Winning Public Support for the Future of Coal

By Robin Batterham Kernot
Professor of Engineering, The University of Melbourne for Cornerstone

The International Energy Agency has projected that coal use will continue to grow and will overtake oil as the most used energy source as soon as 2017.1 In the first article of this two-part series, the importance of innovation was highlighted as a necessity to keep the coal industry competitive.2 However, even if the coal industry maintains financial competitiveness, it must also maintain the public license to operate, which could be threatened by the perception of a lack of sustainability.

Maintaining the Public License to Operate

In many countries mining and sustainability are viewed as impossible to reconcile. This is, however, an illogical position and we are best to start from the original Bruntland definition3 of “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It is all about present needs and the needs of future generations. Given that coal will be abundantly available for the next few hundred years, whether coal as a resource is exhausted is barely relevant in terms of the needs of future generations. What is important, however, is that existing mines treat sustainability in an integrated manner, not just as a public face to environmental efforts, which is too easily dismissed as “green wash”.

Can a low-emission coal-fired power plant,
such as Boundary Dam with CCS, be considered sustainable
similar to renewable energy sources?

Maintaining the public license to operate with coal requires attention to three points:

  • The need for low-emission energy is growing.
  • Coal will ultimately decline when replacements are seen as more sustainable.
  • Current operations must focus on sustainability.

The Need for Low-Emission Energy, Not for Renewables

Globally there has been quite extraordinary support from governments around the world, almost without exception, to increase the amount of renewables used for power generation. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has reviewed the numerous schemes in place and shown that some are far more effective economically than others at phasing in renewables.3 In short, the value of the massive cost to the public of feed-in tariffs and renewable energy certificates is questionable; Johnstone3 shows convincingly that the general innovative capacity of a country is a far more powerful predictor of implementation of low-emission technology than feed-in tariffs or mandated levels of renewables.

The fact that the public and governments have focused on renewables instead of low-emission energy puts the coal industry in a difficult position. The response of the industry must be to emphasize that coal can also be a low-emission energy source. By adopting this position, coal can be seen as just as worthy as any other technology, at least for the present.

For existing power plants and their supply chains, the opportunities for emission reduction lie mainly in the upstream processing (mining, coal cleaning, and transport) and in carbon capture, use, and storage (CCUS). For new power plants, far more opportunities for emission reduction exist, as the Chinese have demonstrated. The economic drivers are there for new plants (minimize cost of coal) and for existing upgrades; what is needed is a price on carbon that encourages emission reduction rather than more renewables per se.

A more unified voice from the industry would help; in particular, one emphasizing that lower emissions are the target and there are many paths to achieve this—more power from the same amount of coal, energy efficiency employed more widely, and renewables. The debate must be shifted from “we dream of 90% renewables to “we dream of 90% emission reduction”.

If we talk of clean coal we often cause confusion, because some may believe that coal is inherently not clean, just as some see mining as essentially nonsustainable. My suggestion is to avoid, wherever possible, using the term “clean coal” and opt for “lower emission coal”.

The Ultimate Future for Coal

This is a touchy point for the industry, especially those parts that have achieved significant emission reductions already and are working hard on CCUS with emission reduction targets of 90% versus present levels. I suggest, however, that the coal industry could and should adopt the position that “in the longer term, coal use will decline when replacements are seen as more sustainable”. By admitting that coal use will ultimately decline, much of the sentiment and protest currently leveled at the industry is deflected. By dwelling on the importance of sustainability, this approach emphasizes present needs and the intent not to compromise the needs of future generations. As we explored in the first part of this series, the coal industry exists within a highly competitive environment, and accepting that others may, in the long run, out-compete us is hardly novel. The key is that we keep coming back to the pillars of sustainability: the people in our industry, the wider community, the environment, and economics.

It is inevitable that coal will only ever be one of the sources for power generation. This is quite an advantage in that it reinforces that there is legitimacy in other approaches. Choices should flow from sustainability assessments, not emotional beliefs that one form of power supply is superior to others. As an example, consider the recent decision to alter the power mix in Germany. Leaving aside their aspirational target of 90% renewables by 2050, the power mix in Germany is already at the point where the only reason widespread brownouts have not occurred in southern Germany is that power from the north is transmitted to the south courtesy of spare capacity in adjoining countries (hardly sustainable!) and that major power users in industry are required to shed load at certain times (again hardly sustainable economically). All of this has occurred where a feed-in tariff has distorted prices markedly, but has not resulted in a sustainable photovoltaics industry. When government initiatives are driven by emotion rather than sustainability, one should expect strange outcomes.

The Sustainable Mantra for Coal

All of this argues against trying to push the mantra of “clean coal” and instead adopting two clear, positive points:

  • Coal can deliver lower emissions sustainably.
  • Coal use for power will cease when replacements are seen as more sustainable.

Hybrid Solutions as Part of Sustainability

One of the more obvious ways for coal-fired power stations to reduce emissions is to work with hybrid solutions, e.g., rapid heat-up to allow better load following when wind and solar drop off. A consortium of companies, researchers, and government are exploring this option in northern Germany. Thus far, it has demonstrated great potential. In a similar vein, rapid start, rapid ramp rate coal-fired plants, such as the direct injection coal engine, could potentially offer a means to support greater proportions of renewables in a grid in the same way that open-cycle gas turbine plants can support renewables, potentially at a lower cost than with gas.

