What role does coal play in the future?
The ability to build coal power plants remains under threat due to political and environmental pressures at the state and national levels. The costs to build new plants are another issue. Estimates to build a clean coal power plant project related costs at $1.5 billion with four years of construction. Comparatively, constructing a nuclear power plant can cost more than $2 billion and take five years to complete.
That's why the government is looking towards creating clean coal technology. The idea is to research and develop better ways of using coal for many different purposes. They also cite that clean coal technologies can create jobs, increase energy security, address climate concerns and coal conversion technologies, which can help unlock coal's full potential.
Tom Sarkus, deputy director of the Office of Major Demonstrations with the National Energy Technology Laboratory, knows how important coal is for the country and the world. He thinks energy in the U.S. is like a three-legged stool with petroleum, natural gas and coal each representing a leg. Since coal plays such a large role on the economy and the country in general, he said replacing coal with renewable energies is easier said than done.
Sarkus said peaking energy sources, such as wind turbines, solar and natural gas, are not cost effective compared to coal. Natural gas tends to follow gas prices and coal prices tend to follow natural gas. The price of coal is less than oil and natural gas, making it a stable source price-wise for the country.
"We have a relative abundance of coal and it's very economical here because it's a solid fuel," Sarkus said.
According to U.S. Energy Information Administration, there are about 500 billion tons of coal available here in the U.S., but only about 55 percent of it is recoverable. About 1 billion tons of coal is used each year in the U.S., leaving a forecast of coal being a dominant resource for the next 50 to 100 years.
Coal production reached a record level of 1,171.8 million short tons and the average mine-level prices increased by 21 percent to $31.25 per short ton. The number of employees increased by 6.9 percent while the national productivity declined by 4.9 percent to 5.96 short tons per miner per hour, according to the U.S. EIA website.
There are about 5,400 power plants in the U.S., with about 600 powered by coal. With so many being powered by coal, the push to make them run more efficiently and cleaner is bigger than before.
When the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, commonly known as the stimulus, was passed it included about $4.6 billion for fossil fuel research and development, according to John Grasser, director of fossil communications with the Department of Energy.
"There was a realization inside the government in that coal is not going away," Grasser said. "The U.S. is the Saudi Arabia of coal compared to the rest of the world. We need to continue to learn how to use it in a more cleaner and efficient manner."
While much of the talk in the political spectrum focuses on green or clean energy jobs, there is still the possibility for a lot of growth in the future with coal-related jobs. With research needing to take place and the implementation of new technology in coal power plants, Grasser thinks clean coal technology will play a big role in the future.
"I'm pretty optimistic about this (clean coal) working out in the future so we can really get around to testing out new technologies and possibly putting them into place. I don't think we can just close all of the coal power plants and rely on other sources and fuels right now.
"But none of this will happen overnight. It will take some time for this to take place," Grasser said.