For Energy Secretary Chu, coal goes from ‘nightmare’ to key fuel for America’s future?

September 7, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

It wasn’t so terribly long ago that Energy Secretary Steven Chu described coal as  “my worst nightmare,” and questioned whether carbon capture and storage, or CCS, would save the mining industry.

During a talk back when he was director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a Stanford University professor, Chu — a Nobel Prize-winning physicist — described his concerns about CCS this way:

It’s sort of a research and development issue. I think we have to do this if we’re going to go forward with coal, but it’s not a guarantee that we have a solution with coal.

You can go back and read my story about those comments here, or watch the whole speech on YouTube (The coal comments are at about 28 minutes in):

Chu backed off of those statements a bit during a confirmation hearing in January 2009, saying coal is a “nightmare” only if its greenhouse emissions aren’t controlled.

Since then, Chu and his DOE have joined with the Obama administration’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in issuing a major report that embraced CCS as doable as one of the nation’s key future energy strategies.

Some West Virginia political and business leaders felt quite a snub when Chu did not show up for the October 2009 dedication ceremony for American Electric Power’s major CCS test project at its Mountaineer Plant in Mason County. Maybe Chu will make up for it tomorrow, when he appears at a 3 p.m. event at the University of Charleston as part of the university’s series of speakers on coal and energy.

Looking back on Chu’s “my worst nightmare” comments, there really was little there that did not reflect the state of the science on CCS. As reported many times here on Coal Tattoo, there are lots of hurdles — from cost to scale to safety — and many questions about CCS. But most serious experts believe CCS is the only thing that can help the coal industry survive any limits on greenhouse emissions.

But the press releases about the administration’s new report on CCS certainly sound a lot more optimistic than Chu was back then.  For example, according to the release:

President Obama’s Interagency Task Force on Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), co-chaired by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DOE), delivered a series of recommendations to the president today on overcoming the barriers to the widespread, cost-effective deployment of CCS within 10 years. CCS is a group of technologies for capturing, compressing, transporting and permanently storing power plant and industrial source emissions of carbon dioxide. Rapid development and deployment of clean coal technologies, particularly carbon capture and storage (CCS), will help position the United States as a leader in the global clean energy race. The report concludes that CCS can play an important role in domestic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions while preserving the option of using coal and other abundant domestic fossil energy resources.

I plan to cover Chu’s talk here in Charleston, and I’m especially interested in hearing what he has to say about the continued inaction on a more comprehensive energy and climate bill. And I’ d like to ask him if he thinks the bill being promoted by Sen. Jay Rockefeller — which would pump money into CCS, but not cap carbon dioxide emissions — is enough to help get this technology perfected and deployed.

10 Responses to “For Energy Secretary Chu, coal goes from ‘nightmare’ to key fuel for America’s future?”

  1. Mike Harman says:

    I recall that when Amory Lovins spoke in 1978 at the WV Land & Energy Festival, he lamented that we could take the same amount of money proposed for coal-to-liquids fuel production, and buy every American family a Volkswagen Rabbit diesel and accomplish the same thing, only cheaper and faster.

    I think the same thing applies to carbon dioxide stripping, freezing and cold storage. For the amount of money required to do that (if it is found to be possible), we could invest in more efficient use of electric power, and in non-fossil fuel solutions that would be far easier, cheaper, quicker, and more satisfying in every way. This could be the basis of a more rational energy policy package.

  2. Thomas Rodd says:

    The press release says that:

    “A Carbon Price is Critical: Widespread cost-effective deployment of CCS is best achieved with a carbon price, but there are market drivers and actions that can and are taking place now, which are essential to support near-term CCS demonstration projects that will pave the way for broader deployment after a carbon price is in place.”

    That’s their answer, Ken.

    And as Senator Byrd showed, “paving the way” is how West Virginia does things! Pave on!

  3. Gary Lee Corns says:

    Here is an idea. Why don’t those who favor a managed economy invest thier own money into the elusive “non-fossile fuels” technology. If such a thing exists, I’m sure there is a fortune waiting to be made. But lets not spend our nation’s resources into the poor house attempting to “find” something that no one in the free market has been able to find since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

    The simple reason no other “cleaner fuels” exist, is because the free market has not discovered a viable, cost effective alternative.

    I think states like West Virginia should nullify The Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act under the rights provided them via the 10th Amendment. This act would be in keeping with Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that the states have a duty to stand against over reaching federal government actions.


    With cheap, affordable, abundant energy; industrialists from around the globe would be running to WV and jobs would be abundant!

