The Future of Coal: The Case for HELE Generation

High-efficiency and low-emission technology coal generation describes three tiers of carbon-intensity and coal-consumption intensity: supercritical, ultra-super critical, and advanced ultra-supercritical technology. According to the IEA, non-HELE technology, or sub-critical generation, is most common in coal-generated electricity today. Plants combust pulverized coal in a boiler to produce steam that powers a generator. Sub-critical generation both requires more coal and higher carbon emissions than its more efficient descendants. Supercritical generation produces steam at higher pressures and allows for greater efficiencies in coal consumption that help offset its higher costs. Ultra-supercritical technology operates at greater pressure levels and higher temperatures to improve the efficiency of generation. While both of these technologies are in production, the final HELE technology, advanced ultra-supercritical technology requires substantial capital costs due to the extreme pressure and temperature of generation. The requirement for super alloys that can withstand the higher pressures is a major challenge to implementation today.

In the medium-term, plants employing (HELE) will provide a vital link between conventional coal-generated electricity and CCS-generated electricity. According to the IEA, today 50% of new coal-generating plants use HELE technologies including supercritical and ultra-supercritical generation. While this is promising in terms of reducing the emissions impact of coal-generation, roughly three quarters of all coal-generation today do not employ HELE technology, and about half of current coal-generating capacity is over 25 years old. Implementing super-critical generation will provide a link to even more efficient ultra-super critical technology that will further reduce the emissions associated with coal-generation.

It is clear, however, that HELE technology will not provide the emissions reductions necessary to achieve the 2 degrees Celsius warming scenario by 2050. The IEA estimates that a 6 degree Celsius warming scenario will require the growth of HELE capacity from 27% in 2015 (from roughly 25% of total coal-fired electricity generation today) to 39% in 2030 and 68% by 2050. While HELE technology provides a vital link, IEA projections suggest that HELE technology along with substantial CCS technology implantation in the 2030s will be required to stay within a 2 degrees Celsius warming scenario. Adoption of HELE technology relies on a willingness to acknowledge a need for better coal generation, along with the resources to develop and implement the more expensive technologies. India and the European Union represent two cases where these two factors are in tension.


Policies within India’s 12th Five-Year Plan (2012-2017) acknowledge the need for more efficiency coal electricity generation, but as India’s situation differs from that of China, it is less restrictive. The 13th Five-Year Plan, however, does require that all new coal plants should at least employ supercritical technology. This represents a shift towards more efficient coal generation, but the policies appear to not have the same urgency as the policies that China is implementing.

India’s continued reliance on the cheap and reliable coal-generated electricity will require stronger commitments towards implementing HELE technology to at least the supercritical level. In 2008, the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate reported India’s supercritical coal-generation was less than 5% of its total coal generation, compared with less then 10% for China. IEA estimates suggest that 50-60 percent of new coal generation in India should fall under supercritical standards. To adhere to a 2 degrees Celsius scenario, India must employ HELE technology to 50% of its coal-generation and up to 88% in 2050 with substantial implementation of CCS generation. While costly, without CCS technology, even if India reached 40 % HELE adoption by 2040 and 80 % by 2050, the 2 degrees Celsius warming scenario cannot be reached. Policymakers should encourage the retiring of older, less efficient coal plants and act to speed the adoption of HELE technology in new plants.

European Union

The EU’s inclusion of power generation in the emissions trading scheme has taken place over several phases. While in the past, generation emissions have not been part of the carbon trading market; beginning in 2013 with “Phase 3,” power generators will no longer be “grandfathered” into the scheme. This means that coal plants across Europe will face stricter standards along with a cost associated with their emissions. In many cases, countries have responded by phasing out their coal plants rather than upgrading them for compliance. In the United Kingdom, for example, more than 25 percent of all coal plants will close by 2016.

The Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 has prompted Germany’s government to phase-out its nuclear capacity completely by 2022. The Institute for Energy Research has noted that, as a result, Germany has expanded its coal-fired electricity generation by 5.3 gigawatts in 2013 and a further 10 new plants are under construction. Given the challenges of implementing renewables along with their costlier and less consistent electric supply compared with coal-generated electricity, the adoption of low-carbon coal generated electricity will continue to play an important part in emissions reductions within the European Union.

The 2 degrees Celsius scenario requires substantial worldwide implementation of CCS starting in the 2030s and on into the 2050s. In the United States, China, and Europe, the IEA’s estimates require all coal power plants to use HELE technology along with a substantial percentage of CCS by 2030. While a strong reliance on CCS technology seems hopeful, given its current level of development, the opportunities for emissions reductions that HELE technologies provide in the interim give policymakers a near-term solution to the environmental challenges of continued world-wide reliance on coal-fired generation.

Spencer Jones is a second year student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. His career in business process consulting and risk management led him to pursue a career in international economic policy and particularly the intersection of national security and economics.

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