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Coal-fired electricity and the environment


Coal is defined as a readily combustible rock containing more than 50% by weight of carbon. Its other constituents include hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, ash and sulphur. Some of the undesirable chemical constituents include chlorine and sodium. Coal is converted to electricity by being burned in a furnace with a boiler with the boiler water heated until it becomes steam. The steam is then used to spin turbines and generators to create electricity. It has adverse effect on the environment as well as coal plant workers. Coal remains the cheapest, reliable, accessible, abundant and easy-to-transport source of energy for mankind. The attraction to coal to generate electricity for developing and developed countries on the one hand and the need to moderate its impact on the environment on the other hand, as driven by emerging realities, is the focus of the column for the week.

According to an article done by Joby Warrick in the October 16, 2015 edition of the Washington Post, the world’s hunger for cheap electricity is complicating efforts to combat climate change. In North America lies America’s biggest coal deposit, a 100 foot thick slab of brittle black rock spanning an area the size of Rhode Island. Just a dozen nearby mines, scattered across a valley known as the Powder River Basin, contain enough coal to meet the country’s electricity needs for decades. Burning all of it will release more than 450 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, more than all greenhouse gas emissions from all sources since year 2000. The Obama administration is seeking to curb the United States’ appetite for the basin’s coal, which scientists say must remain mostly in the ground to prevent a disastrous warming of the planet. Yet each year, nearly half a billion tons of this U.S. owned fuel are hauled from the region’s vast strip mines and millions of tons are shipped overseas for other countries to burn. Government and industry reports predict a surge in exports of Powder River coal over the next decade, at a time when climate experts are warning of an urgent need to reduce coal burning to prevent global temperatures from soaring. Each shipment highlights what critics describe as a hypocrisy underlying U.S. climate policy. While boasting of pollution cuts at home, the United States is facilitating the sale of large quantities of government owned coal abroad. “We’re a fossil-fuel exporting superpower that goes around lecturing the rest of the world about cutting emissions,” said Paul Bledsoe, who was an adviser on climate change during the Clinton administration. “The United States is reducing its domestic coal use and then simply exporting some of those emissions abroad.”

The production of electricity is the leading source of man-made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the global demand for electricity, particularly in developing nations, will only grow. Coal accounts for 40 percent of the electricity produced globally and more in China and India. The Obama administration has pledged ambitious cuts in carbon pollution over the next 15 years, but that does not reflect emissions from coal and other fuels sold to nations in Asia, Europe and North Africa. Because of accounting procedures approved by diplomats during past climate negotiations, countries are responsible only for emissions that occur within their borders.

The 5,400MW Belchatow Coal fired Power Plant in Poland courtesy AFP

The 5,400MW Belchatow Coal fired Power Plant in Poland courtesy AFP

Despite growing attention on cleaner energy, two-thirds of the world’s electricity is still produced by burning fossil fuels, mostly coal, a proportion that hasn’t budged for 35 years. Emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants have more than doubled since 1980 as the world’s demand for electricity keeps rising according to the International Energy Agency. Over 1.3 billion people around the world have no access to electricity. 40% of the world’s electricity was generated by coal in the year 2012. In 1980, a little more than 8 million gigawatt-hours (GWh) were generated around the world. By 2012, the output nearly tripled as the global population increased and developing countries had a greater demand for electricity. That same year, coal was burnt in order to generate 9.2 million gigawatt-hours. Of all the fossil fuels, coal releases the largest amount of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour of electricity and heat produced, and it remains by far the most used fuel. In 2012, coal was responsible for 72 percent of electric sector emissions but the growth in the demand for coal has slowed over the last three years.

Nigeria has a huge deposit of coal and plans to increase its exploitation for electricity generation. 45% of Nigerians presently have no access to electricity. Clean coal technology, now available, minimizes emission without going afoul of emission threshold and standards. If properly harnessed according to Nigeria’s immediate past minister of power, coal alone can generate about 5,000MW of electricity for the country.  In Poland, is one of the biggest thermal generating power plants in the world; The Belchatow

Coal-fired power plant that generates 5,400MW of electricity. Nigeria needs to harness this abundant energy resource particularly, in advancing electricity generation for its inhabitants, one that currently stands at less than 5,000MW but in doing so, the country needs to pay attention to the environment. This is the balancing act between coal-fired electricity and the environment.

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