’s electricity for the foreseeable future.

Further, Leer said, since it is unlikely clean coal technology will be developed by India, China, and other developing nations, and since those nations are rapidly building coal-fired plants, the only way to control the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from those plants will be for industrialized nations to develop the technology and deploy it around the world.

“Those countries are going to use coal because that’s what they have,” Leer said. “We have to develop carbon capture and sequestration.”

Carbon capture and sequestration refers to technology being developed that removes carbon dioxide from coal and other fossil fuels before it is released into the environment and then injects it underground to keep it permanently away from the atmosphere.

Leer was the initial spring term speaker in the Harvard University Center for the Environment’s “Future of Energy” lecture series. Leer was introduced by the center’s director, Daniel Schrag, Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology and professor of environmental science and engineering, who said Arch Coal is among a group of coal producers that are thinking about climate change and ways to use coal responsibly as an energy source.

Leer’s presentation, called “The Vital Role of Clean Coal in Securing our Energy Future,” was met by a handful of protesters, who handed out fliers at the door and unfurled a banner at the end of the presentation protesting the company’s activities.

Though burning coal is considered one of the most polluting ways to generate energy, Leer said the industry has already created clean technology once, reducing sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and nitrogen oxides in emissions dramatically since the 1970s.

It is not only possible to do it again, Leer said, it is essential, because coal provides such a large part of the energy mix, it’s unlikely a new cleaner technology will come along to replace it.

Part of the reason for that, Leer said, is human population growth. With the global population heading toward 9 billion before it is projected to level off, the world will have more people who need power. Even before all those 9 billion are born, however, many of the two billion people living without electricity today would like power — and those in developing nations want to increase their standards of living, which would take still more power.

“It’s driven by people,” Leer said. “Think about the developing world. Two billion people don’t have electricity and they’re demanding it. … They’re going to be using more energy, and the predominant part of that energy is going to be coming from coal.”

Coal generates 49 percent of the electricity in the United States today, he said. Not only is future demand likely to increase, other sources don’t seem to be likely candidates to meet that demand. Nuclear power, which provides 19 percent of the nation’s power today, is unlikely to undergo a building boom, meaning the proportion of the nation’s power it provides is likely to shrink. Hydropower, while a clean energy source, is also unlikely to increase, because there are no more dams being built. Renewable sources will almost certainly increase but the growth of wind power — the most promising renewable technology — is hampered by the scarcity of power lines in the places where it is windiest. Significant growth in that technology awaits building out the power grid to take advantage of it. Solar, while promising, remains five times too expensive to be competitive, Leer said.

That leaves coal — of which the United States has an abundant supply — and natural gas, which generates 20 percent of the nation’s energy and which Leer said will grow enough to maintain that share despite increased demand.

Leer said the silver lining of the current financial crisis is that economic activity has slowed around the globe. While that has slowed global power consumption, Leer said the long-term effect is transitory and won’t really change the trends of more people demanding more power around the world in coming decades.

“The trends are unstoppable. The question is how we meet our energy demands. I think we will need all our energy sources,” Leer said.

Leer said a cap-and-trade regulatory system to control carbon dioxide emissions would, in effect, be a tax increasing the cost of energy for the consumer and the economy at large. He said he’d like to see some of the money raised by the regulatory system used to fund research into clean coal technology.

“The enabling technology for stabilizing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere is carbon capture and sequestration. There is not another option,” Leer said.