Opinion: Canada No Longer Supporting Coal Exports

Canada will no longer support coal exports, as outlined in this article by the National Post.  However, it appears that the amount of electricity generated worldwide by coal will rise substantially in the next couple of decades, by about a third.  Given these realities, Canada should also actively support activities that reduce the environmental impact of coal use, including:

  • Fostering more efficient (combined cycle) coal use

  • Fostering methods of exploiting waste heat (Seasonal geostorage of heat in cold climates?)

  • Fostering better flue emissions particulate matter reduction (PM2.5 abatement) through technology such as better electrostatic precipitation, scrubbers…

  • Fostering wider use of desulphurization methods to reduce SOx gases which can locally heavily contribute to serious air pollution…

  • …and other technologies to clean up coal use as much as possible…

  • …while supporting activities designed to replace coal.

The McLaughlin Centre for Population Health Risk Assessment in Ottawa, a world-famous organization, has done work that indicates at least eight million premature deaths per year can be attributed to PM2.5 and air quality issues (emphysema, respiratory tract infections, asthma aggravation, etc.).  Most of these are in China and India and linked to PM2.5 related metrics, and PM2.5 can be attributed mainly to coal-fired power plants.  Also, there is the general issue of increased asthma and discomfort levels, and hundreds of millions of persons suffer these effects, degrading their life quality.

A great health crisis continues, largely ignored by the world, at a scale of millions of unnecessary deaths per year.  If our cities in Canada were anywhere near the air conditions of cities in India, Indonesia and China, adjacent to coal-fired power plants, it would be a national scandal that would lead to immediate action, and of course coal is also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.  So what should replace coal-fired electricity?  The easiest is gas-fired combined cycle plants, which can produce the same amount of power for half the CO2 emissions, but also without all the PM2.5, mining, tailings ponds, SOx…  Furthermore, if combined with compressed air energy storage to integrate wind and solar power more easily into the grids, GHG emissions for natural gas power plants can drop lower and lower compared to the CO2 emissions per kWhr of a coal plant, and without all that additional pollution. 

If our environmental activists in Canada respected the health and energy needs of the rest of the world, they would be encouraging the development of natural gas as an interim solution to replace coal as much as possible, by helping countries develop their local supplies, by exporting LNG, and by supporting R&D into geothermal energy (high-grade and EGS) and renewables.  Then, we have time to perfect energy storage and renewable energy integration into our complex society.  As these sources become cheaper, they absolutely require large-scale energy storage to make them useful and valuable to society, and batteries are not the answer.  We have just published an article outlining the environmental challenges that batteries present, and despite Elon Musk’s claims, there are far better choices for large-scale energy storage.

Amicalement, Sincerely yours

MB Dusseault, UWaterloo

Dehghanisanij A, Tharumalingam E, Dusseault MB, Fraser RA. 2019. Study of energy storage systems and environmental challenges of batteries. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 104, 192–208.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2019.01.023