The review article by Huang Qili from Issue 1 of Cornerstone concludes with a section on the use of coal with renewable energy as hybrid power generation options.4 There are, of course, many demonstration-level plants operating around the world pursuing this opportunity. Most concentrate on solar heating boiler feed water to intermediate temperatures, thereby avoiding steam bleeds in the turbine train.

Further alternatives include cofiring of biomass together with coal. This was also included in the recent article by Edward Rubin.5 Experience with this around the world is also considerable, and the challenges here are largely economic rather than technological. Agricultural and other biowastes can be pelletized with fine coal or used directly. The obvious challenge is that thermal capacity is generally down-rated so that there has to be a price on carbon or some savings in eliminating the waste to make the project economically feasible.

A more economic route is likely to be the use of geothermal heat directly in existing coal-fired power stations. The idea is not new6, but it has quite some advantages since there is no new technology involved on the power station side. One merely bypasses the existing boiler feedwater heaters and runs the boiler feedwater through heat exchanges fed by a geothermal loop. The footprint required is low and the technological risk to the power station is minimal in that, as a retrofit, the plant would retain the ability to return to its original configuration. From the geothermal side, it simplifies things considerably in that temperatures of 150°C would be more economical rather than the present targets of 180°C or higher. This means that drilling costs could be reduced as target temperatures might be achieved at 3-km depth rather than 4–5 km. This is especially relevant where there are thick coal seams, as is often the case near power stations. Such coal seams act as thermal blankets because the conductivity of coal is almost an order of magnitude lower than that of most rocks. In addition, geothermal that can tap into existing infrastructure is obviously far more economic than having to build stand-alone power plants plus transmission lines.

Overall, hybrid solutions offer practical and potentially economic ways to demonstrate that coal can deliver lower emissions in a sustainable manner.

Focusing on Sustainability

The third necessary element of maintaining a license to operate is that present (and future) operations have to demonstrate that they are focusing on sustainability. Sustainability must permeate every part of a business if it is to meet the multiple objectives of social well-being, environmental stewardship, and economic prosperity, both during the life of the mine and after closure. It is also not about single projects or even what a single company can do on its own. As soon as stakeholders beyond the company are involved, as they must be, life gets complicated.

There is much good practice within the industry already and the sharing of this practice is highly desirable. The better performers focus in four directions.

Sustainability for People

Maintaining the health, safety, and well-being of workers is, for many, the highest priority. The notion of zero harm is now widespread. Employment opportunities for indigenous communities and other special groups are also a key priority.

Sustainability for the Environment

Environmental stewardship must be a core value of a company and actions should be visible. Minimizing the impacts and risks associated with operations is the starting point. Further extension is practiced to improve operations and to tackle long-term legacy issues well beyond that required by regulations. A risk-based approach such as the International Standard ISO 14001 ensures that environmental risks are assessed and controlled, and performance is continually improved.

Sustainable Economic Performance

The economics of an operation must be positive. Sustainable development is not possible without sustainable economics. Innovation, as discussed in the first article of this series, plays a key role in ensuring sustainable economics.

Sustainability for Wider Stakeholders

The Rio Tinto Iron Ore Sustainability Report summarizes well what is needed7: “We strive to develop enduring relationships with our neighbors built on mutual respect, active partnerships, and long-term commitment. We seek to understand the social, environmental, and economic implications of our activities on our host communities. We work collaboratively with communities and stakeholders.”

To make these four key elements work for most companies, it is necessary to be very analytic in understanding the different needs of the external stakeholders and to accept that it is not possible to satisfy all needs simultaneously. The situation has been well summarized recently by Reggio and Lane, as is shown in Figure 1.8

FIGURE 1. Understanding the stakeholders 8

Much is happening on the sustainability front in the coal industry that suggests that this part of the license to operate is achievable for the foreseeable future.

Engagement with the wider community is time consuming and ongoing. Some agreements take years and then must still be seen as working documents. There is a valuable lesson in how two countries have approached the permanent storage of nuclear waste with very different results. In Sweden, an antinuclear country, negotiations started in 1983 with full consultations. Agreement was reached for a repository in 2009. In the U.S., Yucca Mountain was selected without a similar level of consultation. Despite billions of dollars spent on the technical aspects of Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository, agreement on the site has yet to be achieved.

Will The Coal Industry Lose Its License to Operate?

In this article three key elements have been suggested. On the sustainability front, there is solid evidence of strong performance and an awareness of the challenges by many parts of the coal industry. In the other areas of coal being seen as delivering lower emissions and of moving out of power generation when replacements are seen as more sustainable, there is still a long way to go.

Lower emission power generation is what the world needs, not renewables per se. Under this mantra coal can rightly claim an ongoing role. Coal is part of the solution.

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This article is republished by permission from  All rights reserved.

The content included in Cornerstone is based on the opinion of the authors, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the World Coal Association or its members.

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