By Marguerita Choyl
Dirty, yet abundant and easily shipped, coal is starting to challenge
natural gas as the fuel of choice for new power plants.
This is because coal prices are relatively cheaper and not so
volatile, industry executives and experts say.
Utilities around the world have increasingly turned to gas to meet a
doubling of electricity demand over the next 25 years, while curbing
greenhouse gas emissions, like carbon dioxide (CO2), blamed for
causing global warming but this is changing.
"The role of natural gas role in power generation is not a slam
dunk. There are relative price, emissions and security issues to take
into account," said Gerald Doucet of the World Energy Council on the
sidelines of a gas conference this week.
At a separate coal conference, the mining industry was also upbeat
about demand to turn coal into synthetic fuels like diesel or gas, and
urged greater efforts to develop technology to clean up the fuel's
"The prospects are improving for coal-fired stations. The future is
clean. The coal industry can play a great role. It's a great
opportunity which we must not lose," said Leigh Clifford, chief
executive of Rio Tinto.
Demand for coal is growing faster than expected, rising 25 percent in
the last three years, to 1.1 billion tonnes.
"Coal is the only fuel with sustainable growth. Coal has stepped up to
fill the void left by the limitations on oil and gas," said Gregory
Boyce, president of the largest U.S coal producer Peabody Energy.
The International Energy Agency (IEA), the West's energy watchdog,
says coal will continue to dominate electricity generation with a 40
percent share, as most of the world's supplies are conveniently
located in the strongest and fastest growing economies, the United
States, China and India.
"This is likely to continue as demand for power grows mainly in the
developing economies. But coal must remain competitively priced,
especially as pollution abatement costs increase as carbon emission
plans increase," said IEA chief Claude Mandil.
The European Union's emissions trading scheme that began this year has
allowed gas and coal to compete for future power generation market
share as CO2 allowances were given free to polluting power stations,
says Europe's top power producer EDF.
"Gas is no longer the obvious environmental choice as it was two years
ago," said Dominique Venet, executive vice president for gas at French
power giant EDF.
Venet said that coal would be the preferred fuel for future power
generation with oil at $40-45 per barrel, free CO2 allowances and coal
at $42.50 a ton.
EDF, the world's largest nuclear power producer, will add its 59th
reactor by 2012, but also plans to modernize four coal-fired plants,
and to re-open four oil-fired plants as it mainly uses its thermal
plants to meet peak demand.
Other European utilities agree fuel choice has become more difficult,
but most say gas will be the main option.
"The trend for all energy prices is up. I am not too pessimistic about
gas for power generation," said George Verberg, president of the
International Gas Union.
The IEA estimates it will cost $100 per ton of CO2 emitted to
stabilize global emissions by 2050, but this could be more than halved
with carbon capture and storage (CCS).
"When it comes to coal, progress is being made on reducing the CCS
cost and as soon as it gets down from $100 now to around $40, the coal
business will be able to say they we can deliver cheaper electricity
and meet the CO2 requirements," Doucet said.
He said Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum, a 17-nation group
working on technology to reduce CO2 emissions, aims to reduce the
costs to $40 by 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol's period ends.
"I would not put my money against it," Doucet said.
Copyright 2005 Reuters Limited.
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[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: Well, I seem to recall this now coming
full circle. In Whiting, Indiana, where my maternal grandparents
lived, literally at the state line with Illinois (106th Street and
Indianapolis Boulevard) was the Commonwealth Edison State Line Electric
Generating Station. Like an old, gothic fortress of a building,
sixty to eighty feet tall, a city block wide, the plant sits there and
gobbles up coal from the mines in West Virginia by the tons, day
after day. At least it did that in the 1950's. In front of it, the
employee parking lot, three shifts per day 24/7/365 with several
hundred workers; behind it, about a dozen or so railroad tracks with
mostly very large, very fast moving trains coming and going. To one
side, with a couple of 'spur' railroad tracks was the 'mouth' of this
hungry beast. At least once, usually twice each day, freight trains
pulling 80-100 cars full of coal would pull in on the siding, or 'spur'
tracks; the diesel engines would get unhooked from the cars of coal
and then go on their way; a different engine marked 'Commonwealth Edison'
pulled into place, hooked up the 80-100 cars full of coal which had
just arrived from West Virginia, and begin pushing them up an incline,
one at a time. As each coal car reached the top of the incline, some
sort of mechanical contraption would put its 'fingers' around the coal
car, lift it a little in the air and tip it upside down; the coal
would (because of gravity) pour out of the up-ended coal car and fall
into a pit below it, where conveyor belts would push it around into
large piles; other conveyor belts would in turn cart it off to the
several furnaces inside the large gothic building. Then the now-emptied
coal car was tapped or shoved by the car behind it; the empty car
would roll down the the other side of the incline where other empty
cars sat waiting; a new car would take its place at the top of the
incline and the process would be repeated. Over and over, all day.
