In President Trump’s first State of the Union Address last week, a wide range of topics in the Administration’s agenda were covered extensively while energy was largely pushed to the side. Trump did include two sentences on his self-described push for “American Energy Dominance,” and these two sentences sent wonks in the energy industry into a frenzy on social media:
“We have ended the war on American energy. And we have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal.”
My Twitter feed lit up with various energy journalists and market watchers who noted the impressiveness that just 18 words over two sentences could contain so many misleading, or outright false, claims.
As one of those energy reporters who immediately took to Twitter with my frustration, I thought I would follow up on these statements last week with arguments why the claims of ‘clean coal’ and the supposed ‘war’ on it do not reflect the reality the Trump Administration would have you believe, and I’ll do so with just a handful of graphs.
What is ‘clean coal’?
As a pure fuel, coal is indisputably the ‘dirtiest’ energy source in common use in the power sector, accounting for about 100 kilograms (kg) of carbon dioxide (CO2) per million British thermal unit (MMBtu) of energy output. This output is notably larger than other major energy sources, including natural gas (about 50 kg/MMBtu), petroleum products like propane and gasoline (about 60 to 70 kg/MMBtu), and carbon neutral fuels like nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, and solar. In the face of the scientific consensus on CO2’s contributions to climate change, many have noted that one of the best actions that can be taken in the energy industry is to shift away from coal to fuels that emit less CO2— which has definitively given coal a dirty reputation.
The premise of ‘clean coal’ is largely a PR push (literally invented by an advertising agency in 2008)– an ingenious marketing term, but one that does not have much in the way of legs. When you hear politicians talking about ‘clean coal,’ it is usually referring to one or more of the following suite of technologies:
- Washing coal before it’s burned to remove soil and rock and thus reduce ash and weight of the coal;
- Using wet scrubbers on the gas generated from burning coal to remove the sulfur dioxide from being released;
- Various carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies for new or existing coal plants that intervene in the coal burning process (either pre-combustion or post-combustion) to capture up to 90% of the CO2 produced from its burning and then sending it miles underground for permanent storage instead of releasing it into the atmosphere; or
- Anything done to the coal-fired power plant to increase the efficiency of the entire process of generating electricity (e.g., the 700 Megawatt supercritical coal plant in West Virginia that is so efficient it reportedly releases 20% less CO2 than older coal plants) and reduce the overall emissions.
When most in the energy industry discuss ‘clean coal’ technology, they are typically referring to CCS. However it should be noted that Trump did not mention CCS by name in this (or any) speech. Some analysts have noted that the White House’s attempts to cut CCS funding and send the Secretaries of the Department of Energy (DOE) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to supercritical coal plants are not-so-subtle hints that the Trump Administration’s preferred type of ‘clean coal’ is improving the efficiency of coal-fired generation. Even Bob Murray, the influential coal magnate, has written to the President to indicate his contempt for CCS, calling it a ‘pseudonym for no coal,‘ echoing the concerns of many proponents of coal that CCS is being pushed as the only ‘clean coal’ option so that if/when it fails (due to economic impracticalities) it would be the death knell of coal-fired generation altogether.
So regardless of which ‘clean coal’ technology the Trump Administration supports, issues remain. With regard to wet scrubbers, coal washing, and general plant efficiency improvements, the reductions in CO2 emissions are not nearly enough to compete with cleaner fuels. Even if all coal plants could be made 20% more efficient (and less reduce CO2 emissions by about 20%) like the West Virginia supercritical plant, which would be a massive undertaking, it would still result in coal generation being among the dirtiest energy in the country.
With regard to CCS, not only is the cost one of the biggest issues (which will be looked at in more detail later), but it does not remove all the pollutants from burning coal. Even with the most effective CCS capturing 90% of CO2 emissions, that leaves 10% of CO2 making its way into the atmosphere along with the other notable pollutants in coal gas (including mercury, nitrogen oxide, and other poisonous contaminants). When compared with the carbon neutral energy sources increasingly gaining ground in the United States, coal plants with CCS still hardly seem clean.
Again, the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) listing of carbon dioxide emissions coefficients shows the CO2 emissions associated with different fuel types when burned as fuel. As previously noted, coal is the far-away leader on CO2 emissions coefficients as a pure fuel. In DOE analysis of future-built generation (an analysis that focuses on the costs and values of different types of power plants to be built in the future, which will come up again in more detail later), the only type of coal generation even considered is coal with either 30% or 90% carbon sequestration, with 90% being the technological ceiling and 30% being the minimum example of new coal-fired generation that would still be compliant with the Clean Air Act.
