“CLEAN’ COAL – EXPERIMENT, HOPE OR LIE?
The fact that “clean” coal is nothing more than a working hypothesis did not stop the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) from coming out in force at both parties’ nominating conventions.
The attraction of “clean” coal, also known as carbon-capture-and-sequestration (CCS), is enormous. In fact, it is not attraction, it is seduction. Especially for Americans, who believe in solutions the way The Great Gatsby tragically believed in the green light: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——…”
Just as Gatsby’s pursuit of the green light’s promise led him only to disappointment and tragedy, ACCCE would have the U.S. pursue the illusion of “clean” coal to the dirtiest of ends.
Political leaders find it particularly hard to turn away from the concept of “clean” coal technology because it offers the hope of a way to use the U.S.’ supposedly vast coal reserves (an abundance many authorities have begun to question) without having to pay a price in greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions.
More realistic leaders in Europe cling to the hope of “clean” coal because it seems to offer the only way to deal with the coming and veritably insatiable appetite for power in the emerging economies of China and India without dreadfully setting back the fight against global climate change.
Coal spew-cleaning technology did solve the problem of acid rain that was created by coal-fired plants. But acid rain was a relatively small-scale problem compared to the global challenge of climate change. And acid rain-inducing toxins were minor byproducts. GhGs are the main products of the reaction that produces energy in coal plants. To go on using coal as a source of power in the U.S. would require the capture and sequestration of a volume of GhGs far greater than the considerable seduction of the concept.
Andrew C. Revkin, energy writer, NY Times: “Behind the gloss, experts who have run the numbers still say that at a scale the atmosphere would notice, capturing and burying CO2 remains a pipe dream. I have yet to see a serious challenge to the math on this done by Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba, who has noted that handling just 10 percent of today’s carbon dioxide emissions would require more pipelines and other equipment than is now used worldwide to extract oil — a precious commodity — from the ground.”
When the discussion of “clean” coal turns to cost, the sweet seduction further sours. It is already more expensive to build new coal plants than to build wind installations, just because of the rising costs of basic materials and because of the advanced equipment required to capture coal burning’s toxic spew. The cost of technology to capture GhGs will be significantly higher. The problem of sequestering them, if the technology is ever proven, would be even greater.
There is another cost factor: Insurance. If trials prove GhGs can be safely sequestered for 10 years or 20 years, there will remain the question of whether they can be safely sequestered for 50 years or a century. The premiums for insurance against a failure of safe storage, considering the profound harm a release of potentially poisonous gases could cause, will be considerable.
The coal industry wants the federal government to give it taxpayer-underwitten insurance against the disaster of leakages and accidents, the same financial subsidy given the nuclear energy industry. If the federal government does not choose to carry such a large financial burden, how economically viable would “clean” coal then be?
There are several costs the taxpayer already absorbs on behalf of the coal industry. The devastating impacts on the environment from coal mining, for which the coal industry perpetrators rarely suffer the costs, is one.
Another is the cost associated with the severe air pollution that comes during the transport and burning of coal. Medical science is just barely beginning to document the range of lung diseases and cancers associated with coal-fired power.
Despite “clean” coal not being clean or affordable, ACCCE insists it is an urgent investment so the nation can perfect Coal-To-Liquids (CTL) technology and thereby achieve energy independence.
CTL is the idea Germany and Japan thought would win World War II for them. CTL is also the technology South Africa, now desperately short of energy and suffering blackouts, brownouts and economic stunting, thought would make them an energy exporter. CTL is even more GhG-intensive than petroleum. Without “clean” coal technology, the development of CTL would be devastating to the fight against global climate change. And it should be pretty clear by now that “clean” coal technology is at least 10-to-15 years away, if it is ever developed, making the use of CTL an unrealistic proposition.
Given all this, the promised coal industry “renaissance” so heralded only a few years ago seems to be stagnating. The stagnation has been helped along by a courageous stand against new coal plants from a worldwide network of environmental activists.
Revkin: “For now, you’ll be hearing lots more about lofty plans for “clean coal” technology…but I encourage you to watch for actual dollars spent on actual plants in actual places.”