We kids, all 10- 12-year old guys, had a 'clubhouse' nearby where we
would gather from time to time to watch the action, observe the fast
moving trains traveling between steel mills (Gary), oil-refineries
(Whiting), the east coast and elsewhere. Because the intersection of
Calumet Avenue, Indianapolis Boulevard, and 110th Street (into the
Indiana side by three or four blocks) had around ten railroad tracks
crossing the street(s) a few feet apart from each other, and at
various angles, the three or four railroads going through that
crossing operated 'union' signals and crossing gates at various places
in the mess of it, and they also employed a person (I seem to remember
a fat, enormous lady quite often) to also work there as a crossing
guard. Two or three minutes before a train (sometimes fast moving,
sometimes crawling at a snail's pace) reached that five-pointed
intersection and the half block north of it, the fat lady would flip
some switches in the little house where she worked, and as the bells
started ringing and the lights would flash and the gates go down, she
would waddle out of her house with a red flag and another stop/go
sign; hold up her sign and flag to direct traffic one way or another
around the area. Since a dozen or so fast moving trains coming
through that intersection was normal each day, and an equal number of
very slow, almost crawling through trains as well, the intersection
was always a mess. The Whiting (passenger) Train Station was also by
there, where New York Central, B&O and Pennsylvania RR passenger
trains would stop to take on or discharge human passengers, so the
fat lady was quite busy all day as I recall.
Motorists unfortunate enough to drive through that labrinyth would as
often as not 'bless' that fat lady as she was trying to get them to
stop. For trains going westward to Chicago, the motorists would see
if they could 'beat the train' by driving fast like bats out of hell
driving down Indianapolis toward the next crossing, which occurred at
103rd Street (in Chicago, on the Illinois side). Sometimes they made
it, other times a fast moving train going _east_ got to 103rd Street
before they could get that far, so they had to wait down there
Behind the Lever Brothers plant (remember Rinso Laundry Soap? 'Rinso
White and Rinso Blue' as the lady would sing on the television ads) at
that intersection was a dirt road referred to as 108th Street which
ran from Calumet Avenue to the backside of the electrical generator
plant and evenutally connected up with some Chicago street back there
somewhere. The motorists who could not get onto Indianapolis in time
would sometimes go barreling down that dirt road behind the electrical
generator plant hoping to beat the trains, etc. If they 'got stuck'
behind one of the slow moving 80-car Edison coal trains pulling
through, woe was them! Now you will be a half-hour for sure getting
through that intersection. But we kids always knew better than the fat
lady or the bells and lights and gates. So off we would run to our
clubhouse where we could hide, smoke cigarettes, look at forbidden
magazines and best off all, go examine the automatic hopper which
dumped the coal out of the railroad cars one by one into the
bottomless pit below.
One day a sort of stern older man found us around the coal hopper.
"I have told you little bastards a dozen times not to play around
here. It is dangerous! Now I am going to take you inside to see the
superintendent." He marched us inside the gothic fortress to an upper
level (connected with 'cat walks' and stairs to the ground level where
there was an office with windows looking out over the work area below,
one or two women at work, a drinking fountain and I suspect the only
air conditioner in the place (one of the older, window-mounted units.)
He told the super about 'these little bastards, I have caught them
several times playing around by the (whatever the big machine was
called).' The super warned us again; 'if you guys want to look around
in here, come and ask me to show you; _never_ go around by yourself.'
