It will be a while before coal is replaced

FRANKFORT, KENTUCKY - Natural gas, wind, and even algae are considered alternative energy sources, but state researchers say they probably won’t replace coal anytime soon.

The director of the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research told the Interim Joint Committee on Natural Resources and Environment that he expects fossil fuel like coal to produce at least 40-50 percent of U.S. electricity for the foreseeable future.

CAER Director Rodney Andrews told lawmakers that the U.S. has a limited set of options to use renewables for utility-scale electricity production, adding that the nation must be careful about declaring what is the best available technology.

Andrews said not enough is known about alternative energy technology to say that this or that is the best alternative to coal, although the U.S. government — which has proposed federal regulation of coal-fired power plant emissions without Congressional approval to expedite passage of a federal climate bill — says there is, Andrews stated.

To keep coal affordable, Andrews said policymakers must find viable ways to store and use carbon dioxide produced by coal-fired power plants.

“We can’t have things that consume a third of the power of the power plant, which is what current carbon capture technology would do, and double the cost of electricity — that’s not going to be sustainable with our industry,” he said.

Capturing and storing carbon dioxide in deep reservoirs beneath the earth’s surface or capturing the gas through photosynthetic processing of algae are two options for carbon dioxide capture, said Andrews. But he said reducing carbon dioxide emissions will take a multi-step approach.

The well-respected Electric Power Research Institute, or EPRI, believes it is technically feasible to reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions to acceptable levels by using a mix of technologies, including carbon capture and storage, renewable energy, energy efficiency, use of electric vehicles and even nuclear energy.

Concerning carbon capture, one lawmaker asked Andrews if captured carbon dioxide can dissipate or escape after it is injected into the earth. Andrews said a majority of the gas remains stored under pressure, but there is some “migration” of the gas in small quantities. Scientists are most concerned with keeping all the gas in the reservoirs where it is placed.

Another lawmaker commented that humans are a point source of carbon dioxide through respiration, adding that the gas “is not a substance we should be afraid of, it is perhaps something we should manage.” His comments were followed by those from another legislator who stated that those who want to replace coal with more “environmentally friendly” alternatives should consider the impact those alternatives have on the planet.

In the end, the lawmaker said, coal is still the best option when it comes to keeping the lights on in Kentucky and the nation. He said that was made clear last summer by the Kentucky Public Service Commission, which told lawmakers that if the electricity produced by coal was created by renewables, it would take 26 percent of the nation’s total renewables to create the same amount of electricity that Kentucky gets from coal.

The bottom line? Yes, Americans should consider renewables, be more energy efficient and be responsible stewards of our environment. But we must also be realistic, and the reality is that, as of today, coal is the most cost effective and efficient way to electrify our nation. Biomass — which can be burned with coal in power plants to make coal-fired power cleaner and more cost efficient — is what Andrews calls the most logical choice as a renewable to date, but research is still being done in that area.

I have no doubt that we will find the right mix of renewables to help us lower carbon dioxide emissions in our state, nation and world. But like Andrews, I think it will be a long time coming before any alternative replaces coal as the king of electricity generation.


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