Coal Will Power America's Future

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

While polls have consistently shown that Americans are concerned about the environment, they are also increasingly worried about high energy costs. Unfortunately, the media's continued infatuation with renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, has done much to confuse the public about the state of our nation's energy resources.

The facts are these. Despite nearly 30 years and billions of taxpayers dollars spent subsidizing the research and production of renewable energy, wind and solar power contributes less than five percent of U.S. energy supplies. The best research indicates that renewable sources, excluding hydroelectric dams, will continue to provide less than 10 percent of our energy needs during the next 50 years. If, as is expected, the U.S. continues to be blessed with modest economic growth during the next 20 years, electricity demand could increase by more than 45 percent. Accordingly, if substantial action is not taken, the nation will soon confront serious energy shortages - an economic catastrophe in the making.

In formulating a comprehensive, long-term energy plan, the President and Congress examined these sobering facts. They logically concluded that if we are to continue to enjoy affordable, reliable energy in the future, then coal, which currently accounts for 50% of our total electricity generation, must have a important place in America's energy mix.

Coal is the U.S.'s most abundant energy resource. The United States has a 250-year supply. Indeed, in 2000, more than 1 billion tons of coal were produced in 25 states. With the Bush energy plan encouraging new coal-fired plants, that amount will likely rise.

While coal fired power plants do emit certain pollutants, coal's detractors have ignored the significant advancements made in generating cleaner coal power. For example, for the past 20 years, new coal fired power plants have been required to install "scrubbers." Scrubbers are specially designed to clean sulfur from coal's combustion gases before they are emitted from the smokestack. Because limestone can absorb sulfur gases under the right conditions, it is mixed with water and used to pull the sulfur out of the combusted gas. By using these scrubbers, coal fired plants have eliminated 95% of the sulfur dioxide emissions. Installing scrubbers on older coal-fired plants should produce similar gains in air quality.

More good news comes from the Department of Energy - the Clean Coal Technology Program. Clean coal technology uses an approach called integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC). This means that rather than being directly burned, coal is converted to gas, and then combusted in a combined-cycle gas turbine. Plants using this process have been able to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 98%, nitrogen oxides by 90%, and particulate emissions below detectable levels. Additionally, this technology increases efficiency by as much as 40%, since the sulfur and other chemicals removed in the gasification process can be sold for use in other industrial processes. In addition, the plants can also generate other forms of fuel, such as hydrogen and methane gasses, that can be used for heating and other energy uses.

Recognizing the importance of improved coal technology to the U.S.'s future energy mix, the Bush administration has requested $2 billion in tax credits for clean coal technologies. Contrary to the claims of critics, this is hardly a "give away" to coal producers or utilities since they can only claim the credit if they use technologies that will reduce pollution. One could hardly say that this policy trades-off energy production at the expense of the environment.

While other power sources must play a role in the energy mix, because coal is plentiful and relatively inexpensive, it will continue to play a critical role in supplying electricity to Americans. The improvements in coal technology help to ensure that this continued reliance on coal need not come at the expense of environmental quality.