As the 2020 election draws closer, a number of candidates are calling for restrictive policies on the use of fossil fuels in the United States. Their overriding goal is to limit carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions — which they see as the primary driver of rising surface temperatures over the past century.
They believe that, by limiting CO2 emissions in the United States, they can help to arrest or halt the current worldwide warming trend. And their primary target is the fleet of coal-fired power plants that have anchored U.S. electricity generation for more than a century.
But how practical is this? And do America’s industrial CO2 emissions factor that heavily into overall global warming trends?
America’s coal fleet, for starters, has invested more than $127 billion to incorporate scrubbing mechanisms that reduce exhaust emissions by 92 percent per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated. And, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), while coal still produces roughly 27 percent of total U.S. electricity, it’s only the third largest source of energy-related CO2 emissions in the U.S. economy.
Coal accounts for 26 percent of CO2 emissions — lagging behind both transportation (45 percent) and natural gas (29 percent).
Despite this, critics would like to rapidly eliminate coal-fired power in the U.S. But that would invite some troubling consequences. As the state of Texas recently learned, a rapid shift from sturdy, baseload coal plants to the variable output of weather-dependent wind turbines can lead to power shortages during peak demand.
But how does coal stack up in terms of global CO2 production? In 2018, America’s coal fleet emitted 1.15 billion metric tons of CO2. In contrast, global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were estimated to be 49 billion tons.
That means the U.S. coal fleet is responsible for a scant 2 percent of worldwide CO2 emissions.
Similarly, America’s overall CO2 emissions totaled roughly 6.5 billion tons in 2017. And so U.S. coal plants emitted only about 17 percent of total U.S. CO2 emissions.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) notes that the U.S. has achieved the largest reductions in energy-related CO2 emissions of any country since 2000. Notably, in 2018, China and India emitted a combined 14.36 billion tons of energy-related CO2. That’s three times greater than the 4.89 billion tons of U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions — and more than 12 times greater than America’s entire coal fleet.
Globally, energy demand is growing. And affordable fossil fuel-generated electricity is reaching more countries.
That’s a good thing — since it means saving lives and raising living standards in countries that have previously suffered higher mortality rates.
Last year, energy-related CO2 emissions increased worldwide by 560 million tons. That’s the equivalent of all the CO2 emissions produced annually in New York and California. And half of this increase — 280 million tons — came from China alone.
China’s increase, in fact, was greater than all of the combined CO2 emissions from every U.S. state, except Texas and California.
What’s significant is that last year’s global increase in CO2 emissions amounted to half the emissions from the entire U.S. coal fleet. So if the U.S. wanted to magnanimously offset 2018’s global increase in CO2 emissions, it could simply dismantle half of its coal fleet.
But replacing these coal plants with a vast array of wind turbines would cost an estimated $169 billion. And there’s no telling how reliable these new wind installations would be — since turbines require a strong, steady flow of wind to achieve their rated capacity.
Globally, coal remains the largest source of electricity generation — providing 38 percent of worldwide electricity generation. Coal remains cheap, plentiful, and easy to transport.
However, extremely cold weather, windless conditions, or heavy gusts could render them inoperative.
When policymakers talk about eliminating CO2 emissions, they need to recognize practical limitations. Globally, coal remains the largest source of electricity generation — providing 38 percent of worldwide electricity generation. That’s because coal remains cheap, plentiful, and easy to transport.
As such, calls to completely eliminate coal are unrealistic.
What many overlook are the impressive technological advances that are making coal plants cleaner and more efficient. New technologies have come online that allow coal to be burned hotter and more efficiently. High Efficiency-Low Emissions (HELE) systems have achieved thermal efficiencies for coal plants of 45-50 percent.
This could be game-changing, since a 1-2 percent increase in the efficiency of a coal plant results in a 2-3 percent decrease in CO2 emissions.
As the global population seeks realistic means to bring electrification to populations in need, and to make practical cuts in CO2 emissions, advanced coal systems will fill an important role. It’s simply unrealistic to casually dismiss the benefits of robust, affordable energy for millions of people.
Terry M. Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the board of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission. He contributes regularly to LeadingLightEnergy.com.
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