Dirty Pretty Rock

Coal is trashing the environment, but also lifting people from poverty. Like it or not, the fuel isn’t budging from the world’s energy mix.

Story by Keith Johnson
Photographs by Christopher Leaman

On a spring day in 2012, a Union Pacific train ground to a stop outside a sprawling construction site in Fulton, a blink-and-miss-it town in southwestern Arkansas. Piled high in the train’s 135 cars was the first batch of black coal from Wyoming, about 16,000 of the 2 million tons needed annually to feed the brand-new John W. Turk, Jr. Power Plant, set to go online within a few months. When officials from the Southwestern Electric Power Co. (SWEPCO) finally flipped the switch on this 600-megawatt,
$1.8 billion structure, it was unusual enough: That year, only four other coal-fired plants in the United States opened their doors. But the Turk plant represented something more, a genuine first of its kind in the country: an ultra-supercritical coal burner fitted with cutting-edge metal alloys that allow it to burn low-sulfur coal at exceedingly high temperatures and pressures.

That is to say, the Arkansas plant burns coal more efficiently than just about any of its 550-odd peers in the country. Packed with every sort of scrubber to clean up the nasty bits, Turk spits out fewer of the smoggy air pollutants and a lot less of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. It also can be fitted with new gear to capture greenhouse gas emissions, when such solutions become economically viable. Despite the sleek upgrades, it’s still a coal-fired plant, of course. Within its first full year in operation, Turk belched some 3.4 million metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, making it overnight one of Arkansas’s five biggest carbon polluters. Nevertheless, the plant bears little resemblance to the hulking, inefficient giants that have come to dominate the U.S. power sector in recent decades. Those old plants burn coal to generate electricity, but they do it badly. Most fuel shoveled into their giant boilers is turned into heat and smoke, and simply wasted; only about 33 percent of the coal is turned into power. For ultra-supercritical plants such as Turk, 40 percent of the coal becomes electricity. “It’s a totally different animal,” says Nick Akins, the president and chief executive officer of American Electric Power, SWEPCO’s parent company and one of the biggest utilities in the United States. “It’s like comparing a ’57 Chevy to today’s Corvette.” A different animal, perhaps, and one that—despite the fuel’s bad reputation—shows how the U.S. coal industry might be saved from extinction.

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In 2013, Barack Obama’s administration unveiled tough standards to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new coal-fired plants, and it is working on rules that would do the same for existing power plants. If the regulations were implemented, estimates the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), up to one-fifth of the country’s existing coal capacity could be pushed into retirement. These challenges have combined with the glut of cheap natural gas—which plummeted from a high of about $14 per million British thermal units in 2008 to just over $2 per million four years later—to make new coal-fired power plants a rarity in the United States.

Despite all this, coal not only remains the alpha in the U.S. electricity mix today—accounting for about 40 percent of the power generated in the country (at 27 percent, natural gas comes in second)—but it will be a fixture well into the future. The U.S. Department of Energy expects coal-fired plants to be as big in 2040 as clean technologies, such as wind and solar, will be.

Globally, more coal is mined, moved, and burned today than at any time in history. And, says the International Energy Agency (IEA), global coal consumption will only keep growing another 15 percent over the next quarter-century, thanks almost entirely to big and fast-growing economies in Asia.

Simply put: While the United States is just now finding ways to try to keep coal a viable part of its power system, the rest of the world is riding even greater technological advances to a brighter future for the dark fuel. China alone has about 50 plants that are at least as big as and more efficient than Arkansas’s Turk plant; Germany and Japan in the past decade have built several ultra-supercritical coal-fired plants as good as or better than American Electric Power’s finest. Still, all those gleaming plants, along with the inevitable controversies that surrounded their construction, underscore the fact that the world today faces two contradictory and interrelated challenges: While billions of poor people in the developing world need a lot more energy to pull them out of poverty and drive economic development, improve life expectancies, and bolster human health, the world also faces a looming and possibly existential threat from climate change—caused in large part by greenhouse gas emissions that are the bitter harvest of the world’s reliance on coal and other dirty fossil fuels over the past several centuries.

These twin imperatives will clash head-on in November and December this year, when world leaders meet in Paris to try to cobble together something they have never been able to achieve: a legally binding global agreement for all countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Coal has been both bane and blessing for the world for a millennium, and the black fuel will not go gently from its place atop the global energy mix.

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