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Where is coal headed?

Hank Hayes • May 27, 2019 at 8:00 AM

KINGSPORT – The long-term forecast for coal doesn’t look good, but there are bright spots, coal industry leaders at the recent Virginia Coal and Energy Alliance Conference (VCEA) were told.

“Coal just contributed 27 percent (to the power mix) last year,” said Charles Snavely, Kentucky secretary for Energy and Environment. “That’s a significant change from what was expected four years ago … clearly the effect of the low natural gas prices, increased competition from renewables and lack of demand in the country have had a more significant impact on the domestic utility market than expected a few years ago.

“My experience in the industry is that everything you expect to continue does not.”

Snavely pointed to a “dismal” U.S. Energy Information Administration forecast that said by 2050 coal will contribute only 19 percent to electricity generation, while solar power will contribute 15 percent.

“Closing plants has a cost,” Snavely added. “Energy efficiency programs have a cost. Who pays for that? The ratepayer … domestic markets are not a good option for coal in the near future.”

Still, Snavely stressed coal exports and work being done by the Trump administration are all very positive.

“Right now, coal depends more on research and technology than it has at any time in the past,” he told the conference. “The DOE (U.S. Department of Energy) is solidly behind development of additional ways to consume coal.”

VCEA Chairman J.P. Richardson, who is also vice president of Operations for Metinvest Coal, opened the conference by pointing out coal production numbers are almost the same as they were 40 years ago.

Ken Nemeth, Southern States Energy Board secretary and executive director, said the coal industry needs to do greater public outreach about what coal provides.

Lou Hrkman, deputy assistant secretary of Clean Coal and Carbon Management at the U.S. Department of Energy, said changes have occurred in the coal industry which now make delivery of carbon free fossil energy a possibility. He told conference attendees that CO2 knows no borders and pointed out that India adds more coal to its base every day. In China, he said, new coal plants are being built and will supply energy needs there for the next 50 to 60 years.

“The U.S. is not the problem,” he said of carbon emissions. “Technology developed by DOE and perfected by industry is making a difference. The challenge for renewables is that they are not reliable.”

Michelle Bloodworth with the American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy told coal industry leaders they are important to the future of energy.

“We need baseload resources to remain a part of our ‘all of the above’ (energy) strategy,” she said. “We need a level playing field for coal.”

In addition to VCEA, the conference was hosted by the Southern States Energy Board and the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research.

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