New report: Coal-to-liquids not an easy answer

May 20, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.

Coalfield politicians love to pain coal-to-liquids technology as an easy and patriotic answer to our nation’s dependence on foreign oil.  But a new report from the National Research Council explains that, while coal-to-liquids might be part of a long-term answer, it’s far from an easy one.

The report is available online here or here (depending on whether you want to pay for the .pdf file or read it free online) and there’s a press release summarizing the findings here.

In short, the report concluded:

Liquid fuels from biomass and coal have the potential to reduce petroleum fuel use and CO2 emissions in the U.S. transportation sector over the next 25 years. Even with abundant resources in biomass and coal, however, substantial investments in research, development, and commercial demonstration projects will be needed to produce these alternative liquid fuels in an environmentally conscious way, and at a level that could impact U.S. dependence on imported oil.

On coal specifically, the report found:

Coal, which can be converted into gasoline or diesel, exists in sufficient reserves in the U.S. to meet the nation’s needs for more than 100 years at current rates of coal consumption, mainly for electric power. It should not be assumed, however, that there will be enough coal mined to support the demands for both electrical power and transportation fuels. Providing coal-based liquid fuel for transportation would require significant increases in coal mining activities. The U.S. transportation sector consumes 14 million barrels of oil per day. If coal mining activities in the U.S. increase by 50 percent – an additional 580 million tons of coal mined each year – up to 3 million barrels of fuel per day could be produced. To achieve this, two or three new coal-to-fuel plants would need to be built each year over the next 20 years, the report says.

Without geologic storage of the CO2 produced in the conversion process, life-time greenhouse gas emissions from coal-based fuel would be about twice that of oil. With geologic storage, CO2 emissions would be nearly equivalent to those from oil. Coal-based fuel with CO2 emissions equivalent to petroleum-based fuels will be possible by 2020 only if geologic storage of carbon dioxide is demonstrated as safe and viable in the next five to six years, says the report. To do this, several commercial-scale facilities — demonstrating geologic carbon storage alone or in combination with the coal-to-liquid fuel technology — should be operating by 2015. As a relatively abundant resource, coal-based fuels could be cost-competitive with gasoline at oil prices around $60 to $70 per barrel. However, if a carbon price were set, the costs of coal-based fuels could rise significantly.

I’ve written before about what some experts say are the advantages of co-firing with coal and biomass, and this is what the National Research Council report had to say on that:

Although a relatively new technology, several combined coal-and-biomass demonstration plants are operating in Europe. This technology could be an important part of U.S. energy strategy, the report says, as it combines the environmental benefits of biomass with the relative abundance and lower costs of coal. According to the report, if the 550 million tons of biomass estimated to be available by 2020 were combined with coal (at a 60:40 ratio of coal energy to biomass energy), 60 billion gallons of gasoline equivalent could be produced each year, which equates to approximately 45 percent of annual U.S. gasoline usage. If CO2 produced in the conversion process is geologically stored, the greenhouse gas emissions of this combined fuel over its life cycle could be close to zero.

These combined coal-and-biomass plants are not yet available in the U.S., but if geologic carbon storage is developed by 2015, the first combination plants could be built by 2020, the report says. Assuming a 20 percent growth rate in construction, by 2035 the U.S. could produce 2.5 million barrels of gasoline equivalent per day from combined coal-and-biomass sources.

The National Research Council is part of the National Academy of Sciences, a group of private, nonprofit institutions that provide science advice under a congressional charter. There was an interesting explanation in the press release about the nature of this particular study:

This is the first of a series of reports to be released from the National Academies’ America’s Energy Future project, which was undertaken to stimulate and inform a constructive national dialogue about the nation’s energy future. Upcoming reports are ELECTRICITY FROM RENEWABLE RESOURCES, REALISTIC PROSPECTS FOR ENERGY EFFICIENCY IN THE UNITED STATES, and an overarching final report entitled, AMERICA’S ENERGY FUTURE: TECHNOLOGY AND TRANSFORMATION.

The America’s Energy Future project is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, BP America, Dow Chemical Company Foundation, Fred Kavli and the Kavli Foundation, GE Energy, General Motors Corp., Intel Corp., and the W.M. Keck Foundation. Support was also provided by the National Academies through the following endowed funds created to perpetually support the work of the National Research Council: Thomas Lincoln Casey Fund, Arthur L. Day Fund, W.K. Kellogg Foundation Fund, George and Cynthia Mitchell Endowment for Sustainability Science, and Frank Press Fund for Dissemination and Outreach.

A previous report by the Rand Corp. also outlined major hurdles that face liquid coal, and others — such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice have outlined why liquid coal is really not a good idea if you’re trying to actually do something about global warming. And the always excellent Joseph Romm at Climate Progress explained Why Coal to Liquid is a Dead End.

Here’s a summary from Earthjustice:

Liquid coal is not a viable solution to America’s energy needs. Here are some of the other big problems with using coal as fuel:

1) Liquid Coal is Not the Answer to Lower Emissions: Coal-based fuel would nearly double global warming pollution per gallon as compared with the petroleum-based fuels we use today. For example, using coal-based fuel in a Honda Civic would double that vehicle’s carbon dioxide emissions, making it equivalent to a Hummer H3 running on conventional gasoline.

2) Liquid Coal Production Could Destroy Ecosystems and Communities: Substituting 10 percent of our current oil use with liquid coal would mean 40 percent more coal mining. We already know the destructive effects of surface coal strip mining, include polluted air and water, as well ravaged landscapes. The most damaging is mountaintop removal coal mining that has already resulted in the destruction of hundreds of mountains and buried or polluted thousands of streams in Appalachia. Additionally, just producing liquid coal requires an inordinate amount of water — a resource especially scarce in the Western part of the country.

3) Liquid Coal is a Poor Investment: Just one liquid coal plant costs $7 billion dollars to build — and the American people could foot most the bill!  Moreover, every public or private dollar invested in liquid coal is one less dollar available for investment in efficient vehicles, improved transportation systems, smart growth, and sustainably-made renewable fuels.

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