The potential rise of clean coal technology has been hampered by its costly nature. Originally intended to prevent greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere, there have been few real applications of this technology. The most promising clean coal development was the potential to make hydrogen from water by using coal and then burying the carbon dioxide by-product and burning the hydrogen, a form of carbon capture and sequestration.
In effect, clean coal technology was supposed to give the coal industry a lifeline into the future of cleaner fuels. In reality, the costs associated with clean coal increase the price of generation by up to 80 percent and cuts efficiency by 30 percent. Initial funding from the federal stimulus bill in 2009 offered $3.4 billion for carbon capture and sequestration. The money, however, soon ran out as costs escalated.
In Mississippi, for example, a clean coal technology project already estimated at $6.2 billion went so over budget that the South Mississippi Electric Power Association withdrew from the project. The coal plant was already the costliest fossil-fuel power plant ever engineered. In February 2015, the Department of Energy similarly pulled its support on a $1.1 billion clean coal project, called FutureGen, in Illinois.
The growth of cheap natural gas has been especially worrisome for the coal industry. In the United States, Arch Coal, one of the largest coal companies, is about to be delisted from the New York Stock Exchange. Even China, a country that traditionally burns half the world’s coal, has been increasingly switching to natural gas and renewable energy. Between January and April of 2015, China’s coal demand fell 8 percent.
Even with so much bad news, coal’s share of primary-energy use in the world is unlikely to fall below 25 percent, from a peak of 30 percent in 2010, by 2035. For many countries, coal still means cheap and reliable energy where such a thing is rare. In such countries, regulations aren’t driving up the price of generation ensuring a continuous supply of affordable energy.