Coal is the third largest source of electricity generation in the US, comprising nearly 20% of total generation as of 2009, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Coal, although dirty, happens to be dirt-cheap. It costs around six times less to generate a unit of energy (Btu) from coal than from oil or natural gas. Coal, however, produces twice as much carbon dioxide per Btu as natural gas, according to James Meigs of Popular Mechanics.
Cheap coal is synonymous with cheap energy. And cheap energy makes nearly everyone happy, from factories that aren’t saddled with astronomically expensive electricity bills to the millions of consumers around the country who can leave their laptops, mobile phones, TV’s, and refrigerators running around the clock without thinking twice.
It’s a shame that cheap electricity is probably destroying the planet and killing about 10,000 Americans per year.
This is why the clean coal concept is so endearing. If coal remained cheap and did not pollute our air, we could continue to go on with our usual business and life would be great.
Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that. For starters, clean coal is far from a proven technology. The process for producing clean coal, called carbon capture and storage (CCS), involves taking the carbon dioxide, compressing it into a liquid, and burying it deep underground. Exactly how long carbon dioxide will stay buried has yet to be determined, though. If it leaks 10 or 20 years down the line, then all the time and energy spent trapping it underground would have been for naught.
Moreover, because CCS is still very costly, it doesn’t make sense to produce clean coal just yet. First, the government has to make dirty coal more expensive than clean coal, which would require establishing a fair and effective method of penalising carbon-emitting companies, writes James Fallows of The Atlantic.
Sadly, the government has not succeeded at putting together a coherent energy policy that would encourage cleaner electricity generation. Congress came close in 2009 when the House passed a cap and trade bill, but it met heavy resistance in the Senate, according to Tara Thean of Time.
This lack of clear policies prompted American Electric Power (AEP) to scrap a $668M clean coal project in West Virginia last week. And earlier this year, a clean coal project in Illinois was similarly abandoned after state legislation ruled against the required legislation, reports Cassandra Sweet of Dow Jones Newswires.
Interested in researching other clean coal projects that could be placed on hiatus? To assist you in your research, here is a list of companies that are a part of the FutureGen Alliance, a non-profit organisation focused on developing clean coal technology. FutureGen is developing a $1.3B project to retrofit a 200-MW facility in Illinois, according to Cassandra Sweet.
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List sorted alphabetically.
1. Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. (ANR): Market cap of $5.46B. It is an Appalachian coal supplier. It produces, processes and sells steam and metallurgical coal from eight regional business units, which, as of December 31, 2008, were supported by 34 active underground mines, 27 active surface mines and 11 preparation plants located throughout Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania, as well as a road construction business in West Virginia and Virginia that recovers coal. It is also involved in the purchase and resale of coal mined by others.
2. CONSOL Energy Inc. (CNX): Market cap of $12.13B. It is a multi-fuel energy producer and energy services provider primarily serving the electric power generation industry in the United States. It operates in two segments: Coal and Gas. Under a grant from the Dept of Energy, CONSOL is conducting a $9 million investigation of sequestering carbon dioxide in coal seams. Coal seams are a possible formation for FutureGen sequestration, making CONSOL’s technical experience highly relevant to the project.
3. Joy Global, Inc. (JOYG): Market cap of $10.15B. It is a manufacturer and servicer of mining equipment for the extraction of coal and other minerals, and ores. Its underground mining machinery segment (Joy Mining Machinery or Joy) is a manufacturer of underground mining equipment for the extraction of coal and other bedded minerals and offers service locations near mining regions worldwide. Its surface mining equipment segment (P&H Mining Equipment or P&H) is a producer of surface mining equipment for the extraction of ores and minerals and provides operational support for many types of equipment used in surface mining.
4. Peabody Energy Corp. (BTU): Market cap of $16.22B. It owns majority interests in 28 coal-mining operations located in the United States and Australia. In addition to mining operations, it markets, brokers and trades coal. It holds approximately nine billion tons of proven and probable coal reserves and more than 500,000 acres of surface property.
5. PPL Corporation (PPL): Market cap of $15.89B. It is an energy and utility holding company. Its LG&E Company and KU Company subsidiaries serve natural gas and electricity customers in Kentucky. LG&E and KU are members of the FutureGen Alliance.
Interactive Chart: Press Play to see how analyst ratings have changed for the stocks mentioned above. Analyst ratings sourced from Zacks Investment Research.