The U.S. and world transportation infrastructure allows coal to provide a reliable and economic fuel source. A key component of the nation’s energy supply chain, and its ability to export to consumers abroad, is its inland waterway system. The U.S. has averaged over 300 million tons of waterborne coal commerce per year since 1993 (US Army Corps of Engineers, 2012). The marine transportation system consists of 25,320 miles of navigable waterways, including rivers, bays, and channels, and many thousands of additional miles on the Great Lakes Saint Lawrence Seaway System and deep-sea routes (U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime, 2011). There are also approximately 12,000 miles of inland waterway navigable channels, and 240 lock sites (Foundation, 2014). A standard dry cargo barge moves as much coal as over 70 trucks. These barges are transported in 15-barge tows, which equates to over 1,050 trucks. The benefits and future use of these waterways have been recognized by the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) identification of 18 marine corridors, eight projects, and six initiatives for further expansion as part of “America’s Marine Highway Program” (U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime, 2011).
Another main component of the coal transportation infrastructure is the freight railroad system. As of 2014, U.S. freight railroads operated almost 160,000 route-miles of track with nearly 26,000 locomotives in service (Association of American Railroads, 2015). No single commodity is more important to America’s railroads than coal, which accounted for almost 40 percent of rail tonnage in 2014 (Association of American Railroads, 2015). Since deregulation pursuant to the Staggers Act of 1980, the rail industry is now able to upgrade equipment and routes that benefit the future demands for fuels such as coal. Rail carriers are not dependent on taxpayer funds for expansion. From 1980 through 2014, railroads spent $575 billion on renewal, maintenance, and expansion (Association of American Railroads, 2015) and are expected to spend an estimated $29 billion in 2015. Through technological advances, innovative service, competitive rates, and aggressive reinvestment programs, railroads have shown their willingness and ability to provide high value transportation service to coal shippers throughout the country (Association of American Railroads, 2015).
On a BTU basis, there are larger remaining coal resources than natural gas or oil reserves in the United States (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2015). As of 2014, the demonstrated reserve base was estimated to contain 480 billion short tons (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2015). With constantly improving mining techniques and technologies, some surface mines are now able to recover more than 90 percent from the undisturbed deposit (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2015).
As of 2011, the total proven recoverable reserves of coal in the world were estimated at 979.8 billion short tons (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2015). The current coal contribution to global primary energy consumption (30.1 percent) is the highest since 1970. In Southeast Asia alone, demand is expected to grow by 4.8 percent a year through 2035 as the region turns to coal to fuel its growing energy needs (World Coal Association, 2015).
U.S. coal mines provide the energy resources and raw materials that are essential to a growing economy. As of 2012, U.S. mining contributed over $225 billion to the economy. For the U.S. to remain competitive internationally, it is imperative to utilize our most accessible and economic fuel source.
Coal is generally viewed as a fuel simply burned to create steam for power generation. Yes, conventional steam production is the main use, but evolving technologies have allowed coal to be more efficient and environmentally friendly. By improving the current average global efficiency rate of coal-fueled power plants from 33 percent to 40 percent through the development of more advanced off-the-shelf technology, two gigatons per year of CO2 emissions can be cut immediately, while still allowing affordable energy for economic development and poverty reduction (World Coal Association, 2015).
Coal is also used worldwide to produce synthetic natural gas (or “syngas”), which is then used to create electricity in IGCC units. While more expensive than conventional steam, IGCC units can achieve greater efficiencies. By adding a ‘shift’ reaction, additional hydrogen can be produced, and the carbon monoxide (CO) produced during the gasification process can be converted to CO2, which is captured and stored or used in industrial processes. IGCC efficiencies typically reach the mid-40 percent range, although plant designs offering around 50 percent efficiencies are achievable (World Coal Association, 2015).
Coal is not only used to generate electricity, it is also used in many manufacturing and industrial applications. Steel is used in every major industry: energy, construction, automotive and transportation, infrastructure, as well as packaging and machinery. The steel industry is heavily dependent upon coal, as 70 percent of the steel produced today requires coal for production (World Coal Association, 2015). By 2050, steel use is projected to increase to 1.5 times its present levels in order to meet the demands of the world’s growing population (World Steel Association, 2015).
“Energy independence” is a term that has become ubiquitous, as U.S. dependence on foreign oil has increased. Domestic coal offers a viable alternative to foreign oil through coal-to-liquids (CTL) technologies. There are currently two proven methods: Direct and Indirect Liquefaction. An array of products can be made via these processes, including ultra-clean petroleum and diesel, as well as synthetic waxes, lubricants, chemical feedstock, and alternative liquid fuels such as methanol and dimethyl ether (World Coal Association, 2015). An example of this technology’s potential exists in South Africa, where coal-derived fuels have been produced since 1955 and the coal-to-liquids industry continues to flourish today (World Coal Association, 2015). Here, CTL fuels are used in cars and other vehicles and, in the case of the South African company Sasol, have been approved and planned for use in commercial jets (World Coal Association, 2015). Coal-derived fuels are sulfur-free, low in particulates, and low in nitrogen oxides (World Coal Association, 2015).
The energy independence discussion starts and ends with coal. On a BTU basis in the U.S., there are larger remaining coal resources than natural gas or oil combined. The existing and future coal transportation infrastructure, billions of tons in demonstrated recoverable reserves, and the versatility of coal has proven it well equipped to meet the demands of the future. Coal keeps hard-earned money in our communities and will allow America to prosper for our grandchildren.
Coal was the largest source of energy in 2014 (39%). Fuel diversity including coal is pivotal to a reliable power system. #KeepTheLightsOn