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Greenhouse gas implications of using coal for transportation: Life cycle assessment of coal-to-liquids, plug-in hybrids, and hydrogen pathways

journal contribution
posted on 01.07.2009 by Paulina Jaramillo, Constantine Samaras, Heather Wakeley, Kyle W Meisterling

Using coal to produce transportation fuels could improve the energy security of the United States by replacing some of the demand for imported petroleum. Because of concerns regarding climate change and the high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with conventional coal use, policies to encourage pathways that utilize coal for transportation should seek to reduce GHGs compared to petroleum fuels. This paper compares the GHG emissions of coal-to-liquid (CTL) fuels to the emissions of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) powered with coal-based electricity, and to the emissions of a fuel cell vehicle (FCV) that uses coal-based hydrogen. A life cycle approach is used to account for fuel cycle and use-phase emissions, as well as vehicle cycle and battery manufacturing emissions. This analysis allows policymakers to better identify benefits or disadvantages of an energy future that includes coal as a transportation fuel. We find that PHEVs could reduce vehicle life cycle GHG emissions by up to about one-half when coal with carbon capture and sequestration is used to generate the electricity used by the vehicles. On the other hand, CTL fuels and coal-based hydrogen would likely lead to significantly increased emissions compared to PHEVs and conventional vehicles using petroleum-based fuels.