Coal is more popular than ever as the cheapest fuel for generating electricity in the developing world, despite efforts by the Obama administration and environmentalists to limit its use.
That’s the conclusion of a report to be released Tuesday by the Manhattan Institute, a New York-based think tank. The report, “Not Beyond Coal,” was provided exclusively to The Washington Times.
While the Obama White House seeks to phase out the use of coal as the main source of electricity in the United States, developing countries like China are ratcheting up the demand for coal worldwide, making it the fastest-growing energy source since 1973, the report found.
“The world wants electricity. No other energy form is as versatile or as economically important,” said Robert Bryce, the author of the report. “No viable substitutes can match the low cost and massive scale of electricity production that is now provided by coal-fired generators.”
Moreover, coal has been essential for bringing an improved life to people in the most impoverished corners of the world. It has been instrumental in bringing electrical power and conveniences for the first time to nearly 1 billion people since 1990, he said.
“Coal remains an essential fuel to address ‘energy poverty,’ the lack of access to modern energy services such as electricity and clean cooking fuels,” he said. “The countries facing the most dire energy poverty also tend to be the ones that rely most heavily on coal to deal with that problem.”
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Since it was first used to generate electricity by Thomas Edison in a Manhattan central power station in 1882, coal has been the fuel of choice for creating the electrical currents that light up homes and businesses.
Despite its tarnished image, coal retains many advantages over other forms of energy. It remains the cheapest and most abundant fuel on earth, often can be mined locally, is not controlled by a cartel like OPEC and is not as expensive to extract or put to use as nuclear, natural gas, wind power, solar and other ways of producing electricity.
“No other energy source can currently match the black fuel when it comes to cost, scale and reliability,” Mr. Bryce said. But coal also is the biggest source worldwide of carbon dioxide emissions, the leading greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.
“Given coal’s pivotal role in providing electricity to poor and wealthy countries alike, it is highly unlikely that global carbon dioxide emissions will fall anytime soon,” he said, suggesting the global efforts should be focused on using coal more efficiently rather than eliminating its use.
Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy defended the administration’s bid to curb coal-fired carbon emissions in the U.S. private sector while the rest of the world is increasing them.
“We know a global problem needs a global solution. Although we can’t act for other nations, when the United States of America leads, other nations follow. We set the bar for solutions. We set the pace for progress,” she told Resources for the Future recently.
Ms. McCarthy said she hopes U.S. utilities, in switching out of coal to natural gas and other less carbon-intensive fuels, will use the opportunity to innovate and repeat the success of U.S. businesses years ago in finding safe substitutes for chemicals that once threatened the ozone layer.
China is driving global demand for coal and is the biggest market for coal worldwide, despite Beijing’s pledge to curb greenhouse gases. China brought electricity and an improved life to hundreds of millions of people in recent decades by deploying its abundant coal resources, but it has paid a price as the coal plants have generated a thick haze of sulfur dioxide emissions in its cities.
While China, India and other emerging nations have been the fastest-growing consumers of coal, developed countries ranging from Poland and Germany to Japan and South Korea also have been turning to coal either to wean themselves off dependence on energy imports or as a replacement for idled nuclear power plants.
Coal currently produces 40 percent of the world’s electricity, and demand for coal is expected to continue growing briskly by 37 percent through 2040, according to the International Energy Agency.
Despite efforts by environmentalists to stigmatize the use of coal, many energy experts say it has played a heroic role in lifting millions of people out of poverty in the emerging world.
“The importance of coal in the global energy mix is now the highest since 1971. It remains the backbone of electricity generation and has been the fuel underpinning the rapid industrialization of emerging economies, helping to raise living standards and lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty,” said Fatih Birol, chief economist at the IEA.