Which brings up the one last but possibly most dangerous aspect of “clean” coal’s seductive promise. It is used as an excuse to build new "dirty' coal plants. Regulatory agencies are being asked to approve new plants with the stipulation the plans must have provisions for “clean” coal technology "when it is proven." This strategy for getting plants approved is especially insidious. Once appproved and built, it is extremely unlikely a multi-billion dollar facility will be left idle. Instead, it will sooner or later be put to work with the same logic that got it permitted: ”As soon as “clean” coal technology is available, we’ll install it, but the country needs the energy so much right now, doesn’t it?”
Yes, the country needs the energy. Urgently. That's why Congress needs do everything it can to facilitate innovation and growth in New Energy from the wind and the sun and the oceans.
Much more at Coal is Dirty
Trailer for Burning the Future: Coal in America From coalmovie via YouTube.
The Enduring Allure of ‘Clean Coal’
Andrew C. Revkin, August 29, 2008 (NY Times)
Clean Coal Blitz falling flat in Denver
Kevin Grandia, August 26, 2008 (Huffington Post)
Coal out in force at green convention
Jim Snyder, August 26, 2008 (The Hill)
American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy (ACCCE); Barack Obama and John McCain; Peabody Energy and Natural Resources Defense Council; Vaclav Smil, University of Manitoba
The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity spent a reported $1.7 million lobbying at the Democratic and Republican national conventions on behalf of the coal industry, creating a prominent profile widely commented on in the press and described by environmentalists as just another coal industry propaganda voice.
Say “No” To Coal While You Still Can From derrickhand301 via YouTube.
- The ACCCE message is that “clean” coal must be a part of the future U.S. energy mix.
- In The Future of Coal, MIT experts conclude that “clean” coal technology remains unproven and would require 10-to-15 years of investment in industrial-scale demonstration projects to prove it as a viable future energy strategy.
- Present emissions sequestration projects handle ~1 million tons/year To impact global climate change, the capacity to manage billions of tons/year.
- NewEnergyNews heard and read multiple reports of ACCCE’s high presence in Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul.
- The high cost of “clean” coal technology is particularly problematic if it is to impact China and India GhGs.
- Coal generates ~50% of U.S. electricity.
- Without coal as part of the energy mix, electricity rates could increase.
- Coal-fired plants generate ~20% of annual world greenhouse gas emissions
- Both presidential candidates have emissions-cutting global climate change plans that threaten the coal industry if it does not develop “clean” coal plans.
- Coal is an important industry is key electoral states.
- ACCCE and the coal industry argue the right technology could eliminate the energy v. emissions conundrum.
- The cost of the technology presents another conundrum.
- The volume of emissions it would be necessary to capture and sequester presents a further conundrum.
- ACCCE advocates a $17 billion federal investment to prove “clean” coal. It also wants any cap-and-trade or tax system to control GhGs postponed until “clean” coal technology is available.
- ACCCE also advocates federal subsidies for coal-to-liquid fuel projects.
- ACCCE used billboards, print ads and an “experiential media” footprint with a bus wrapped in a “clean” coal advertisement available to transport and educate delegates and “brand ambassadors” on the streets and working events, handing out t-shirts, buttons fans that read “I’m a fan of clean coal.”
- ACCCE has spent ~$4.7 million on lobbying so far this year, more than any other climate change .
China’s Grime Belt, reported by the BBC. From adam85is alive via YouTube.
- Matthew Lewis, Center for Public Integrity: "…[T]he ACCCE coalition…was founded this year solely to address the advancing legislation aimed at cutting the emissions of fossil fuels like coal that are blamed for global warming."
- Joe Lucas, spokesman, ACCCE: “The audiences [at the conventions] are probably the highest concentration of opinion leaders that we could reach in one geographically defined area…From the moment folks walk off the plane in Denver or Minneapolis, we start a conversation about what does clean coal mean…This is a very unique opportunity to engage…”
- Kevin Grandia, journalist, Huffington Post: “One of my sources at the Dem's convention this week told me this morning that even people hired by ACCCE to hand out free swag aren't buying into ACCCE's propaganda. Nancy Laplaca with Energy Justice told me this morning that when one of the women hired by ACCCE to hand out free t-shirts was asked whether she believed coal can really be clean, she stated that she really doubted it…When a guy touting an ACCCE clean coal t-shirt was asked a similar question, he replied, ‘hey, it's only a t-shirt.’”