Coal panelists are optimistic about future of clean energy

Eric Fodor

Though Illinois will certainly never return to the levels of coal industry

employment seen at the turn of the 20th Century, the future of coal mining in

Illinois has to be brighter than 15 years ago -- provided the nation gets serious

about clean-coal technology and an energy policy, coal panelists say.

Coal experts held a public forum Thursday night at SIC on the future of mining in

the state. The forum was sponsored by Connect SI and the Southern Illinois

University-Carbondale Coal Research Center.

Illinois was one of the hardest-hit states when the Clean Air Act was passed in the

early 1990s. At the dawn of the 20th Century, over 100,000 people were employed in

coal mining, according to Joe Angleton, director of the state Office of Mines and

Minerals and keynote speaker for Thursday's event. Coal, of course, was the fuel for

industry at that time.

"Coal has been what allowed the industrial revolution that made this country what it

is today," Angleton said.

By 1978, the industry was still booming -- about 18,000 were employed in 71 mines

statewide. By 2000, the number had declined sharply -- 3,500 miners in just 18

mines. This year, 21 mines are open and 4,000 people are employed in the industry, a

slight rebound over levels seen in the 1990s.

The immediate future gives some hope, Angleton said. A new mine is opening early

next year in Franklin County. The Washington County Peabody Prairie State Energy

Campus will be the largest construction project in Illinois since O'Hare

International Airport. Hillsboro Energy has a mine in the permit stages in

Montgomery County, along with Locust Grove in Williamson County and Sugar Camp in Franklin County.

Prairie State will produce 450 permanent jobs -- 100 to 125 of those will be in the

power plant that is planned as part of the project, according to Robert Reynolds,

director of project management for Peabody Energy.

With energy demand nationwide increasing at a rate of 1.5 to 2 percent, the price of

oil hovering around $100 per barrel and utility costs rising fast, it makes sense to

look into coal and cleaner ways to burn the fuel, Angleton said.

But as it stands right now, most of the base load for that increased energy

consumption could be natural gas, not coal. Natural gas is a great way to heat homes

and businesses directly, but it loses so many BTUs when used to generate electricity

that natural gas cannot be our long-term solution to rising electricity needs.

"It is too valuable a commodity to have 60 percent of it wasted," Angleton said.

If energy independence is a national goal, then natural gas is an even worse

commodity to lean on, Angleton said.

"Even gas, with the predictions I am seeing, we are going to be importing," Angleton

said.

As a net importer of oil, the United States has comparatively little control over

its energy sources, Angleton said. However, increased use of coal could alleviate

some of that problem -- Illinois has more BTUs of energy in coal underneath its soil

than Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined have in oil.

Reynolds pointed out rising fuel costs make it more costly to bring low-sulfur coal

from Wyoming to Illinois -- if oil costs stay high, it could be a good thing for the

coal industry here. The low transportation costs associated with mine-mouth power

plants -- conveyor belts instead of long-haul trucking -- could mean the research

into clean-coal technology will be worthwhile in the long run, Reynolds said.  There

is a 10 to 20 percent cost advantage for mine-mouth power plants based on

transportation alone, Reynolds said. As the price of oil and diesel fuel rise, that

cost advantage rises.

Illinois uses nuclear energy to produce more than half its electricity. Angleton

reminded the audience of the sunny scenario presented when nuclear power plants were first built -- eventually the electricity would be too cheap to bother with meters.

But nuclear power has turned out to be the most expensive form of electrical

production so far -- nuclear power is running 11 to 16 cents per kilowatt-hour

because of storage and nuclear waste costs, Angleton said.

Right now, due to high electric costs for consumers and businesses in Illinois

relative to surrounding states, it would not be cost-efficient for a plant that uses

lots of electric energy to locate in Illinois. Indiana derives 97 percent of its

electricity from coal, Iowa 78 percent, Kentucky 91 percent, Missouri 85 percent --

all have lower electricity prices and are therefore more attractive to certain

industries, Angleton said.

Part of the problem is lack of a coherent energy policy, Angleton said. Energy

policy was bandied about in the 1970s during the oil crunch and gasoline shortages,

but fell by the wayside when the immediate crises passed and inflation eased in the

mid-1980s.

"The country has not had an energy policy since Jimmy Carter tried to establish

one," Angleton said.

Coal should be the linchpin of a sound energy policy, he said. And Illinois should

be out front.

"Illinois should be an exporter of electricity, not an importer of western coal.

Thirty percent of coal currently mined in Illinois stays in state; operators have to

find out-of-state markets for most of the coal mined here. That is partly due to the

sulfur content in Illinois coal, which panelists agreed can be dealt with.

If we can send people to the moon, we can deal with the situation with coal to make

it burned cleanly in Illinois," Angleton said.