It always comes as a surprise to most Americans to learn what fuel most likely keeps their lights on. The answer: coal generates more than half of all U.S. electricity. Americans are even more surprised to learn that the U.S. has more energy locked up in its coal reserves, the world’s largest, than Saudi Arabia has in its world-leading oil reserves. And like most commodities held in abundance, coal is also the most affordable fuel source, a major reason why power companies often prefer coal when building new plants.
And yet, as nations around the world compete with renewed vigor to find reliable supplies of energy for their growing economies, critics in the United States are competing to see who can find the most fault with our most abundant and affordable source of energy.
The recent mining accident in Utah and the demands for greenhouse gas reductions from power plants have fed a gathering storm of misinformation and misunderstanding. Before policymakers allow these winds to blow the country off its course toward stronger economic security and greater energy independence, it is time to pause and take stock.
While coal will never be mentioned in the same breath as our purple mountains’ majesty or our amber waves of grain, America’s enormous coal supply remains a strategic natural resource whose value in the digital age can be as great as it was in the industrial age.
In many ways, the American coal industry has embarked on a journey, but is only part way to its destination. It has set a course toward safer mines that return each miner home at the end of each shift and toward low emissions power plants fueled by coal. The industry is drawing closer to building a new domestic fuel industry that converts coal to clean diesel fuel and can help offset the nation’s growing dependence on foreign energy.
For each of these goals, enabling technologies are not yet in reach, but all are within sight. For example, recent mining accidents spotlighted the absence of two-way communications devices that could help locate miners trapped underground. At a time when cell phones connect people across the country, many wonder why miners can’t communicate underground. But communicating through the air is easier than signaling through hundreds of feet of rock and earth.
The industry supported changes in mine safety laws last year that require the use of ground-penetrating communications devices when they become commercially available, and its work with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health will hopefully speed the development of this technology. Still, changing the laws in Congress is easier than changing the laws of physics. Until we can reliably send signals through the earth, the industry is strengthening its hardwired underground systems to better withstand the force of fire and explosions.
Obviously underground coal mining, as with all industrial employment, can be hazardous. But the mining industry is determined to return to the path it was on for much of the past three decades, when it achieved steady reductions in fatalities. Over the past decade, the industry’s rate of serious injuries dropped by 46 percent – good, but not good enough to conceal the vital work left to be accomplished. Industry leaders are voluntarily calling for fundamental changes in mine safety that focus not only on better and more frequent training but on new safety systems that allocate resources to high-risk areas of each mine, rather than to all areas equally, irrespective of accident risks.
Promising technology is also the key to clean coal combustion. A full range of clean coal technologies, from gasification to sulfur-capturing scrubbers, is having a similarly dramatic impact on electricity generation that micro-processors had on computing. Power plants built today emit 90 percent fewer emissions than plants they typically replace from the 1970s. In fact, since 1980, clean coal technologies have cut power plant emissions by 40 percent – despite a 71 percent increase in coal-power generation – and promise steeper reductions in the near future.
This enormous potential of U.S. coal underscores the urgency of developing technologies capable of capturing and storing greenhouse gases. Fortunately, technological innovation is also America’s strength. Ten years ago, few would have predicted the value of goods traded on something called Ebay would equal the GDP of Kenya, or that a company called Yahoo would attract 380 million users daily to a “web browser.”
This same ingenuity can give coal a new life. That’s good news for a nation whose appetite for energy is ever increasing, because the availability of affordable energy to satisfy that appetite is not. Unquestionably, Americans will need more alternative fuels, from solar and wind to bio-fuels. We need natural gas and nuclear power, too.
But energy experts urge us not to forget coal. The Department of Energy expects U.S. electricity demand will increase by 50 percent by 2025 – the equivalent of 250 new 1,000 megawatt power plants. That explains why, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the word is the same: coal will remain the mainstay of American power for years to come.
For the U.S., the challenge is not how to reduce coal’s use. It’s to use technology to make coal our smartest as well as our most affordable and abundant energy choice.
Kraig Naasz is president and CEO of the National Mining Association, the voice of the American mining industry in Washington, D.C. NMA is the only national trade organization that represents the interests of mining before Congress, the Administration, federal agencies, the judiciary and the media. Visit www.nma.org