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Q&A: Stanford expert explains why we continue burning coal for energy

December 20, 2019
Precourt Institute

By Mark Shwartz

More electricity is produced from coal than from any other energy source, but burning coal comes with significant costs to humanity and the climate. Each year, noxious fumes released from coal-fired power plants cause tens of thousands of premature deaths worldwide. Coal plants also generate about 30 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate experts say that to prevent a significant rise in global temperatures, the world may have to stop generating electricity from coal almost completely by 2050 or prevent coal plant emissions from entering the atmosphere.


A front-end loader piles coal at Niagara Mohawk's Dunkirk Station in New York.
(Credit: NREL/David Parsons)

But, without realistic energy alternatives, many countries will likely rely on coal for years to come, says Mark Thurber, associate director of Stanford University’s Program on Energy & Sustainable Development and author of Coal (Polity Books, 2019). Here, Thurber discusses why coal use persists despite its damaging effects.

Why did you decide to write a book about coal?

If you’re sitting in the United States, it’s easy to think that coal is on its way out. Coal’s share of the U.S. electricity supply has dropped from 50 percent to under 30 percent in the past 15 years. That’s largely because of the shale gas revolution, which suddenly made natural gas cheaper than coal for generating electricity. Still, 30 percent of the U.S. electricity supply is a lot of coal.

Global coal use continues to rise, especially in developing economies. About 38 percent of global electricity comes from coal, and in many countries it’s a mainstay for industrial uses, too.

So, if you’re hoping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution as quickly as possible, it’s important to understand why we still use so much coal and what are the leverage points for phasing it out.

Why does the world continue to use so much coal?

Basically, coal is cheap, assuming you don’t account for its significant health and environmental costs. Also, coal is widely available around the world, and relatively simple to transport and store.

Many industrial players benefit from the use of coal, including coal companies, power companies, railways that ship coal, and manufacturers of steel, cement and aluminum. They may resist changes in the status quo, and governments may support them because of their political clout, plus the tax revenue and jobs they provide. That said, the U.S. experience shows that coal use can decline quickly when it loses its economic advantage.


Mark Thurber addresses a Stanford-led conference on energy in emerging
economies in Mumbai, India. (Credit: Mark Shwartz)

You’ve said that we might be at an inflection point when it comes to coal. Can you explain that?

The richest countries are trying to phase out coal. China, the largest producer and user of coal in the world, is also aspiring to plateau in its coal use.

Meanwhile, the fast-growing economies of South and Southeast Asia have been building new coal-fired power plants at a rapid clip. Lower-income countries are trying to determine whether to follow this path or chart a new course.

What happens to coal over the next 10 years is very much an open question. When countries with rapidly growing economies start building their electricity grids around something other than coal, that’s when we’ll know we’ve turned the corner.

The biggest challenge for these countries is figuring out what will replace coal. The costs of wind and solar have come down tremendously, but the intermittent character of these resources – the fact that they are only available when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining – poses a challenge, especially for small and fast-growing grids.

How likely are new coal-fired power plants to be built in the United States?

It’s very unlikely in my view. Natural gas is going to be too cheap for too long. Renewables will push coal out of the U.S. energy mix in too many hours of the year. And, climate policy is too uncertain.

Have the Trump administration’s attempts to defend the coal industry succeeded?

Donald Trump has always used coal as a political wedge issue. In the 2016 campaign, he blamed the Democratic Party’s supposed ‘war on coal’ for a lot of the troubles in Appalachia.  Actually, the competitiveness of natural gas for power generation combined with productivity improvements in coal mining cost coal-mining jobs. Nothing Donald Trump can say or do will change that basic dynamic.

There never really was a war on coal, but it was a very potent message politically: ‘The Democrats just care about this climate-change thing. They don’t care about your livelihoods.’ It’s the kind of political message that resonates in a lot of coal-producing countries. It’s worked in Germany, Poland, India—anywhere electorally significant communities depend on mining jobs.

Climate experts say that we’ll need to stop using coal to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century. Is that realistic?

 

A coal power plant has a typical design lifetime of 40 years. There are a lot of very new coal plants in Indonesia, the Philippines, and other Asian countries. It’s difficult to imagine that people will stop using them. This is why my first question is, how do we stop building new coal power plants around the world?

The idea that renewable energy can already solve all our energy problems is wishful thinking. No major electric grid has yet reached even 50 percent renewable generation on average. We shouldn’t be asking poor countries that desperately need energy to lead the way, especially while we rich countries continue to burn so much coal!

Can rich countries offer realistic alternatives to poor countries?

Rich countries have done a poor job of offering viable alternatives to developing nations.

I’d like to see more assistance on a number of fronts. We can offer expertise on how to integrate higher shares of renewable energy. We can support development of nuclear energy. We can support development of a natural gas infrastructure. We can offer financial incentives for building power plants that are cleaner than coal. Perhaps we can even create headroom for some limited coal capacity in developing countries by more quickly retiring our own coal fleets.

Do you think we’ll still be using coal 50 years from now?

I hope not. In the long run, coal use isn’t compatible with a livable climate. The challenge is to develop economically competitive alternatives as quickly as possible, because constraining the growth of energy supplies in developing countries is neither ethical nor realistic. We need to spend far more on technology research and development. We need to muster far more political will to set aggressive climate policies, including carbon pricing.

Also, we need to bundle job creation with the transition away from coal. This is both a moral and a political imperative. If it comes down to my insecurity about having a job and providing for my family versus my longer-term worries about the climate, the job concern will win every time.

The environmental movement is starting to better incorporate livelihood considerations into its political activism in developed countries. It can further integrate this approach into work on coal in developing countries.

The Program on Energy & Sustainable Development is part of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford.

Media contact:

Mark Thurber, Program on Energy & Sustainable Development, Stanford: mthurber@stanford.edu, (650) 724-9709

Mark Golden, Precourt Institute for Energy, Stanford: mark.golden@stanford.edu, (650) 724-1629