Coal is Essential for Energy Security for many – Strategies to enlarge supply base and reduce environmental impacts are the prerequisites:
A. More and more frequent environmental problems and disasters – floods, forest fires, tornados, air pollution in big cities – cause growing concerns everywhere. Energy harvesting, conversion, production and use contribute to these environmental burdens.
Hence, improving the environmental performance of the energy sector is of paramount importance. Thus, wider application of cleaner fuels and conversion technologies is a key element in the strategy to improve the environmental performance of the energy sector. Further, the lower price of coal as compare to petroleum based fuels; the interest in coal is renewed because of the more even geopolitical distribution of coal reserves and of larger supply bases of coal allover the world.
In fact, the environmental concerns about coal are not associated with coal itself, but with its utilization in different stages of the energy chain. Novel and more environmentally friendly technologies for coal utilization, commonly known as “Clean Coal Technologies” (CCT), are believed to be able to bring coal back into the picture. Hence, CCT recently enjoy a growing interest almost all parts of the world. At present, this interest mostly focuses on cleaner coal conversion through increased efficiency and CO2 capture technologies, for which large R&D efforts are ongoing worldwide.
B. Market implementation of CCT is expected to cause an increase in coal use. Coal demand could also rise significantly because the recent sharp increase in oil prices has a lower impact on coal than on gas prices. This is explained by the more favorable geopolitical distribution of coal reserves compared to that of gas. As a result, coal has become cheaper in relative terms than oil and gas. All in all, in a scenario of soaring oil & gas prices, coal is predicted to be the energy source with the fastest growing demand. The expected increase in coal demand for power generation raises the question of its secure availability in the future. Thus, enlargement of the coal supply base is essential throughout the world, with adoption of cleaner technology.
C. The enlargement of the coal supply base can take place in four main directions:
(a) More powerful mapping techniques for coal reserves - Modern geophysics and seismic techniques, improve mine planning and exploitation by reducing geological uncertainties and increasing extraction efficiencies. At the same time, they can reduce environmental externalities and energy use for coal extraction.
(b) Improvement of existing under-ground mining technologies - Underground (deep) coal mining accounts for about 60% of world coal production. Current best coal recovery rates for underground mining are 50-60% for the “room-and-pillar” technology and about 75% for “longwall” mining. The implementation of modern automated and computerized mining technologies can increase these recovery rates.
(c) Research and development for underground coal gasification - Underground gasification of coal deposits which are not technically or economically exploitable (anymore) with conventional mining technologies, can add enormous coal supply potential in
(d) Utilization of coalmine methane (CMM) gas - Methane gas, released from coalmines, has always raised serious safety and environmental concerns. Methane is highly explosive when accumulated in confined areas. It is also a powerful greenhouse gas with 20- times stronger global warming potential than carbon dioxide. On the other hand, CMM, which consists mainly of natural gas, is a suitable clean fuel. The capture and useful utilization of CMM can bring important synergy benefits in terms of enhanced security of supply and better environmental and safety performance of coal mining.
D. Therefore, for realizing the full potential of CCT, coal is sufficiently
(a) Abundant… only if we keep working on the enhancement of coal reserves,
(b) Cheap… as long as the supply continues to match the demand,
(c) Reliable… as long as the supplies are diversified.
To reach market maturity, clean coal technologies, covering extraction, preparation and conversion, need a long term vision and investment security. In the present pre-commercial stage they need firm political commitment and further R&D support.