The Future of Coal

Published: March 2007


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An interdisciplinary MIT faculty group examined the role of coal in a world where constraints on carbon dioxide emissions are adopted to mitigate global climate change. This follows “The Future of Nuclear Power” which focused on carbon dioxide emissions-free electricity generation from nuclear energy and was published in 2003. This report, the future of coal in a carbon-constrained world, evaluates the technologies and costs associated with the generation of electricity from coal along with those associated with the capture and sequestration of the carbon dioxide produced coal-based power generation. Growing electricity demand in the U.S. and in the world will require increases in all generation options (renewables, coal, and nuclear) in addition to increased efficiency and conservation in its use. Coal will continue to play a significant role in power generation and as such carbon dioxide management from it will become increasingly important. This study, addressed to government, industry and academic leaders, discusses the interrelated technical, economic, environmental and political challenges facing increased coal-based power generation while managing carbon dioxide emissions from this sector.

Generous financial support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Energy Foundation, the Better World Fund, the Norwegian Research Council, and the MIT Office of the Provost is gratefully acknowledged.

Presentation of the MIT Coal Study

A presentation, sponsored by Resources for the Future, was held on March 14, 2007. The co-chairs of this study, John M. Deutch, Institute Professor at MIT and a member of the Resources for the Future Board of Directors, and Ernest J. Moniz, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems at MIT, discussed the report and took questions from the audience. Audio of the seminar is available on the Resources for the Future website.

News Release


March 14, 2007

Washington, DC Leading academics from an interdisciplinary Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) panel issued a report today that examines how the world can continue to use coal, an abundant and inexpensive fuel, in a way that mitigates, instead of worsens, the global warming crisis. The study, “The Future of Coal Options for a Carbon Constrained World,” advocates the U.S. assume global leadership on this issue through adoption of significant policy actions.

Led by co-chairs Professor John Deutch, Institute Professor, Department of Chemistry, and Ernest J. Moniz, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems, the report states that carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is the critical enabling technology to help reduce CO2 emissions significantly while also allowing coal to meet the world’s pressing energy needs.

According to Dr. Deutch, “As the world’s leading energy user and greenhouse gas emitter, the U.S. must take the lead in showing the world CCS can work. Demonstration of technical, economic, and institutional features of CCS at commercial scale coal combustion and conversion plants will give policymakers and the public confidence that a practical carbon mitigation control option exists, will reduce cost of CCS should carbon emission controls be adopted, and will maintain the low-cost coal option in an environmentally acceptable manner.”

Dr. Moniz added, “There are many opportunities for enhancing the performance of coal plants in a carbon-constrained world higher efficiency generation, perhaps through new materials; novel approaches to gasification, CO2 capture, and oxygen separation; and advanced system concepts, perhaps guided by a new generation of simulation tools. An aggressive R&D effort in the near term will yield significant dividends down the road, and should be undertaken immediately to help meet this urgent scientific challenge.”

Key findings in this study:

  • Coal is a low-cost, per BTU, mainstay of both the developed and developing world, and its use is projected to increase. Because of coal’s high carbon content, increasing use will exacerbate the problem of climate change unless coal plants are deployed with very high efficiency and large scale CCS is implemented.
  • CCS is the critical enabling technology because it allows significant reduction in CO2 emissions while allowing coal to meet future energy needs.
  • A significant charge on carbon emissions is needed in the relatively near term to increase the economic attractiveness of new technologies that avoid carbon emissions and specifically to lead to large-scale CCS in the coming decades. We need large-scale demonstration projects of the technical, economic and environmental performance of an integrated CCS system. We should proceed with carbon sequestration projects as soon as possible. Several integrated large-scale demonstrations with appropriate measurement, monitoring and verification are needed in the United States over the next decade with government support. This is important for establishing public confidence for the very large-scale sequestration program anticipated in the future. The regulatory regime for large-scale commercial sequestration should be developed with a greater sense of urgency, with the Executive Office of the President leading an interagency process.
  • The U.S. government should provide assistance only to coal projects with CO2 capture in order to demonstrate technical, economic and environmental performance.
  • Today, IGCC appears to be the economic choice for new coal plants with CCS. However, this could change with further RD&D, so it is not appropriate to pick a single technology winner at this time, especially in light of the variability in coal type, access to sequestration sites, and other factors. The government should provide assistance to several “first of a kind” coal utilization demonstration plants, but only with carbon capture.
  • Congress should remove any expectation that construction of new coal plants without CO2 capture will be “grandfathered” and granted emission allowances in the event of future regulation. This is a perverse incentive to build coal plants without CO2 capture today.
  • Emissions will be stabilized only through global adherence to CO2 emission constraints. China and India are unlikely to adopt carbon constraints unless the U.S. does so and leads the way in the development of CCS technology.
  • Key changes must be made to the current Department of Energy RD&D program to successfully promote CCS technologies. The program must provide for demonstration of CCS at scale; a wider range of technologies should be explored; and modeling and simulation of the comparative performance of integrated technology systems should be greatly enhanced.

About The MIT study: A group of MIT faculty has undertaken a series of interdisciplinary studies about how the U.S. and the world would meet future energy demand without increasing emissions of greenhouse gases. The first study, “The Future of Nuclear Power,” appeared in 2003.

Generous financial support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Energy Foundation, the Better World Fund, Norwegian Research Council, and the MIT Office of the Provost is gratefully acknowledged. Shell provided additional support for part of MIT’s studies in China.

CONTACT: Deb Colbert (TSD)

Study Group Participants

Department of Political Science, MIT

Department of Chemical Engineering, MIT

Institute Professor
Department of Chemistry, MIT

Alfred P. Sloan School of Management, MIT

Visiting Scientist, Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, MIT
Carbon Management Program
Energy & Environment Directorate
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, MIT

Alfred P. Sloan School of Management, MIT

Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics and Management
Department of Economics and Alfred P. Sloan School of Management, MIT
Director, Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research

Department of Chemical Engineering, MIT

Director, Industrial Performance Center
Department of Nuclear Engineering, MIT

Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems
Department of Physics, MIT
Director, Laboratory for Energy and the Environment

Department of Political Science, MIT

Executive Director

The study benefited from the participation of a number of graduate student research assistants as listed in the report.

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