The below graph, our first in demonstrating the issues with claims of a ‘war on beautiful, clean coal,’ plots the CO2 coefficients of major fuel sources in the U.S. power sector, including coal using no CCS, 30% CCS, or 90% CCS. Existing power plants do not have the same requirements under the Clean Air Act, so they might still be producing CO2 at the far right of the ‘coal’ bar (indeed, last year almost 70% of U.S. coal was delivered to power plants that are at least 38 years old meaning they are likely far from the most efficient coal plants out there). Coal plants that are touted as ‘clean’ because of their up to 20% increases in efficiency would still find themselves in the same (or greater) range of emissions as 30% CCS coal plants, while 90% CCS coal plants appear to the be the only ones that can compete with other fuels environmentally (though it comes at a potentially prohibitive cost, which will show up in a later graph).
Note that the data for these CO2 emission coefficients come from this EIA listing. The lines for 30%/90% CCS are not just drawn 30%/90% lower, but rather account for the presence of CCS requiring more energy and thus cause a dip in efficiency– this graph uses the rough efficiency drop assumed for CCS plants in this International Energy Agency report.
These numbers paint a scary picture of coal and are the source of what causes many energy prognosticators to scoff at the utterance of ‘beautiful, clean coal,’ though it is important to be clear that these numbers don’t tell the whole story. While nuclear and renewable energy sources do not emit any fuel-related CO2, they are not completely carbon neutral over their lifetimes, as the building, operation, and maintenance of nuclear and renewable generation plants (as with any utility-scale generation source) all have their own non-zero effect on the environment. However, since fuel makes up the vast majority of carbon output in the electricity generation sector, any discussion of clean vs. dirty energy must return to these numbers.
Further, the separation of dispatchable vs. non-dispatchable technologies (i.e., energy sources whose output can be varied to follow demand vs. those that are tied to the availability of an intermittent resource) shown in the above graph is important. Until batteries and other energy-storage technologies reach a point technologically and economically to assist renewable (non-dispatchable) energy sources fill in the times when the energy resource is unavailable, dispatchable technologies will always be necessary to plug the gaps. So regardless of what drawbacks might exist for each of the dispatchable technologies, CO2 emissions and overall costs included, at least some dispatchable energy will still be critical in the coming decades.
Who is orchestrating the ‘war on coal’?
Even with the knowledge that coal will never truly be ‘clean,’ the question then becomes why haven’t the advancements in coal energy that is cleaner and more efficient than traditional coal-fired plants become more prominent in the face of climate and environmental concerns? The common talking point from the Trump Administration is that there is a biased war on coal being orchestrated, and the actions of President Trump to roll back regulation is the only way to fight back against this unjust onslaught that the coal industry is facing. But again, from where is this onslaught coming?
The answer to this question is actually pretty easy– it’s not regulation that is causing coal to lose its place as the king of the U.S. power sector, it’s competition from more affordable energy sources (that also happen to be cleaner). The two charts below demonstrate this pointedly, with the left graph showing the fuel makeup of the U.S. electric power sector since 1990 along with the relative carbon intensity of the major CO2-emitting fuel sources, while the right graph shows what’s happened to the price of each each major fuel type over the past decade. The carbon intensity shown on the left graph is even more indicative than the first graph above in detailing the actual degree to which each fuel is ‘clean’ as it factors in the efficiency of plants using the fuel and indicates the direct CO2 emissions relative to electricity delivered to customers.
Note that the costs are taken from this EIA chart, with coal taken from fossil steam, natural gas taken from gas turbine and small scale, and wind/solar taken as the gas turbine and small scale price after removing the cost of fuel. Electric power generation and carbon emission data taken from this EIA source.
Just from analysing these two graphs, a number of key observations and conclusions can be made about the electric power sector and coal’s evolving place in it:
- In 1990, coal accounted for almost 1.6 million Gigawatt-hours (GWh) of power generation, representing 52% of the sector. By 2016, that figure dropped to 1.2 million GWh or 30% of U.S. power generation.
- Over that same time period, natural gas went from less than 400,000 GWh (12%) to almost 1.4 million GWh (34%); nuclear went from less than 600,000 GWh (19%) to over 800 GWh (20%), and combined wind and solar went from 3,000 GWh (0.1%) to over 260,000 GWh (6%).
- While the coal sector’s carbon intensity hovered around 1.0 kg of CO2 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity produced from 1990 to 2016 (even as CCS and other ‘clean coal’ technologies began to break into the market), natural gas dropped from 0.6 kg CO2/kWh to less than 0.5 kg CO2/kWh, while nuclear, wind, and solar do not have any emissions associated with their generation (again noting that there are some emissions associated with the operation and maintenance of these technologies, but they are neglible compared with fossil fuel-related emissions). The drop in natural gas carbon intensity combined with coal losing ground to natural gas, nuclear, and renewable energy led the electric power sector’s overall average carbon intensity to drop from over 0.6 kg CO2/kWh to less than 0.5 kg CO2/kWh.
