Coal and the future of Energy

Coal and the future of Energy

While coal-fired power plants have been hit hard by regulations in the United States, coal has emerged as a very important source of energy elsewhere.

High-efficiency low emission (HELE) coal-fired power plants are being built around the world, especially in Asia.

About 250 GW of HELE capacity is already online, 90% in Asia and the remaining 10% in Europe. The U.S. only has one HELE plant online.

Another 88 GW of HELE plants is under construction, mostly in China and Japan.

HELE plants, also known as ultra-supercritical plants, because they operate at very high temperatures and pressures, have taken advantage of advances in metallurgy with the potential for even higher temperatures and pressures.

HELE plants operate at very high efficiencies, e.g., 47%, compared with the previous generation of coal-fired power plants, e.g., 35%.

Chart from IEA Clean Coal Center, London England. (Y-axis in grams)

HELE plants with the latest control technologies have approximately the same emissions, other than CO2, as do natural gas combined cycle plants.

The Waigaoqiao HELE plant in China is one of the most modern and has been able to improve its efficiency to 47.8% LHV. Even this plant, however, wouldn’t meet EPA’s regulation requiring that CO2 emissions not exceed 1,400 pounds per MWh.

The Waigaoqiao HELE plant emits slightly over 700 grams per kWh of CO2, which is about 1,600 pounds per MWh, so not even the most efficient coal-fired plant in the world can meet the United States EPA’s regulations.

If the EPA regulations were imposed on the world, they would deny billions of people access to inexpensive electricity. In fact, it would require an additional huge improvement in efficiency, off the chart, to achieve 635 grams of CO2 emissions, the equivalent of 1,400 pounds per MWh.

Over half the world’s population is in Asia where there is a tremendous need for electricity, and the countries in this region are turning to HELE plants using coal to supply people with electricity.

China is offering financial and technical assistance to Asian countries to build HELE plants. 

This has geopolitical connotations as it is part of China’s initiative to supplant the United States as the world’s economic and military leader in Asia.

Many countries lack natural gas and must import LNG. While natural gas is cheap at under $3.00 per million BTU in the United States, it would be expensive for many developing countries to import LNG at around twice that cost. 

HELE plants using coal, frequently available locally, represents the low-cost, environmentally friendly way to proceed.


HELE plants are being constructed around the world to provide electricity to the billions of people who currently live in poverty without access to electricity.

Climate regulations to curtail CO2 emissions would deny access to electricity to those who are living in darkness and poverty. 

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5 Replies to “Coal and the future of Energy”

  1. This is a complex subject – with several technological options are available for power plant operators. These include:
    Co-firing coal with sustainable biomass or selected waste fuels can be used in some HELE plants – reducing emissions and assisting plants in meeting emission targets.
    And if CO2 can be captured, purified and transported by pipeline – it can be used in enhanced oil and gas recovery. projects.
    There are also circulating fluidised bed combustion plants that are now using supercritical and ultra-supercritical technologies – these should be developed throughout the world to replace older plants (improving efficiencies and reducing emissions/kWh).

    • Thanks for your comments.
      The important issue is how to generate enough electricity to meet the world’s needs: Especially the needs of people in the poorest countries. Wind and solar can’t, but coal, which is widely abundant and cheap, can.
      Prohibiting the use of coal is a terrible decision based on bad science.
      To your point, we should be replacing older coal-fired power plants that have low efficiencies of 35% with new HELE plants but we can’t because of EPA regulations aimed at cutting CO2 emissions.
      I’m afraid that capturing and sequestering large quantities of CO2 emissions is unworkable though small amounts of CO2 are being captured and used for EOR.

  2. For the poor people all around the world there is a double setback: 1.Denial of increase in available electricity and 2) Denial of the use of coal for power generation. All for the reason that fossil fuel plants produce CO2 emissions. Atmospheric CO2 has benefited the world’s biosphere enormously, with higher yielding crops that use less water for irrigation. Electricity availability would greatly enhance the standard of living for all people, benefiting the poor the most. To enact laws which prevent these improvements is more than just plain dumb, it is criminal.

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