Coal is here to stay as an energy source but the key to its success is development of low emission technology. Innovation along with the ongoing drive for efficiency and optimisation at exploration, mining, beneficiation and logistics levels will see coal miners survive the current industry downturn.
There is plenty of noise being made in mainstream media globally about the demise of coal due to its environmental impacts when used in generating energy and in making steel. The critics are extolling the virtues of renewable energy but while this all sounds good and is certainly worthy of pursuing, the fact is that there is still a very wide gap between coal and renewable energy in terms of availability, reliability, effectiveness and cost.
This is particularly evident in developing countries like India, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines where governments have set ambitious targets for the provision of energy so that a much greater percentage of the large populations has access to electricity for basic essentials taken for granted in the western world, such as cooking, heating and cooling. There is 20% of the world’s population that currently has no access to modern energy with 1.3 billion people not having access to electricity and 2.7 billion relying on traditional fuels for cooking. The only way that these targets can be met in the short to medium term is through coal-fired power stations.
A recent presentation to an Austmine gathering by World Coal Association chairman Mick Buffier showed that coal is currently used for 41% of global electricity, 70% of all steel production and 90% of the cement manufactured as well as being used in refineries, paper manufacture and many chemicals.
Despite the current global push for renewable energy and despite projected growth rates for electricity from renewable sources, by 2040 coal is still forecast to provide 30% of the world’s electricity with much of the future demand coming from Asia. In 2000 Asia’s share of global coal power generation capacity was 38%, in 2015 it was 69% and by 2040 it is expected to be 77%, which will mean an extra 1.8 billion tonnes of coal will be needed each year in Asia alone.
While this means opportunities for coal exporting nations such as Australia, Indonesia and Mongolia, the strongest growth will come from high energy thermal coal along with prime coking coal. It also means that low emission technology will be vital in the future in order to help meet global emission reduction targets, particularly for coal-fired power plants. Research has shown that efficiency improvements can significantly contribute to CO2 emission reductions and these can, and should be, driven by the coal industry in conjunction with researchers at universities and other scientific bodies.
This technology involves the development of more super critical, and preferably ultra-super critical, coal-fired power plants that use high quality, low emission coal. Japan and China are leading the way with these plants which are replacing the older, less efficient power stations that produce high emissions. They include advanced air quality control systems, yielding non-carbon air emissions well below current more stringent global standards. These are the plants that will drive emerging nations like India towards the ambitious electricity targets.
Low emission coal is the future for the industry and deploying cleaner coal technology promotes energy access while managing emissions of carbon dioxide … but more action is needed now, led by the developed mining nations such as Australia, Canada and the US.
Rather than jumping on the accelerating bandwagon of coal criticism, we all need to recognise that the coal industry is not dying. Coal has a strong future as an important driver of affordable, reliable energy to support economic development and competitiveness … but ongoing evolution is vital.