  4. Thomas Rodd says:

    Live blogging the Chu/Rockefeller event. Jay is stepping up.

  5. Thomas Rodd says:

    Chu is persuasive. This event is good for WV.

  6. Scott14 says:

    Has anyone ever put forth the idea of instaling wind mills and solar arrays on MTR sites post mining. The land could be preped in the mine plan. The intrastructure would be in place for the power generated to be easily attached to existing power lines. Roads would be built and jobs would be preserved. Miners would be happy they could continue to mine coal. Enviromental groups would have green energy sources. While I realize some sites wouldn’t be suitable some would. Perhaps this is a middle ground we can agree on.

  7. Gary Lee Corns says:

    The problem so far with windmills and solar panels is they are inefficient and intermittent sources of power. China is bringing a new coal fired power plant on line every month. India has committed to doubling its electricity output from coal by the end of the decade. The rest of the world is running to coal, while it seems we are running from it. Does anyone know if the Sierra Club has chapters in those countries?

  8. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    This story may interest you:


    Published: Thursday, December 17, 2009
    Page: 1C


    Federal experts are taking a closer look at the potential for putting solar power projects in Southern West Virginia as part of a study funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

    The project is focused on former chemical plant and other industrial sites in Nitro, but is also exploring options for abandoned mines and mined-out sites across the state’s southern coalfields.

    “A lot of folks are asking if solar power is something we can look at here in West Virginia,” said George Carico, program coordinator for Marshall University’s Brownfields Assistance Center, which is helping with the study. “They’re going to do a report on whether it is feasible or not.”

    The study is one of only 13 projects funded nationwide through EPA’s Re-Powering America program, which is aimed at encouraging renewable energy development on contaminated former industrial and mine sites. EPA is working with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory to evaluate various small- and large-scale solar power initiatives. Results are expected in the spring of 2010.

    Currently, wind, solar and biomass supply just a little more than 2 percent of the nation’s electricity. But renewable energy is expected to increase by more than 70 percent by 2030, according to DOE projections.

    Gov. Joe Manchin has listed solar power among the energy sources he would like to promote, but his Division of Energy’s statewide energy plan focused on coal. Manchin proposed development of a series of coal-to-liquids fuel plants across the state, a proposition that – without a mandate for greenhouse gas controls that the state doesn’t have – would double carbon dioxide emissions compared to traditional petroleum transportation fuel.

    Only two pages of the 27-page Manchin energy plan dealt with solar, but the plan did say that the energy potentially available from solar power in West Virginia is comparable to surrounding states.

    “These numbers indicate that it is feasible to harness solar opportunities in West Virginia,” the plan said. “As solar equipment becomes more cost competitive, more West Virginians will be exploring this option.”

    The plan set no concrete goals for developing large-scale solar facilities in West Virginia. The Manchin energy bill approved by lawmakers earlier this year does provide incentives for developers to put renewable energy facilities on former mine sites. But the governor has refused to advocate putting a wind facility on a Coal River Mountain site instead of the mining operation Massey Energy has begun operating there.

    On its Web site, EPA lists among the success stories for such projects a wind-generation facility on a former coal-mining site in Somerset, Pa., that produces enough power to supply about 2,500 homes.

    “EPA analyzed renewable energy potential on over 10,000 abandoned coal-mine features in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia covering more than 1 million acres plus an additional 2,000 hard-rock mineral mine sites in Virginia, covering another 8,000 acres,” EPA said. “These areas cover huge swaths of land, offering the best potential for large-scale renewable energy facilities.”

    EPA added, “Appalachian coal was instrumental in fueling economic growth and industrial development throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

    “As we look for new opportunities to fuel the 21st century, Appalachian coal communities may once again have a big role to play,” the agency said. “We took the energy out from these sites and now we’re looking for opportunities to put the energy back.”

  9. Taylor says:

    W/r/t windmills on post-mtr sites: it isn’t economically attractive to for-profit generators (e.g. Gamesa) because 1) the wind speed is lower because the elevation has been lowered, and 2) the installation of each turbine costs more because it needs a deeper base due to the terrain being less stable post-mtr.

  10. Scott14 says:

    Taylor, in the reclaimation process we can raise the elevation to what ever we want as long as it is in the approved mine plan. Perhaps we could also work with consultants to slope the ground to funnel the wind to the turbines and in the process improve energy production. As for the pylons needing to be sunk deeper. We could help here also. Where the turbines are to be set we can dig the holes and line them with strong rock and compact the ground to improve stability. While I’m not a expert engineer this is just a thought.

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