Coal Tattoo

Why ‘clean coal’ is years away

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I know … I know… lots of Coal Tattoo readers don’t like the term. I’m not sure I do, either. (I’m working on a more thoughtful post on that, so stay tuned) …

But ‘clean coal’ just won’t stay out of the news for even a day. There are a couple of major stories out there today that I wanted to pass along to folks.

First, U.S. News and World Report explains “Why Clean Coal Is Years Away:”

America runs on coal. It’s cheap, plentiful (at least for another 100 years or so), and comfortingly domestic. Two hundred years ago, it powered the industrial revolution. Today, it spits out nearly half of the country’s electricity.

Coal’s problems, however, are getting to be so big and serious that they are not just overshadowing the industry but threatening to render it obsolete.

Journalist Kent Garber explains:

The industry’s greatest hope for survival, as far as CO2 emissions go, is a work-in-progress technological arsenal known as carbon capture and storage, or CCS. With all the makings—and risk—of a classic American gamble, it is in some ways the energy equivalent of missile defense. It’s ambitious, expensive, intricate, and wildly controversial.

To get a sense of that’s required, Garber explains the CCS test project underway at American Electric Power’s Mountaineer Plant over in Mason County:

Built in 1980, it emits about 8.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. But it’s undergoing a series of major changes to convert it by the end of the year, if all goes well, into one of the country’s most ambitious, active clean coal projects. Battelle, the project’s main contractor, is currently drilling several deep underground wells at the site. Special chemicals are being added to the smokestack to separate CO2 from the rest of the emissions. Initially, the goal is to capture and store about 100,000 to 300,000 metric tons of CO2 annually, and then to go up from there, says Neeraj Gupta, Battelle’s research leader. “It’s happening now. We can do it,” says Gupta. “Just like with oil and natural gas, it’s a matter of where, under what conditions, and at what cost.”

But, he points out:

Just getting to this point—100,000 tons of CO2 is, after all, slightly over 1 percent of the plant’s annual emissions—has taken years of work and research, many false starts, new leads, exciting breakthroughs, and thousands of hours of laboratory testing and analysis.

Garber then walks us through some of the many problems with CCS, from how the technology works, to how much it costs and how to do it on the massive scale necessary. He points out the two major things that are needed: Money (tons of it) and research (lots more of it), and concludes:

Not surprisingly, there are plenty of environmentalists who are terribly unhappy with the focus on coal. They’d rather see money go elsewhere, for scaling up wind or solar power, or for huge improvements in energy efficiency. One of their key arguments is that coal combustion, even if it doesn’t release CO2, is still going to be dirty. “You can burn it more cleanly, but no matter how much you scrub coal, you will always have a waste stream. You’re just transferring it from one place to another,” says Emily Rochon, CCS policy coordinator for Greenpeace International.

But given just how reliant the nation is on coal power, the only real question seems to be how clean it will eventually become.

There’s also this story from the New York Times, which asserts that President Obama’s new stimulus plan is going to speed up efforts to clean up the coal industry:

For years, scientists have been experimenting with ways to “clean” coal, a carbon-heavy fuel that countries around the world increasingly rely on. But the technology for carbon capture and storage has been tried only on a small scale. Governments have not required companies to do what Duke is proposing here, in part because costs were so uncertain.

The allocation of $3.4 billion in the federal stimulus bill for carbon capture and sequestration, as carbon storage is often called, however, has allowed Duke Energy and other companies to consider mounting full-scale projects.

The federal money is the latest sign of a growing interest worldwide in clean coal technologies, which backers believe could prove one of the most significant ways to tackle global warming. The projects are being watched closely by environmentalists, engineers and energy officials.

[UPDATED — Zowie! A great response to the NY Times article by Matt Wald by Jesse Jenkins over on The Huffington Post:

A coal plant that captures some (or even all) of its CO2 emissions is NOT “environment-friendly” by any stretch of the imagination. “Slightly-less-deadly,” certainly. Maybe even “climate-friendly” if it captures most or all its emissions. But environmentally-friendly? Give me a break!

If we took the coal industry at their word, and actually wanted to clean up coal, we’ve got to look far beyond what comes out of the smokestacks. Coal is currently dirty from beginning to end, and we have to clean up each stage of the dingy fuel’s lifecycle to even approximate clean.

And this one from the Toronto Globe and Mail:

Two powerful lobbies are spending millions to influence public perception and so shape the future of America’s energy and environmental policies. The winner will resolve one of the principal contradictions of Barack Obama’s agenda.

The President wants to wean the United States from its reliance on imported oil. He also wants to reduce America’s greenhouse-gas emissions. The two don’t square.

This from the Business Insider:

Neverminding the naysayers, the government is pouring $3.4 billion of stimulus cash into “clean coal” technology. Duke Energy, Babcock & Wilcox and American Electric Power are all investing in carbon capture technology, and are all trying to get a share of the money.

Critics scoff at the idea of clean coal, and with good reason. The projects being developed will at most capture 40% of the carbon dioxide thrown off by coal plants. And that won’t be for another decade or so. In the near term, as in 4-5 years, maybe some carbon sequestration will grab 18% of the emissions.

And and editorial from the Heritage Foundation:

Reducing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere has been the talk of town for awhile now, but uncertainties remain on how to best do it without completely devastating an already crippling economy. One of the biggest challenges is how to burn coal, which provides 50% of America’s electricity, without emitting CO2.. At present time, the most viable option is carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).

Whether we should implement carbon reduction schemes in the United States is a different fight, but if the government is to set caps on CO2, it will be the market and the private sector that create the most efficient solutions.