Our demand for electricity will continue to increase, notwithstanding improved energy efficiency. This is because we continue to find more and more uses for electricity, including our constantly increasing use of computers and other electronics and the greater number of electric vehicles on the road.
A responsible policy for generating this electricity must include diverse fuel sources. Currently, we are experiencing a big push for wind and solar, and although welcome from an environmental point of view, these are intermittent and can be relied on only to supplement more traditional and dependable sources of electricity.
We are currently heavily dependent on natural gas as a fuel, primarily because of its low price but also because it emits half the carbon when burned as does coal. As we see periodically, though, low prices are often temporary, which is why our fuel sources need to be diversified.
How does coal fit into this plan? New technology has basically eliminated particulate emissions, including harmful sulfur and mercury, from new coal plants, and since these plants are more efficient, less coal is needed for a given amount of energy. To complement this, we need to develop other new technologies to capture the carbon-dioxide emissions when coal is burned. In this way, we can have more diversified fuel sources, and, because of our huge domestic coal reserves, we will be more energy self-sufficient.
There is reason to be optimistic that new technology can result in clean coal. Consider what fracking and horizontal drilling have done for the oil and gas industry. Given the track record in the U.S. of researching and developing new technologies, if we put some resources into clean coal research, we should anticipate a substantial payoff.
It is difficult for any one coal company to undertake the necessary research because they will be unable to capture most of the benefits of this research as it will spill over into the rest of the industry. Consequently, in situations like this, government research is necessary, perhaps in partnership with the industry. This should be a priority both for the government and for the industry.
There may well be additional benefits from this research. If the carbon dioxide can be captured, there may be uses for it for, among other things, petrochemicals and plastics, as well as uses we cannot anticipate today. More research is needed here, too. This would turn a negative into something valuable and would help to offset the cost of carbon capture technology. Such new technology could also benefit other fossil fuels, including natural gas and oil, when they are burned to generate electricity.
We have relied heavily on coal to generate electricity in the past, and by supporting more research, we can rely on clean coal in the future. This protects us with diverse fuel sources to generate electricity, not overly relying on one fuel source, and it helps us gain energy independence and security by relying more on our huge domestic reserves of coal.
Stanford L. Levin is professor emeritus of economics at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He has previously served on the Illinois Commerce Commission and consults in the U.S. and abroad on energy issues.
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