After 25 years on the blacklist of America’s energy sources, coal is poised to make a comeback. So say Carnegie Mellon researchers Granger Morgan, Jay Apt and Lester Lave in their recent report to federal officials admonishing electricity companies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and to spend at least one percent of their value added on research.
Morgan, Apt and Lave say that pollution from electric generation plants can be dramatically reduced and ultimately eliminated without damaging the economy.
"The electricity industry is one of the single most important business sectors of our economy, but this sector also produces the most pollution," said Morgan, head of Carnegie Mellon's Department of Engineering and Public Policy and co-director of the university's Electricity Industry Center. "Electricity generation accounts for 38 percent of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, and as demand increases so will the pollution," the report said.
The 75-page document also recommends that government officials and the $250 billion electricity industry focus resources on developing "promising technologies that do not require fundamental breakthroughs," like carbon capture from new types of clean coal generators called coal gasification plants.
At least 94 coal-fired electric power plants—with the capacity to power 62 million American homes—are now planned across 36 states. The report states that construction of these plants would lock the U.S. into a high-carbon future, but that if coal gasification was used for this additional capacity the U.S. would develop low-carbon technology that could be sold to the world.
Low-cost, low-emission, natural gas turbines sprouted like mushrooms in the '90s and their contribution to the nation's generating capacity reached 19 percent. But in the past five years, the cost of natural gas has roughly tripled—from $2 per 1 million British thermal units (BTUs) of heat generated to more than $6 per million BTUs. By contrast, coal costs less than $2 per million BTUs. And as a result, utilities have been put in the position of paying more for the gas they burn to make power than they can get for the electricity it produces, according to the report. Gas plants are currently much more expensive to run than coal generators.
The Pew Center Report
The Electricity Industry Center