12/09/2009 05:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Coal to Action

On November 16, President Obama and Chinese President Hu announced a number of large-scale partnerships aimed at developing advanced cleaner energy solutions, including technology for capturing emissions from coal-burning power plants. As the world's two largest emitters, our two countries have a special responsibility to find a solution to the word's energy crisis. This is a good step forward for both countries, and a hopeful sign.

In doing this, business and political leaders in the U.S. and China are addressing what I believe is one of the central issues of our time, and one that will do more to define America's future than any other: how we balance growing energy demand for fuels that are clean, domestic, abundant and commercial scale with the mandates of energy security, carbon reduction and economic growth.

This is as pressing an issue here in the U.S. as it is in China.

And this is a question to which there is no single answer, and no silver bullet. Over the next two decades, demand for electricity in the U.S. is projected to increase by approximately 25 percent (EIA). The fact of the matter is that no one technology can meet existing demand, much less this increase.
We must explore every option -- wind, solar, gas and nuclear, among others. And we cannot ignore coal.

It is important to recognize the economic benefit of coal in our economy. Fifty percent of the electricity generated in the United States comes from coal. We've heard people say that the United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal. And because it is so abundant, it is also cost effective - an important consideration in tough economic times. It also provides roughly $1 trillion dollars in domestic GDP and supports six million jobs. Abandoning coal will have a profound negative impact on our economy.

Coal is here to stay. We must find a way to use it as cleanly as possible.

It is also true that no emissions goals can be achieved without addressing the impact of coal, which is responsible for 35 percent of the six billion metric tons of CO2 (source EPA) emitted by human activity every year.

Going back to our central question, we can say that coal today fulfills three of our four requirements: it is domestic, abundant and cost effective. Importantly, we can also address a final concern: coal can be cleaner.

There are a number of ways to make coal cleaner: The first is the way in which you extract energy from it. In most coal-fired power plants, coal is crushed (pulverized) into fine powder, fed into a combustion chamber, and burned. This technology has not changed dramatically in the last 100 years -- and pulverized coal plants in the U.S. still depend on it today. Although many of these plants are more efficient than a century ago, and are burning less coal to produce more energy, many are 40 or 50 years old.

A much cleaner process, called integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC), is available today. IGCC technology is a refining process that converts coal into a cleaner burning fuel, which then is used by a gas turbine combined-cycle system to generate electricity. IGCC converts the coal into a synthetic gas (syngas) and allows for pre-combustion clean-up, which means criteria emissions such as sulfur and particulates as well as carbon in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) can be removed, before the syngas is burned. GE was a pioneer in IGCC technology, and I'm proud to say we continue to lead both at home and abroad: Last month we signed a licensing agreement for a proposed 250-megawatt IGCC power plant, near Bakersfield, California, which is designed to capture up to 90 percent of CO2 emissions.

The complementary measure for addressing CO2 emissions is to inject captured CO2 that has been removed from a power plant into deep underground geologic formations for permanent storage. This technology is called carbon capture and storage or carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). In some cases, the CO2 can be injected into oil reservoirs to pump extra oil out - a process called enhanced oil recovery. (Scientific American has done a terrific primer on CCS, which can be found here.)

According to the National Research Council, coal with CCS offers the best long-term potential to serve U.S. electricity growth by 2035, providing more than three times the generation of nuclear power and nearly triple the power of hydroelectric, wind and solar sources combined.

I would agree. Widespread, commercial-scale deployment of CCS technology must play a central role in meeting national and global climate goals.

As part of GE"s Clean Technology Week in China, GE and the Shenhua Group, a leading Chinese coal company, agreed to work together to deploy advanced gasification technology in China, including IGCC solutions with carbon capture.

And if we are serious we cannot wait: Both IGCC and CCS are available today. In industrial gasification plants around the world, carbon separation technology is used as part of the manufacturing process. This is the same technology that would be deployed in a power plant. And Schlumberger, a GE alliance partner, has been working in geologic subsurface evaluation for more than 80 years.

You may ask, if cleaner coal technology is available, and we know it works, why aren't we seeing more of it?

First and foremost -- cost. We believe that the quickest and surest path to reducing the cost of CCS is building plants -- deploying this technology on a commercial scale. But the industry cannot do this alone. Congress needs to move quickly to set a value on avoiding carbon emissions, which will incentivize adoption of technologies like IGCC and CCS, setting the policy environment to encourage competition, further research and technological advancements in this arena.

Government and private sector partnerships will also be key. We've seen progress on this front: President Obama set a goal of building five "first-of-a-kind" commercial-scale, coal-fired plants with CCS. Government support will be needed to encourage wide deployment of cleaner coal technology. As part of any legislation Congress must establish performance standards that specify required maximum carbon footprints for coal plants. Legislation sponsored by Senators Boxer and Kerry, recently proposed in the Senate, embrace such standards.

Congress should enact legislation to lay the framework for the comprehensive regulation of geologic sequestration. For CCS to be deployed commercially, workable liability rules for geologic sequestration, as well as a program for long-term stewardship of closed sequestration sites, needs to be in place.

The world needs, and citizens must demand, a portfolio of energy solutions. IGCC and CCS cannot alone solve our climate change problems, but as a means of utilizing our domestic sources of plentiful and cost-effective coal, must be included as a part of the solution.

A cleaner path to coal: The ABCs of IGCC technology