Coal is the world’s single largest fuel source for generating electricity and has been used as a fuel for thousands of years.
The International Energy Agency says that coal provided 41% of the world’s electricity in 2013, and 29% of the total global energy supply. China, the USA, India, Russia and Japan account for 77% of total global coal use, and in the UK 31% of our energy is met through coal.
And it’s because coal is cheap to buy, the infrastructure is easy to understand and to use, and as coal power stations can be “turned up” when demand for electricity peaks, they are extremely useful in times of peak demand – one large scale supercritical coal station can supply up to 600MW extra power, enough for over a quarter of a million homes.
But, whilst coal consumption continues to rise, particularly in developing economies, it’s now widely recognised that the carbon emissions from burning coal – and other fossil fuels – is having a considerable environmental impact on our planet. Many countries around the world are integrating increasing amounts of renewable energy generation to mitigate against emissions and move to a low carbon energy system.
When we rely on coal for so much of our power, and with a third of coal-fired power stations in the UK set to close as soon as 2016 in order to meet air-quality legislation, what will happen to the rest of our coal fired power plants?
Many are undergoing some sort of retrofit. Converting power stations to biomass, and introducing low carbon modifications and add-ons like selective non-catalytic reduction and selective catalytic reduction are all having an effect on limiting emissions and meeting international climate change targets. These measures keep essential coal powered stations online and generating whilst reducing their environmental impact.
The biomass conversion at Drax is a great example of how coal power stations can be retrofitted to become low carbon. Atkins is the technical services provider for Drax and we have worked with them for decades helping to maintain their units and more recently understand the effects of burning a different type of fuel to what the boiler was originally designed for.
In the near future, another way of keeping coal stations going will be through embracing the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology fitted onto thermal power plants so they can continue to operate and not break environmental laws [read David Few’s article here on CCS].
Of course, eventually, polluting coal power plants will be entirely phased out and replaced with technologies that are low-carbon or even carbon free. In the meantime, coal has an important role to play in the energy mix for the foreseeable future.
During the rest of this week we’ll be looking at a number of new technologies that could change the way energy is made, stored and used around the world, helping to show how our energy systems are being transformed and answer the question of where are we going to get our power from in the future. Innovating new ways of generating power and changing the way we use energy go hand in hand as we move towards a low carbon economy and face the challenges and opportunities around integrating new technologies into our power systems.