For the first time in United States history, clean energy sources provided more of the nation's electricity needs than coal. 23% of the electricity generated in the U.S. in April came from renewable sources like wind, solar, hydroelectric and geothermal power, according to a report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The shift toward renewable energy and away from coal has been accelerating for years, but the recent milestone marks an opportunity to revisit what precipitated the shift and look forward to what comes next.
Coal’s decline can be attributed to various factors such as lower-cost natural gas, and the rise of more affordable and efficient renewable energy sources (e.g., wind and solar). The coal industry has also struggled to adapt to a new regulatory environment designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect public health. These challenges have led to a wave of coal company bankruptcies over the last decade.
So, is the continuing decline of coal, which has historically been the source of most of our country’s electricity, inevitable? Not necessarily. However, if coal is to stage a comeback, or at least survive in the shifting market, it will come as a result of technological innovation within the industry and the development of intellectual property that has the potential to help the coal industry regain its footing.
Carbon Capture and Sequestration to Curb Emissions
Coal power stations produce large quantities of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide. To remain competitive, and adapt to the increasingly stringent regulatory environment, coal companies—and entrepreneurs hoping to serve the coal industry—are working to develop new technologies to limit carbon dioxide emissions.
“Carbon capture and sequestration” technology (CCS) involves capturing carbon dioxide emitted from a plant, transporting the carbon dioxide, and securely storing the emissions underground in depleted oil and gas reservoirs, unmineable coal seams, deep saline formations, and/or deep ocean. CCS technology is used at plants that utilize coal, as well those that use oil, natural gas, and other carbon-emitting fossil fuels.
According to the World Coal Association, there are 23 large-scale integrated CCS projects in operation or under construction. It is estimated that industrial plants in the United States capture 65 million tons of carbon dioxide every year—but that’s a mere fraction of the 37.1 billion metric tons emitted around the world in 2018.
There are a number of different CCS methods, many of which have been patented. For example, Cansolv Technologies Inc, which is associated with Shell Oil Company, was issued U.S. Patent No. 7,056,482 for technology that recovers carbon dioxide from gas streams. The U.S. Department of Energy was issued U.S Patent No. 10,065,174 for a technique utilizing pelletized immobilized amine sorbent for carbon dioxide capture. Other research and development, such as that described in ExxonMobil’s published U.S. patent application (Pub. No. US 2018/0250653), is focused on developing new sorbents for carbon dioxide displacement desorption.
While renewable energy may continue to gain market share, the U.S. economy will likely remain highly dependent on fossil fuels such as coal in the near-term. There are tremendous opportunities for those who pioneer effective technology to reduce greenhouse gas emission to integrate into new industrial plants and retrofit old ones. Innovation will be fueled in years to come both by market demand as well as government R&D incentives, such as those implemented as part of last year’s budget, which provides a tax credit of $50 for every metric ton of carbon dioxide buried underground and $35 for every ton addressed in other ways. As a result of all these factors, opportunity exists for innovation due to the short-term value of the coal industry. Not only does innovation drive towards a cleaner environment, but it also creates the potential for valuable intellectual property rights in new technology for an old industry adjusting to change.