HAZARD — While a newly diversified energy market in the United States has slowed coal sales over the last few years, Eastern Kentucky’s primary resource is still being used in a number of manufactured items. And some say there could be a resurgence of coal as a component in a wide variety of household products, which could in turn help prevent future job loss in the local mining industry.
It is no surprise to the people of Kentucky’s Eastern Coal Fields that coal production numbers have been down due to changes in the production of electricity and regulations on coal-fired plants. This has meant a virtual standstill in new mining and the closure of some existing mines in the past year.
During a recent meeting of the Perry County Fiscal Court, a local resident presented the fiscal court with a list of 37 different products that utilize coal while noting industries to target for jobs in the area. His idea was that this could help bring back some of the coal industry in Perry County that by and large has been used to generate electricity.
This surprising list includes many items that are being manufactured in large quantities overseas, using coal from other countries. These items then have to be shipped back to the United States. Bringing these manufacturing plants into a region that includes vast quantities of the necessary ingredient — coal — would create more American jobs.
But it won’t be an easy task.
Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said that while alternative markets for coal could become very important to the coal economy in the future, the amount of coal used in these industries is limited compared to energy production, which is currently the leading use for coal in America.
Currently, there are very few items being created from coal in Appalachia, but one that is becoming increasingly needed domestically and can be created from coal is liquid fuel. Turning coal into liquid fuel that can be used in automobiles does not require new technology, but it has only been in the last few years that it has seen a growth of interest in America. Coal-to-liquid (CTL) fuels also come with the added bonus of helping to reduce carbon emissions from conventional gasoline by up to 60 percent in optimized engines, according to some estimates.
Plans for a CTL plant in western Kentucky are currently in the works for Muhlenberg County. Other plants are currently being shopped in West Virginia and Wyoming where coal reserves are plentiful, but they are all several years in the making.
According to a report by the National Mining Association, several successful CTL plants currently exist in South Africa and Saudi Arabia, however, neither have coal reserves comparable to Eastern Kentucky to sustain for the long term.
Bissett said that coal to fuel is something that could be seen in the next few years in the United States. Since no plants are currently producing this fuel, however, the cost and presence in the market is still widely unknown.
“What I must point out is that until someone gets the investment, the land, gets it built, and it starts pumping out a petroleum-like substance, it is not happening,” Bissett said.
Bisset added that he recently had a conversation with company officials working on the plant in western Kentucky, and they are remaining optimistic that it will happen. “He literally said, I know you have heard this a million times, but we have got our funding, we have got our location, and are having a modular take on this for when this takes off,” Bissett said. “He recognized that there has been a degree of disappointment in fuel production.”
The effectiveness of this technology has been seen in the past in places such as eastern Europe. During the height of Germany in the early 1900s, the Germans had 25 plants producing fuel from coal. In the 1940s, this grew and they were capable of making 124,000 barrels of fuel a day, producing 90 percent of the nation’s needs, according to the National Mining Association.
“I think it is a no-brainer that we get into that business,” said Bisset. “How we get into that business will be interesting.”
Along with fuel, coal is used in a number of manufacturing processes as a filtering agent. While CTL plants have not yet been built and utilized in coal regions, activated carbon filters have. Calgon Carbon, a leader in carbon filters, has a plant in Catlettsburg near Ashland.
“I think that is important but it is a small niche market,” said Bisset.
Interestingly, activated carbon made from coal is currently being used in air filters like the ones on coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions.
Coal is also used in a number of surprising applications like wood varnish, perfume, TV screens, and fireworks. All of the factories producing these items require a constant supply of coal, yet few are located in coal-rich areas in the United States.
Bisset said that being in the coal industry, he would love to see a diversification in the uses of coal, but in the short term he sees coal being used more overseas and as a power back-up for renewable energies. Until battery technology improves, he noted, coal remains the most reliable energy source and will have to continue to create power.