Cross-posted from the NC Conservation Network blog
Over the past several years, I’ve heard a lot about the concept of “clean coal technology.” In theory, it sounds great…I mean, I know that the burning of coal has severe environmental and health impacts, and I also know that coal energy is realitively cheap, and supplies over half of the electricity in the United States. So it’s nice to think that there’s a “clean” option out there to hold back those nasty pollutants, and still provide a cheap, plentiful source of fuel. “Clean coal technology” says, “you can have your cake and eat it too.” Seems great…right?
In an effort to find out more about what clean coal technology actually is, I did some digging on the web. I was shooting for unbiased info, but that seemed to be hard to find as the idea of “clean coal technology” is a controversial issue. Even Wikipedia’s page on the subject is being disputed as biased. This article by howstuffworks.com did provide helpful information about the science behind the concept. Below are some highlights:
“Clean coal technology seeks to reduce harsh environmental effects by using multiple technologies to clean coal and contain its emissions.”
“Some clean coal technologies purify the coal before it burns. One type of coal preparation, coal washing, removes unwanted minerals by mixing crushed coal with a liquid and allowing the impurities to separate and settle.”
“Wet scrubbers, or flue gas desulfurization systems, remove sulfur dioxide, a major cause of acid rain, by spraying flue gas with limestone and water.”
“Low-NOx (nitrogen oxide) burners reduce the creation of nitrogen oxides, a cause of ground-level ozone, by restricting oxygen and manipulating the combustion process. Electrostatic precipitators remove particulates that aggravate asthma and cause respiratory ailments by charging particles with an electrical field and then capturing them on collection plates.”
“Gasification avoids burning coal altogether. With integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) systems, steam and hot pressurized air or oxygen combine with coal in a reaction that forces carbon molecules apart. The resulting syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, is then cleaned and burned in a gas turbine to make electricity.”
“Carbon capture and storage — perhaps the most promising clean coal technology — catches and sequesters carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from stationary sources like power plants.” (There are many different ways “carbon capture” can be executed. Click here for more details.)
I have to admit, after reading about some of the science behind “clean coal technology,” I was impressed. It seems like scientists are thinking more strategically now about the long-term effects of burning fossil fuels. Unfortunately, though, there’s more to the “clean coal fairy tale” that groups like the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity don’t want you to hear. According to their website:
[...]coal will remain a low-cost energy option in the future even considering the cost of new technologies to capture and store CO2 – a common greenhouse gas. Technologies to capture carbon at coal-based power plants are already under development, and experts agree that we can safely store CO2 safely underground – putting the CO2 back where it came from.
The coal-based electricity sector is committed to continuous environmental improvements in the coal-based electricity sector, including the capture and storage of greenhouse gases. That is why the industry has invested billions of dollars in new advanced technologies that will pave the way for design of the world’s first pollution-free, carbon-neutral coal-based power plant.
However, just last week, a coaltion of organizations including the Alliance for Climate Protection, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the League of Conservation Voters, unveiled a new project entitled The Reality Project (click for the press release [pdf]). According to their website:
In reality, there is no such thing as ‘clean’ coal in America today. Coal cannot be called ‘clean’ until its CO2 emissions are captured and stored safely.
Let’s be clear: there are no US homes, factories, shopping centers or churches powered by coal plants that capture and store their global warming pollution.
The Reality Coalition cites articles such as this one from the Wall Street Journal:
The coal industry is spending millions advertising “clean” coal, but not a single “clean” coal power plant exists in the US today.
They also include a citation from the Union of Concerned Scientists [pdf]:
Although carbon sequestration has been the subject of considerable research and analysis, it has yet to be demonstrated in the form of commercial-scale, fully integrated projects at coal-fired power plants.
In fact, the more I dug around (see here and here, the more I began to realize that while clean coal technology seems to be based on some fascinating, innovative science, the reality is that it doesn’t seem to be economically feasible now, or at any point in the near future.
And just to drive this point home further, in this Newsweek article, the VP of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity himself is quoted as saying,
With the current research being done, we think we can get the technology up and running within 10 to 15 years.
Wow. A lot of damage climate change-wise can be down in 10-15 years…and what if it takes even longer than that to implement the new technology? So in essence, the concept of “clean coal technology” seems to be less of a “you can have your cake and eat it too” concept, and more of a “you can have your cake and eat it too…but chances are the cake will never be made in the first place.”
For me, this leads to the question…can we afford to wait and see if clean coal technology actually becomes a real option? Or are our impacts on global climate change so severe already that it’s time to look outside the coal mine, and start implementing energy alternatives such as solar, wind, and energy efficiency methods?
Frankly, I’m not sure that waiting for clean coal technology to become a reality is a gamble I’m willing to take.