“Extracting Greater Value from Each Tonne of Coal” – Interview with Michelle Manook

Christopher Demetriou

19 Apr 2024

Story published by China Coal News. The English translation is provided below.

“In my opinion, every type of energy has its place. Each country also has the right to choose its development path to achieve an accessible, reliable, and sustainable energy structure.”

Recently, FutureCoal (formerly known as the World Coal Association) CEO Michelle said in an interview with a reporter from China Coal News.

At the end of last year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released the “Coal Market Report 2023,” pointing out that against the backdrop of the energy crisis, global coal demand hit a record high, increasing by 4% year-on-year to reach 8.42 billion tonnes. Asia once again became the engine of coal demand growth, with demand increasing in both the power and non-power sectors.

“In the next hundred years or longer, coal will continue to make contributions to the world far surpassing its traditional uses,” Michelle says.

Breaking the “Energy Trilemma”

Energy development has always been accompanied by issues of security, affordability, and cleanliness. Insiders have introduced the theory of the “Impossible Trinity” from the field of financial policy into the energy realm, suggesting that energy security, low prices, and clean, low-carbon energy cannot all be achieved simultaneously, translating this phenomenon as the “Energy Trilemma.”

According to Michelle, making the “Trilemma” possible necessitates a balanced energy structure.

After February 2022, European countries such as Germany, Italy, and the UK actively or passively abandoned Russian natural gas, triggering an energy crisis and leading to European countries competing for limited supplies in the international market, causing a spike in liquefied natural gas prices.

In February of this year, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) released a report stating that after experiencing the dangers of overreliance on a single source endangering energy security, European countries must learn from past mistakes.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pointed out that there is currently no 100% renewable energy structure that can meet the needs of relevant economies.

“I agree with the IPCC’s viewpoint,” Michelle says. “If we were to fully rely on renewable energy, it would mean building a large number of redundant power generation facilities (3 to 7 times the current facilities). This would significantly increase the cost of electricity generation and greatly reduce the economic viability of energy.”

Michelle currently resides in the UK. She mentions that in Europe, due to the widespread use of renewable energy, energy prices are very high, and people have been asking the basic question: “Where is our affordable and accessible energy?”

“China’s practices in this regard are undoubtedly successful,” Michelle says. “While developing renewable energy, China continues to invest in traditional energy facilities to meet base-load demand. This dynamic, diversified energy structure, not dependent on a single source, ensures energy security.”

Coal-consuming and producing countries face new opportunities

Some argue that carbon emission rights are development rights. High-speed economic growth often accompanies high carbon emissions, and Western countries have already gone through the process of development before governance.

In December 2023, at the 28th UN Climate Change Conference held in Dubai, UAE, consensus was reached on key issues such as global inventory, carbon reduction, loss and damage, mitigation, and adaptation.

“As participants in climate change forums, we support the global movement to reduce emissions,” Michelle says.

In the global context of climate change and energy reductions, Michelle points out that coal-consuming and producing countries are now faced with the challenge of utilizing technology to achieve carbon reductions.

Currently, several advanced technologies and management practices have emerged.

In terms of carbon capture and storage (CCS), the Boundary Dam Power Station in Canada has successfully captured and stored over 4.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide since its operation began in 2014.

In terms of high-efficiency, low-emission (HELE) technologies, some plants burn coal to produce steam to drive generators, reducing emissions by 20% to 40% compared to the worst-performing coal-fired power plants. Currently, HELE facilities are present in 23 countries worldwide.

For integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC), countries like India, Indonesia, Japan, and the US are investing in coal gasification to reduce natural gas imports and produce commodities like hydrogen and ammonia.

In regard to co-firing biomass, Asian countries such as China, South Korea, and Japan have led in implementing this technology, highlighting its role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the power sector.

In the mining industry, countries are using data, analytics, automation, artificial intelligence, and other digital tools to optimize mining operations.

“I may be viewed as optimistic. I believe that for coal-consuming and producing countries, there are more opportunities than challenges at present. These technologies and innovations provide significant opportunities for China and other coal-consuming and producing countries,” Michelle says. She points out that China plays a leading role globally in the research and application of these technologies, providing more opportunities for technology export.

“We look forward to building a platform, a development alliance, where everyone collectively assumes risks, tells the coal story together, and seizes new opportunities,” Michelle says. “We hope that on this platform, China can play a greater role in leading coal technology and experience.”

Coal can be a clean energy source

“In 2019, when I took over the World Coal Association, I felt that many people associate coal with negative emotions,” Michelle says. “But they do not realize that through technology, we can significantly reduce emissions in the production and use of coal.”

Michelle states that for the coal industry as a whole, the goal is not to phase out coal but to eliminate unclean coal. Coal and clean energy are not in opposition, and coal can also become a clean energy source. The issue that the coal industry needs to collectively address is how to “extract greater value from each tonne of coal.” The value mentioned here includes economic and environmental value.

To this end, Michelle presents a vision for Sustainable Coal Stewardship (SCS).

SCS has three stages: the pre-combustion stage, the combustion stage, and the post-combustion stage.

  • The pre-combustion stage includes efficient mining practices, digital management, waste management, methane control, surface subsidence management, land disturbance and restoration.
  • The combustion stage involves a series of high-efficiency technologies such as HELE, CCS/CCUS, coal gasification, combined heat and power, capturing 99% of carbon emissions.
  • The post-combustion stage involves transforming coal into high-value products, including coal-to-oil, synthetic liquid hydrocarbons, hydrogen, methanol, steel, cement, key minerals for future digitalization and electrification, graphene, and carbon fibers, among other advanced materials.

S&P Global Commodity Insights is an entity under S&P Global. According to the organization, fossil fuels will continue to play a significant role in global energy beyond 2050.

“This is because, through sustainable management, fossil fuels, especially coal, will be linked to several sectors in the future,” Michelle explains. “Coal will continue to provide power for modern society and become a vital resource for products such as ammonia for fertilizers, critical minerals, renewable energy, electric vehicles, efficient hydrogen production, and more.”

Xie Heping, a Chinese Academy of Engineering academician pointed out that based on the currently explored remaining recoverable reserves of coal resources in China, the country can mine coal for approximately 40 years. On a global scale, Michelle provides more substantial data.

“Currently, global coal reserves are around 1 trillion tonnes. In terms of years, the world’s coal extraction lifespan is estimated at 100 to 150 years. In contrast, estimates for oil and natural gas reserves are only sufficient for about 50 years,” Michelle says.

Michelle emphasizes that coal-producing countries must manage coal resources sustainably, invest in advanced technologies, explore alternative energy sources to ensure long-term energy security and environmental sustainability.

“Using coal more responsibly, exploring technological innovations will help drive sustainable development. In the near future, coal will pave the way for clean energy development,” Michelle says.

“The story of coal continues, and with increased investment and forward-looking policies, coal remains crucial for many countries and billions of people.”