King coal

Long-maligned fossil fuel stages a comeback

Régis de Closets
11 June 2014

4 min read

By 2015, coal is set to take over oil’s position as the world’s leading fossil fuel, a major comeback driven by emerging economies and the development of less polluting and more economical “clean coal” technologies.

While talk of an energy transition focuses on wind farms and solar panels, an often-maligned fuel is setting energy market indicators alight. Long attacked as a major source of CO2 emissions and a symbol of frenetic industrialization – coal is back!

Rising above its dirty past, coal has become an ally of globalization and is experiencing a renewal in the search for a cheap and abundant fuel. These two advantages have made the ore a formidable competitor when compared with rocketing oil prices, loss of enthusiasm for nuclear and continued high prices for natural gas in much of the world. Coal already fuels more than 40% of global electricity generation, and demand is projected to increase 2.3% a year until 2018, according to the 2013 annual report by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

In response, countries are investing in coal-fired power plants and mines. In 2013 alone, China shelled out US$6.5 billion and has increased its mining capacity in the country’s northwest territories six-fold in a year. India, which is likely to be the second-largest global consumer by 2017, currently has 455 coal-fired power plants planned or under construction.


Coal already fuels more than 40% of global electricity generation, and demand is projected to increase 2.3% a year until 2018.

Industrialized countries also are investing in coal. In 2013, German coal-fired plants equaled the record level of activity seen in 1990. “With the decline in nuclear, coal stands out as a basic fossil fuel which will ensure a constant cheap supply to complement more intermittent renewable energies,” explained Jean-Philippe Trident Bel, head of the Energy Department with French research firm Alcimed.

In the US, despite an upsurge in production of natural gas, coal consumption rose by 4% in 2013. Even the Dubai Energy and Water Authority (DEWA), the energy department in Dubai (United Arab Emirates), has announced the construction of its first coal-fired power plant. In 2025, Burj Khalifa, the emirate’s emblematic tower, will be illuminated with coal-fired power – a once unimaginable turn of events in this petroleum-rich country.


Such enthusiasm for coal worries proponents of wind, solar and fuel cells, who fear its potential to siphon off investment in renewable alternatives.

“The current growth in coal is quite simply unsustainable,” IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven said in December 2013.

Coal proponents, however, argue that coal must be part of the solution to bridging the gap between today’s reliance on fossil fuels and a future built on renewables. “Clean coal” technologies to reduce coal’s carbon emissions help to build that bridge, if the model can be made economically attractive.

A first step is to improve coal plants’ productivity. Their overall efficiency rate in terms of energy produced per ton currently stands at 32% worldwide (38% in Europe). The latest generation of Ultra-supercritical (USC) plants raises this efficiency to 45%, according to a report by Alcimed – a sizeable increase given that a 1% rise in efficiency results in a 2% reduction in CO2 emissions, on average. USC plants operate at higher combustion temperatures, however, requiring pipework and turbine infrastructure made with advanced metal alloys. The additional cost for the construction of a USC plant compared with a traditional plant is estimated at 20% to 30%.


Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), which involves capturing carbon dioxide released during combustion and then transporting it via a pipeline and burying it underground, offers another option but is even more expensive. “The increased cost to the end consumer with CCS is currently 30%,” said Howard Herzog, research engineer at Cambridge’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where Herzog is in charge of the university’s Carbon Capture and Sequestration Technologies program. “This is obviously not competitive. But the technologies are there and they will become increasingly competitive.”

New-generation CCS plants should halve this extra cost, but the first models are not expected for another three years and first-generation pilot plants are experiencing budget overruns.

As a result, the Global CCS Institute reports that ten planned CCS plants were canceled between 2012 and 2013 due to lack of financing. Plans for USC plants also are running into difficulties. EDF, the world’s leading producer and supplier of electricity, recently reviewed plans for an ambitious USC plant in Poland, which had failed to attract support from the European Union.

“The cost of setting up these installations remains prohibitive for industrial companies,” Bel said.

“It often takes decades to establish new clean-energy technologies,” Herzog added. “At the current stage, regulations must offer incentives to encourage industry to commit to these innovations.”


Coal’s resurgence is creating new competition between the US and China, the world’s two energy leaders. The US government has invested more than US$7 billion in these technologies since 2005 and budgeted another US$25 million in 2014 to finance CCS sites, an overdue move to update the country’s aging fleet of power plants.

China, often portrayed as a polluter, has constructed most of its plants since 2000. Its ambitious “Small Plant Closure” plan, launched in 2006, aims to close the country’s smallest and most polluting plants. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has stepped up its plans for CCS plants, from a level of five announced in 2010 to 12 announced in 2013.

All of this plant construction sets up competition for cheap, low-emission coal, a competition poised to make coal king once more.


Technologies from the video gaming world are providing innovative solutions to train operators and engineers for new generations of power plants. Since 2011, for example, the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in Morgantown, West Virginia, has offered a training program that employs a 3D virtual simulation of a coal-fired integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) power plant with carbon capture.

Created from thousands of images, the simulation allows total immersion in the environment of these high-tech facilities. Personnel who will work in such plants pilot avatars that monitor operations in real time, learning how to prevent dangerous situations like gas leaks or sudden fires.

“This tool allows training in situations which would be impossible to recreate in real life and provides opportunities for practice of procedures, such as startup and shutdown of the CO2 capture process,” explained Stephen E. Zitney, head of the US DOE NETL’s Advanced Virtual Energy Simulation Training and Research (AVESTAR) Center.

The objective is two-fold: to optimize operators’ training, but also to increase the efficiency of the plants themselves.

“There is a real challenge, since these IGCC plants are combining power generation and chemical process technologies and must be increasingly responsive to adapt to the requirements of a fluctuating market,” Zitney said. “Operators are increasingly required to adjust the levels of electricity production and CO2 capture. This requires a high level of control over operations.” ◆

Related resources


Register here to receive a monthly update on our newest content.