Coal still in energy mix, says speaker

The switch from coal to natural gas for electricity is taking place with remarkable speed in the United States, but the world’s most reliable energy sources are far from obsolete, the Texas state geologist said Wednesday.

Even while the United States is switching from coal to natural gas to generate electricity, China is commissioning coal-fired generation plants at the rate of one a week, Scott W. Tinker told the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce energy briefing.

Tinker also is the director of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin and a producer and star of “Switch,” a documentary film, web and education project about solutions to energy challenges.

Coal, which as recently as 2004 generated half the nation’s electricity, now is used to spin turbines that produce a little more than a third of the electricity consumed in the United States. That’s just ahead of natural gas, which generates about 31 percent, Tinker said.

The lower cost of natural gas, the supply of which has exploded with the advent of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, is behind the growth of natural gas as a feeder fuel for generation, but environmental benefits have followed, Tinker said.

Changing to natural gas from coal has resulted in reductions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and mercury, Tinker noted, but he said the environmental benefits followed the efforts to find lower-cost fuel.

Natural gas from shale, the most abundant form of sedimentary rock in the world, is likely to grow as more basins around the world are explored, Tinker said, noting that one basin in Russia is larger even than Texas.

Even so, smaller basins such as the Piceance in northwest Colorado will continue to be important suppliers of natural gas, even as other forms of energy such as solar, wind and geothermal energy develop, Tinker said.


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