Coalfired power plants

Coal is the world's most important and the most widely used fuel for generating electricity. According to the World Energy Council it provides 23% of total global primary energy demand and 38% of electricity production.1 Total world production of coal in 1999 was 4,343,151,000 tonnes, and consumption was 4,409,815,000 tonnes.

The importance of coal is reinforced by national statistics from the main global consumers. In the USA, coal-fired plants produce 51% of the nation's power. This dominance is expected to continue well into the twenty-first century. In China, coal-fired stations were generating 65% of the electricity in 1988, and by beginning of the twenty-first century 75% of the country's electricity came from fossil fuel, mostly coal. In India too, fossil fuel, again primarily coal, accounts for around 71% of installed capacity.

The major attraction of coal is its abundance. Significant deposits can be found in most parts of the world, from the USA to South Africa, across Europe, in many parts of Asia and in Australia. Exceptions exist, such as Japan and Taiwan, where resources are limited; these countries import vast quantities of coal. Among the continents, only South America and Africa -outside South Africa - have limited reserves.

According to the World Energy Council's 2001 Survey of Energy Resources, the proved recoverable world resources of bituminous coals, sub-bituminous coals and lignites amount to 984,453 Mtonnes. (Anthracite, the hardest coal, is rarely used for power generation when alternatives are available.) Figures for these reserves, broken down by coal type and by region, are given in Table 3.1.

Figures for proved reserves, such as those in Table 3.1, reflect the extent to which a resource has been surveyed rather than offering a measure of the actual amounts of coal that exist. Potential reserves greatly exceed the identified reserves, and estimates of the latter are usually conservative. At current consumption levels, proved reserves of coal can continue to provide energy for at least 200 years.

Coal is the cheapest of fossil fuels, another reason why it is attractive to power generators. However it is expensive to transport, so the best site for a coal-fired power plant is close to the mine that is supplying its fuel.

Coal is also the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, producing large quantities of ash, sulphurous emissions, nitrogen oxides (NOJ emissions and carbon dioxide, and releasing significant concentrations of trace metals. As a result the combustion of coal has been responsible for some of the worst

Table 3.1 Proved global coal reserves

Bituminous

Sub-bituminous

Lignite

Total

(Mtonnes)

(Mtonnes)

(Mtonnes)

Africa

55,171

193

3

55,367

North America

120,222

102,375

35,369

257,966

South America

7738

13,890

124

21,752

Asia

179,040

38,688

34,580

252,308

Europe

112,596

119,109

80,981

312,686

Middle East

1710

-

-

1710

Oceania

42,585

2046

38,033

82,664

Total

519,062

276,301

189,090

984,453

Source: World Energy Council, Survey of Energy Resources 2001.

Source: World Energy Council, Survey of Energy Resources 2001.

environmental damage, barring accidents, created by heavy industry anywhere in the world.

In consequence, coal has developed a bad environmental image. But developments since the 1980s aimed at controlling emissions from coal-fired plants, combined with new coal-burning technologies, mean that a modern coal-fired power plant can be built to meet the most stringent environmental regulations, anywhere in the world. Techniques for capturing sulphur, nitrogen emissions and ash are well established. The next challenge it to develop cost-effective ways of removing and storing carbon dioxide, for of all fossil fuels, coal produces the largest quantity of this greenhouse gas.

Modern coal-fired power plants, with emission-control systems, are more expensive than the older style of plant common before the mid-1980s. Even so, coal remains the cheapest way of generating power in many parts of the globe. Whatever the environmental constraints, the fuel will continue to provide a substantial proportion of the world's electricity for much of the coming century.

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