He gave us quite a tour, walking around on the various cat-walks
looking at the furnaces below, and since it was about time to change
shifts, I noticed how presently a new group of men wandered in and
each of them stood by one of the furnaces and began doing what the man
who had been there before had been doing. Although the process was
mostly automated, where each furnace had a conveyor belt going up to
it loaded with coal which would now and then push a few chunks of
coal into the furnace, the men working there had shovels and had to
now and again scoop some coal off the floor which had fallen from the
conveyor belt and scoop it in the furnace also. They also tended to
the water supply (again, almost entirely automated) but occassionally
would open or close a valve which filled the 'kettle' above the
furnace with water. These 'kettles' above each furnace were somehow
or another plumbed 'in series' to each other and a large steam turbine
at one end of the room. The high pressure steam caused the turbine to
spin, which in turn created electricity. It all went off to a grid
somewhere else in the area which went out to serve the citizens of
Chicago. There was a humongous looking 'lightening rod' mounted in the
ground nearby and the super explained, "now and again, if you guys are
around the area when there is a very bad electrical storm, watch how
lightening in the sky is 'attracted' by what these workers are doing here."
He pulls this old-fashioned looking pocket watch out of his vest
pocket and announces to us, "it is time to change shifts. Will you
guys help me with the whistle?" Well, of course you know we
would. Mid all the overhead plumbing which eventually ran to the
steam turnbine and the source of electricity there was a strap and a
chain hanging down out of the air. Attached to it up there somewhere
was a steam whistle, which tapped into the steam pipes at some point.
My friend, shorter than I, could barely reach the strap handle which
hung down there from several feet above it in the air, but I was able
to reach it okay. "Wait until I tell you, then pull down on the strap
and the chain, hold it a few seconds until I say so, then release it."
When he said to do it, I pulled the chain; my friend grabbed it when
it came down easily in his reach. Upon pulling the chain, the first
thing I heard was a loud 'whoosh' sound as steam started escaping and
then after a second or two, the whistle started tooting. After about
five or ten seconds, the super said to let it go which we did. The
chain and strap jumped back into the air on its own from some sort of
spring loaded tension in it, and the whistle quit sounding. About half
the men on the work floor (the ones who had been there earlier) handed
over their shovels or scoops or whatever tools they were using to the
other man who had 'relieved' them, and headed for the door. Like most
10-12 year old kids, we were quite thrilled to have made that happen.
Looking out the window in the super's office, we saw the fruit of our
whistle-pulling labor. Guys were getting in their cars and driving out
onto Indianpolis Boulevard to go home for another day.
I asked him if I could call my grandpa who would have gotten home by
then and been wondering where I had gone. Super asked me, "Chicago or
Whiting?" I told him Whiting, he said "use the third button on that
phone". The phone had a rotary dial on it, two of the line buttons
were marked 'SOUth Chicago 8-2000' and one of the buttons was
marked 'Whiting 18'. I used Whiting 18 and told the familiar lady who
answered the number I wanted. Grandmother drove over and picked me up,
but as I and my friend were leaving, the super reminded me again, "you
guys are _not_ to get into stuff around here on your own. _Always_
come in the front door and ask for me. _Never_ just wander around by
the coal hoppers or anything else." One thing I noticed there, not
only that day, but earlier and later as well, was an almost continuous
haze of coal-dust in the air, at least on the working floor, but not
up above in the super's office, where the air conditioning unit seemed
to remove most of the dust.
I went there a couple more times, taking friends of mine to meet this
nice man (the super); we abandoned our 'club house' since it did not
seem like fun any longer (having seen the real thing up close), and
once when I was 14 or so, we went to the 99th Street beach to swim; a
bad storm came up, the lifeguard made -EVERYONE- get out of the water,
and as the skies darkened, I looked over to the southeast at the old
gothic fortress and saw bolts of lightening in the sky aiming at it
and understood why the lightning rod on the side was so important.
Sometime that summer or maybe the next one I went once again to meet
the super; I asked for him by name (although I have now forgotten his
name) and the lady who answered me over the intercom from the office
to the downstairs lobby said sort of casually, "oh, Mr. (name), well
he is no longer here. He died about a year ago, of lung cancer." I
really would think all those filthy coal-driven turbines would be
long gone by now. PAT]