Coal takes center stage at Business Summit

Energy and environmental issues took center stage at the Kentucky Chamber’s Business Summit on Tuesday in the form of coal, its competitors and its future in the Commonwealth. James Fallows, veteran journalist and columnist for The Atlantic, presented his findings from years of research on the current use of “dirty” coal and what is in store for its “clean” future. Fallows stated he spent four years in China and saw firsthand the way this powerful resource can advance a society.

In his presentation, Fallows said coal’s role in our future is undeniable, but that role must change and advance. He never faltered in his declaration that “coal is a part of our future.” But it is up to suppliers to embrace a cleaner use of this technology.

Michael Morris, chairman and COO of American Electric Power (AEP), said during his presentation that regardless of how innovative we are in using and cleaning coal, there will be many challenging policy changes in the future. New regulations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are being implemented constantly, and energy producers are struggling to keep up. He said he feels the compliance deadlines instituted by the EPA are unreasonable and is worried that the high cost of retrofitting existing powerplants with unproven technologies will increase utility rates significantly.

Rodney Andrews, Ph.D., director of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research, wrapped up the morning session by explaining how Kentucky is already at the forefront of many of the technologies that Fallows mentioned in his article.

“Kentucky is an active player in development of clean coal technology as well, with significant investments in research and development for carbon capture and storage, gasification, coal-to-liquids, coal-to-gas, and increased mine safety and productivity,” said Andrews. “For example, the UK Center for Applied Energy Research is a partner in some of the projects with China, including the recently announced U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, which focuses on carbon management for coal-based power generation.”

Andrews also said carbon emissions should be reduced through improved energy efficiencies and not excess government regulation.

Focusing on efficiencies, he argues, would actually have a larger reduction on emissions at a lower cost to producers. For example, coal-fired plants in China are being built to 2009 energy efficiency standards, where the average age of a U.S. coal-fired plant is over 40 years old.  Another concern for Andrews is that many of the carbon control technologies that the federal government is going to require actually reduce the efficiencies of many coal-fired power plants.

Overall, the message at this year’s summit was clear: Coal is undoubtedly part of Kentucky’s future, but it is up to researchers and policymakers to agree upon ways to produce it in a cleaner manner, and to figure out how to implement these changes in a way that will have the least amount of impact on ratepayers.

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