Coal’s strong position as a preferred low-cost energy source can be secured, provided that efficient and clean conservation technologies are implemented along the fossil fuel’s entire supply chain structure.
Former MD of Total Group South Africa Professor Michel Valdèlievre asserts that the global energy sector is not entering the twilight of coal use in power generation, but rather the dawn, citing strong growth in multi- industry consumption of the black fuel.
Between 2000 and 2010, the global consumption of coal increased by around 2.3-million tons, or 50%, and is expected to expand by another 25%, or 1.7-million tons, in the next decade.
“Coal remains the backbone of global electricity generation and, thus, increased electricity demand trends around the world will dictate its degree of consumption,” he says.
Coal’s strength lies in its economic competitiveness in the absence of carbon pricing.
This applies in particular to areas in which coal is a cheap source of energy and is used for energy generation in close proximity to mining, industrial or manufacturing operations, often observed in South Africa, Australia, India and China.
“Beyond an improvement in coal’s efficiency, carbon capture and storage must be deployed to make deep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions and its environmental footprint,” explains International Energy Agency executive director Maria van der Hoeven.
According to Valdèlievre, this can be achieved either by retrofitting older coal-fired power plants that use obsolete technology, or by replacing them entirely with more efficient technology.
An improvement of 1% in the efficiency of a coal-fired plant can realise a 33% decrease in carbon emissions.
Policy formulation dictating the retrofit or replacement of obsolete coal-consuming technology is already under way in some coal-dependent nations, with India looking to reduce its carbon intensity by between 20% and 25% by 2020 through the retrofitting of its older plants.
Meanwhile, China plans to shut down several smaller thermal power units, generating ten-million kilowatts, in the next year, which, it expects, will translate into a reduction in its coal consumption by some 64-million tons.
The country has targeted a 17% reduction in its carbon intensity by 2015, capping its total energy use at 4.1-billion tons of coal equivalent.
Despite the environmental implications, Valdèlievre says replacing coal as the global primary energy source would require huge capital investment, with coal generation expected to provide 15.2-billion kilowatts of energy by 2030.
“To replace coal, we would need to build 1 950 nuclear power plants, produce over 115-trillion cubic feet of natural gas, install 4.4-million wind turbines and construct an entirely new fleet of natural gas plants for backup,” he illustrates.