Black Future The World's Ever-Increasing Hunger for Coal

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Part 4: The Harsh Reality of Coal Mining


In Shanxi province in northern China, one coal train after another winds through the loess landscape, heading for the port of Qinhuangdao on the country's east coast. A seemingly endless string of trucks, their beds inadequately covered with tarps, thunder along the highway running alongside the railroad line. The drivers take risks with their overloaded vehicles, as evidenced by the occasional truck lying overturned next to curves in the road.

The Shanxi region is one of the country's most important coalfields. During the day it resembles a smoke-filled back room in a bar. About 1,500 mines are in operation there, manned by thousands of miners working in shifts, except when a fire shuts down production yet again.

In December, 12 miners were killed in a mine near the city of Jiexiu. Authorities have kept it closed since then. Liang, 57, one of the survivors, speculates that large amounts of coal dust developed underground and triggered the explosion.

Liang has been working in the mine, at a depth of about 800 meters, since he was 22. The tunnels are so low, he says, that the workers can only move in a crouched or crawling position. They break the coal out of the seams with hammers and shovels, and sometimes even with their bare hands. They earn the equivalent of €130 ($169) a month for their backbreaking work.

Billions in Damage

When he turned 55, an age at which miners are no longer considered agile and flexible, his boss assigned him to different tasks. After that, Liang's job consisted of dragging around iron girders and wooden beams, which are used to reinforce the underground tunnels. "This job," he says with a groan, "is almost more difficult."

Accidents are commonplace in Chinese mines. Some 3,215 workers died in accidents in 2008 alone. Rarely are the rescue attempts as successful as one spectacular operation in early April, when rescue crews managed to pull 115 miners out of the Wangjialing mine alive after they had been trapped there for eight days. But it's not only in China that coal mining is a dangerous and dirty affair, as Greenpeace describes in a 2008 report entitled "The True Cost of Coal."

In the US state of Kentucky, for instance, mining companies blast away entire mountaintops to reach the coal more easily. In South Africa, the acidic pit water from abandoned mines is contaminating rivers. And in Colombia, mining companies are displacing families to expand the Cerrejón mine, the world's largest open-pit mine for black coal. Cerrejón is an important source of coal for German energy suppliers, and SWS is also thinking about importing its hard coal for Brunsbüttel from there.

According to Greenpeace's calculations, the coal business causes €360 billion worth of damage each year. Environmentalists warn that if mankind continues along its current path, CO2 emissions from coal will increase by another 60 percent by 2030. Given these consequences, can the world even afford to continue its reliance on power from coal?

The Future of Coal

Part of the answer can be found in Spremberg in southern Brandenburg. For the past year, energy producer Vattenfall has operated a small pilot plant at its Schwarze Pumpe power station in Spremberg that separates CO2 from coal and then captures it. "The technology is working," says Tuomo Hatakka, head of Vattenfall Europe. In a few years, the Swedish company plans to build a demonstration power plant and test it to see how it performs on a large scale. "There is a future for coal," says Hatakka. "Coal without CO2 emissions."

Another part of the answer lies in the town of Ketzin in northwestern Brandenburg. There, scientists from the Potsdam-based Geo Research Center are compressing CO2 into porous underground layers. So far, they have injected 36,000 tons at a depth of 650 meters. The results so far are promising, says coordinator Hilke Würdemann. "The conditions are just as we expected."

The energy industry is pinning its hopes on a combination of the Spremberg and Ketzin projects. The hope is that CCS technology could even turn into a significant source of exports, as it opens up new business areas for German companies like Linde, Siemens and BASF. The United States and China want to try out the first of the new generation of coal-fired power plants in the next few years.

It is clear that this will come at an enormous cost. Retrofitting power plants, transporting the CO2 through pipelines and compressing it underground -- all of these things bring up costs considerably, which will affect electricity prices accordingly. Experts estimate that it will take at least 10 years before the new technology is used on a large scale worldwide.

High Stakes

Much is at stake for the German utilities. Their power plants are old and urgently in need of renovation. The companies have to make decisions that will be valid for at least 40 years, the length of a generation of power plants. The problem is that no one knows whether the use of CCS technology will be worthwhile. It all depends on what happens to the price of CO2 emissions rights from 2013 onward, when utilities will be required to acquire the certificates at auction.

If prices remain low, it will be cheaper to buy emissions rights than to invest in CCS. Experts believe the threshold lies at €50 per ton of CO2, compared with the current price of about €15 a ton. But if certificate prices rise considerably, as some observers expect, the use of the technology will be worthwhile -- which would make it disastrous if the power companies were to take no action today.

There are also other problems yet to be solved. When CCS is used, power plants lose about 10 percent of their efficiency, because the capture of carbon dioxide consumes an immense amount of energy. In other words, more coal has to be burned to produce the same amount of electricity, which essentially means that raw materials are being wasted.

But no matter how sophisticated the technology, the biggest obstacle remains nearly impossible to overcome: the lack of acceptance by citizens who live near the planned CO2 storage sites. Representatives of local communities in eastern Brandenburg expressed their reservations when they visited the pilot plant in Ketzin last Wednesday. The site should not be allowed to turn into another Asse, they warned, referring to a controversial permanent repository for nuclear waste in the state of Lower Saxony.

An Enormous Gamble

But not everyone shares these concerns. Even the environmental movement is divided over the CCS issue. Greenpeace and BUND flatly reject the process. Greenpeace argues that the technology constitutes "an enormous gamble," while BUND describes it as nothing but a "fig leaf" for the power companies. Germany's Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) and the conservation organization WWF, on the other hand, believe that it is at least worth trying out. Their pragmatic argument is that it would be foolish to rule out this option from the outset. But does the world even have a choice?

Lord Nicholas Stern, at any rate, sees no alternative to clean coal technology in the foreseeable future. The economist, who caused a stir four years ago with his report on the costs of climate change, recently devised a scenario on what the global energy mix could look like in the future. Under his scenario, coal plays a key role in the mix, for many years to come -- because there is no other choice.

Even if the most optimistic forecasts came true and the world could satisfy half of its energy needs from renewable sources, massive amounts of fossil fuels would still be needed, Stern explains. He believes that industry, if it hopes to achieve the world's climate goals, must do everything possible to reduce CO2 emissions -- and that the use of CCS technology will be an unavoidable part of the equation. "We need several thousand facilities," Stern said recently, speaking at a conference in Berlin.

In other words, the age of coal is far from over. Until water, wind and the sun can provide enough energy, "clean" coal could at least play a role as part of a transition to renewable technologies. Of course, Stern has no illusions about the amount of time it will take before a low-carbon future can be reached. "It will be a long bridge," he said.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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