Coal: A fuel for our future

Global use of coal is on the upswing. Although its share of U.S. electricity production has slipped from what it had been a decade ago, coal is the fuel of choice around the world. The United States is helping to meet demand for coal abroad, exporting record amounts to Europe and Asia.

If we’re smart, we shouldn’t be content with just exporting coal. We ought to jump at the opportunity to demonstrate and then sell advanced coal technologies and American know-how to China, India and other countries whose economic growth requires more and better use of coal.

What’s important to recognize is that our nation’s success with two other fossil fuels – oil and natural gas recovered from shale formations – should be the model to follow.

Today, the United States is the world’s largest producer of natural gas and could overtake Saudi Arabia as the largest producer of oil by 2020. These remarkable developments are a product of what’s come to be known as the shale revolution. An innovative combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has unlocked vast amounts of oil and gas in this country that for decades were thought to be out of reach.

As a result, U.S. fracking technology is in greater demand abroad. Despite the discovery of vast shale deposits in many parts of the world, the U.S. is the only country currently producing significant volumes of shale oil and gas. Even China, which experts believe has the world’s largest shale gas reserves, is struggling to get production going.

From South America to Europe and Asia, governments are turning to the United States for help in launching shale revolutions of their own. And we’ve responded, dispatching oil and gas experts to Argentina, Mexico, Poland and China, among other countries with large shale formations.

Why not capture the booming international market for advanced coal technology in much the same way? And do it in a way that creates mining and manufacturing jobs here in the United States?

The shale revolution came about as a result of a marriage of entrepreneurial risk taking and smart government investment in advanced technologies and demonstration projects. George P. Mitchell, an independent Texas oil man who deserves much of the credit for cracking the shale code, couldn’t have succeeded in achieving his breakthrough in hydraulic fracturing technology without help from several government-funded energy programs. He tapped into the Eastern Gas Shales project, the Gas Research Institute and several national laboratories for assistance.

U.S. technology for carbon mitigation could make it easier for countries to make better use of the trillions of tons of coal in the world. Capturing a share of the global market for coal technology would be a huge prize. With world coal use growing at a breakneck pace and a race on to raise coal-burning efficiency while reducing its carbon footprint, we need focused government support, particularly to develop and demonstrate technologies for carbon capture and storage (CCS). Although the U.S. possesses the world’s largest coal reserves, with forecasts that global coal consumption will grow, we have yet to build one large-scale CCS demonstration project. That’s nonsensical.

Construction on the FutureGen project, a $1.4 billion public and private initiative to retrofit an existing coal plant in Illinois with clean coal and CCS technologies, is slated to begin next year. But one large-scale demonstration project isn’t nearly enough. We need a dozen!

Abundant and affordable, coal remains a growing and critical piece of the world’s economy. There are those in the U.S. who want this country to turn its back on coal. They believe it’s a fuel of the past. But every global trend suggests it’s very much the fuel of the future, even without the benefits of CCS technology.

Yet solar and wind power, which account for less than two percent of the nation’s energy, are getting lavish government support and are heralded as our energy future. Given the huge global market for coal technologies, it should be the other way around. Coal should be at the top of our energy agenda, not at the bottom.

We have become the unquestioned world leader in the development of shale energy. With the right investment, we could do the same with advanced coal technology, helping to raise living standards around the world, while strengthening our own economy and creating jobs.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Syd Peng is the Charles E. Lawall Chair Emeritus at West Virginia University’s College of Engineering and Minerals, Mining Engineering program.