Guest Essays, Opinion

Guest essay: Coal still important globally

by Syd S. Peng

 Much of the world is now in the grips of an energy crisis. Economies coming back to life following the shock of the pandemic are driving energy demand far faster than supply can respond. This crisis is coming at a particularly interesting moment as the world’s leaders recently gathered in Scotland to attempt to chart a path forward on global climate action.

While many policymakers expected to be thinking solely about emissions targets, the world is now largely focused on the reliability, affordability and security of energy supplies. When energy prices soar — as they have in Europe — or fuel runs short, as it has in China, keeping the lights on, homes warm and the gears of industry turning always takes precedent. It’s that reality that needs to inform how American policymakers think about our energy future.

The preceding weeks have been filled with handwringing over what Congress will or won’t do to pursue President Biden’s climate agenda with West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin right at the center of that fight. But for all the focus on our domestic emissions targets and the speed at which we deploy renewable energy or electric vehicles, the far bigger and more important context is the speed and capability of the world to do the same. This seems to be context Sen. Manchin understands better than many of his colleagues.

Climate action must be global, and the world needs the right tools to achieve it. As the International Energy Agency has made abundantly clear, fully half the technologies needed to meet global emissions-reduction targets either remain in their infancy, in need of significant support, or are not yet commercially viable. U.S. leadership on energy innovation and demonstration — particularly with fossil fuels and heavy industries, like steel, cement and petrochemical production — is critical to getting the world on the right track. And that’s where West Virginia can lead.

In the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) held in Glasgow, Scotland, countries only agreed to “phase down” coal. Yet the current huge price increase in coal is a clear evidence that coal is still needed in the U.S.

West Virginia’s storied history with coal, its world-class workforce and the innovative work now happening in our state to advance next-generation coal and carbon-capture technology is more important than ever.

As the past few months have proven, coal is essential and will remain a fixture of the global energy equation for decades to come. Coal generation in the U.S. is up 22% year over year and is increasingly competitive against soaring natural gas prices. Globally, coal remains the world’s leading fuel for electricity generation and the IEA expects coal demand to jump this year, reaching an all-time high. While coal plant retirements continue in the U.S. and Europe, coal plant additions in Asia mean the global coal fleet is growing, not shrinking.

China, which produces and uses more coal than the rest of the world combined, is leaning on its miners to see it through the current energy shock. In fact, China is rethinking its approach to the energy transition, revisiting efforts to tighten coal production and reemphasizing the importance of energy security.

China’s energy trajectory is indicative of the complexity of the energy transition. China is in fact leading the world in the deployment of renewable generating capacity, but it is doing so on the shoulders of coal generation, not in place of it.

The irreplaceable role of coal in China, India and here in the U.S. this year as a backstop to grid reliability and affordability is an important reminder that effective global emissions reduction will come through technology — technology largely focused on the fuels and infrastructure that meet the lion’s share of global energy needs.

Upending our own energy mix, sacrificing our coal industry and threatening the reliability and affordability of our energy supply is simply not a path forward the world will follow, nor should it. As Sen. Manchin has said on numerous occasions, the right approach to global energy leadership is through innovation, not elimination.

Syd S. Peng is the Charles E. Lawall Chair in Mining Engineering at West Virginia University.