Coal continues to be the world’s fastest growing, least expensive and most reliable energy resource, supplying almost 50% of the U.S. and global electricity needs. When putting together an energy plan for the future, a balance is necessary to ensure reliability of available resources. Coal, as well as oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric and renewables (solar and wind) will all be necessary to provide affordable energy for our nation and the world.
Since 2000 the cost of generating electric power in the United States has increased by nearly 50%. As this “pain at the plug” continues, a question to consider is, “Does coal have a future in the production of electricity?” The United States is called the “Saudi Arabia” of coal, with almost 30% of the world’s supply found here. Perhaps a better way to answer the question is by asking, “Will coal be a player in the future?” Many say, “Yes, and with today’s technology, we can continue to use it with almost zero atmospheric emissions.”
For me to better understand our future energy needs and to see how coal can play a part in that energy balance, I recently took part in a legislative tour of Prairie State Generating Company’s facility in southwestern Illinois. Sponsored by Peabody Energy Corporation headquartered in St. Louis, the tour allowed us to get a firsthand look at modern day coal production and gave us ample opportunity to ask hard questions regarding coal and its usage. The tour itself took place in the Illinois Basin, one of our nation’s leading coal producing areas, an area covering 50,000 square miles and including most of Illinois, parts of Indiana and western Kentucky. The Illinois Basin contains the nation’s third largest reserve of coal.
Basically located in the middle of corn and soybean fields, the Prairie State Generating facility is hailed as being amongst the nation’s cleanest energy producing facilities. It gets its coal via conveyors from the coal mine located across the road from the generating plant, thereby negating the need for additional transportation. The Prairie State Generating facility has a 1,600 megawatt plant that is owned by eight non-profit utilities, with Peabody Energy owning 5%. We were told the generating plant, having come on line in 2012, invested more than $1 billion in environmental emissions control equipment. They said that owners’ focus is to deliver reliable electricity to all its members at a reasonable cost while maintaining proper protection of the environment. We saw firsthand their commitment to employee safety and to protecting the environment.
In addition, we learned that when monitoring air quality, there are four major pollutants to consider: nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and mercury levels. The facility we toured is in compliance with all federal and state requirements and has successfully removed 85% of nitrogen oxide, 98% of sulfur dioxide, 99% of all particulate matter, and 90% of all mercury from its emissions. Not only does this facility meet all permit requirements, but it actually exceeds them. After touring the generating plant and the nearby adjoining mine, I have no doubt that coal can and will have a significant place in our future energy resources, especially after seeing firsthand how efficient and environmentally compatible it is.
According to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and the United States Environmental Protection Agency, air quality in our nation has continued to improve and is today among the best in the world. With advanced technologies available to us, we are on target to see air quality continue to get even better; however, new federal standards recently proposed by the EPA on coal generating plants could be the costliest regulations ever mandated on any U.S. company in our nation’s history. Many believe that the EPA is acting outside its authority under the Clean Air Act in an attempt to rewrite energy policy and force a standard that is impossible to achieve, thus seeking to discredit and eliminate the use of coal.
The day we toured this facility, even under full plant generation, the air was so clean and clear we were able to see up to 30 miles away in all directions as we stood outside on the six story platform near the exhaust stack. So, once again, it appears the EPA is mandating a solution in search of a problem, without any consideration of the people.