- While the narrative some would prefer to push is that coal is getting replaced because of a regulatory ‘war on coal,’ the real answer comes from the right graph where the cost to generated a kWh of electricity for coal increased notably from 2006 to 2016. Meanwhile, natural gas (which started the decade more expensive than coal) experienced a drastic drop in price to become cheaper than coal (thanks to advances in natural gas production technologies) while the low cost of nuclear fuel and ‘free’ cost of wind and solar allowed these energy sources to start and remain well below the total cost of coal generation. This natural, free-market competition from other energy sources, thanks to increasingly widespread availability and ever decreasing prices, is what put pressure on coal and ultimately led to natural gas dethroning coal as the predominant energy source in the U.S. power sector.
What these two graphs show is that the energy market is naturally evolving, there is no conspiratorial ‘war’ on coal. The technologies behind solar and wind are improving, getting cheaper, and becoming more prolific for economic, environmental, and accessibility reasons. Nuclear power is holding strong in its corner of the electricity market. Natural gas, more than any other, is getting cheaper and much more prominent to the U.S. power sector (while having the benefit of about half the CO2 emissions of coal), which is what has made it the natural ‘enemy’ of coal of the past decade or two. All that’s to say, the only ‘war on coal’ that’s been widespread in recent memory is a capitalistic, free-market war that will naturally play out when new energy sources are available at cheaper prices and contribute significantly less to climate change.
Will Trump policies reverse the course of coal in the United States?
Going back to the statement from Trump’s State of the Union Address, he claimed that his Administration had ended the war on clean coal. As stated previously, there was never an outward war on coal that was hindering the fuel. Even still, the main policy change from the Trump Administration with regard to coal was to repeal the Clean Power Plan (CPP) that aimed to cut carbon emissions from power generation. However, many analysts predicted that would not change the current trends, as repealing the CPP does nothing to reverse the pricing pattern of the fuels. Indeed, this week EIA released its Annual Energy Outlook for 2018 and confirmed the tough future that coal generation has compared with natural gas and renewables– both with and without the CPP. While the CPP reduces the projections of coal generation, it doesn’t move the needle all that much and natural gas and renewables are still shown to surpass coal.
So the major policy decision of the Trump Administration with respect to coal generation doesn’t appear to reverse the course of coal’s future. Again, this conclusion isn’t terribly surprising considering the economics of coal compared with other fuels. EIA projects the Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) for different type of new power generation (assumed to be added in 2022) which serves to show the relative costs to install new power generation. In the same analysis, EIA projects Levelized Avoided Cost of New Generation (LACE), which can be thought of as the ‘value’ of the new generation to the grid (for more detailed description in the calculations and uses of these measures, read through the full report).
When the LACE is equal or greater than the LCOE, that is in indication of a financially viable type of power to build (evaluated over the lifetime of the plant). So by looking at the relative costs (LCOE) of each power type and whether or not they are exceeded by their values (LACE), we can get a clear picture of what fuel types are going to be built in the coming years (and to continue the focus on whether coal or other fuels are ‘clean,’ let’s put the economics graph side-by-side with the CO2 emissions coefficients):
Note that the source of the data on the left graph is the EIA Levelized Cost of Electricity analysis, with the ends of the boxes representing the minimum and maximum values and the line in the middle representing the average– the difference in possible values comes from variations in power plants, such as geographic differences in availability and cost of fuel. Also note that, counter-intuitively, EIA’s assumed costs for 30% CCS are actually greater than for 90% CCS because the 30% CCS coal plants would ‘still be considered a high emitter relative to other new sources and thus may continue to face potential financial risk if carbon emissions controls are further strengthened. Again, the data for the right graph takes CO2 emission coefficients from this EIA listing by fuel type.
Looking at these graphs, we can see that the cost of new coal generation (regardless of CCS level) not only exceeds the value it would bring to the grid, but also largely exceeds the cost of natural gas, nuclear, geothermal, biomass, onshore wind, solar photovoltaic (PV), and hydroelectric power (all of which emit less CO2 than coal). Thus even in the scenario where 90% of carbon is captured by CCS (which allows it to be ‘cleaner’ than natural gas and biomass), it still comes at a significant cost premium compared with most of the other fuel types. These are the facts that are putting the hurt on the coal industry, not any policy-based ‘war on coal.’ Even the existing tax credits that are given to renewable energy generation are minor when looking at the big picture, as the below graph (which repeats the above graph but removes the renewable tax credits from the equation) shows. Even if these tax credits are allowed to expire, the renewable technology would still outperform coal both economically and environmentally.
Click to enlarge
The last graphical rebuttal to President Trump’s statement on energy and coal during the State of the Union that I’ll cite comes from Tyler Norris, a DOE adviser under President Obama:
As pointed out by Norris and other energy journalists chiming in during the State of the Union address, if the goal were to expand ‘clean coal,’ then the Trump Administration’s budget is doing the opposite by taking money away from DOE programs that support the research and development of the technology. In fact, at the end of last week a leaked White House budget proposal indicated even further slashes to the DOE budget that would further hamper the ability of the government to give a leg up to the development of ‘clean coal’ technology. Any war on energy is coming from the Trump Administration, and any battle that coal is fighting is coming from the free market of cheaper and cleaner fuels.
Sources and additional reading: