Coal is Dead. Gas is the New Frontier: Fossil Fuel Hogs Conversation at ARPA-E


I don’t have much faith that the world will use less coal any time in the near future.

Certainly energy innovation and natural gas hold promise in the U.S., but the reality of widespread coal use worldwide made its way into many of the main discussions this week at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit.

Blythe Masters, head of global commodities and corporate & investment bank regulatory affairs at JP Morgan, shares my same opinion. Coal will be a main player for the future, and especially in China, she said in an interview at ARPA-E.

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg this week came out swinging at coal in his keynote address at the Summit. He said, “Coal is a dead man walking.”

Sure, in the U.S.

Pressure to squelch coal use in the U.S. has been effective, but that’s due to the increase in cheap natural gas and efforts by the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. Still, the U.S. is exporting record amounts of coal and that will continue.

As I wrote for Slate Magazine in their series on coal energy last November, “Despite better alternatives and concern about climate change, coal isn’t disappearing any time soon.”

Efforts to reduce coal use in the America are continuing. Coal is dirty, dangerous and the single biggest contributor to heat-trapping gases that cause climate change. But we are shipping it elsewhere. That means more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In my Slate Magazine story, I explained a bit of the economics of why the world uses a lot of coal. Here’s an excerpt:

“It’s cheap. It’s abundant. And it’s going to be in use for a long time. Until recently, coal fueled half of the electricity generated in the United States. That number was whittled to 42 percent last year, mostly due to a new flood of cheap natural gas that made it economical for power plants to make the switch from burning coal.

Efforts to use cleaner sources of energy in the United States have put coal in a state of flux. Air pollution regulations have forced power plants to clean up emissions from their smokestacks or shut down. Many operators are choosing natural gas rather than upgrading outdated coal plants. And renewable energy sources like wind and solar now vie for up to 20 percent of the electricity generated in states such as South Dakota and Iowa. But don’t be fooled into thinking coal is on a deep dive.

While coal consumption in the electric utility sector is down 10 percent, the world’s appetite for coal is driving up the demand for coal like never before. In 2011, U.S. coal exports were valued at $16.2 billion. And now coal producers are eager to supply the newest growth market: Asia.”

In his keynote presentation this week at the Energy Innovation Summit, Bloomberg said that coal doesn’t deserve its reputation as a cheap fuel, and especially not when you factor in the public health costs, he said.

Bloomberg added that economic destruction caused by extreme weather events should also factor into the calculus of the cost of coal. Bloomberg said, “Coal use has dangerous impact on climate change. Coal accounts for 40 percent of the carbon footprint in the U.S., and carbon pollution is accelerating climate chaos worldwide.”

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