There is no clean coal

Coal Power plant 850 foot tall smokestack, 7 miles from downtown Atlanta through my car window

One of the main premises of "clean coal" is that we can just bury the CO2 emissions from coal underground, as if they were never produced at all!  This is usually referred to as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). Well, that sounds great, but I wonder if that is just a red herring. In fact, I said as much in one of my very first blog posts titled "Carbon Capture and Storage - Solution or Fantasy".  In part 2 of my Carbon Capture and Storage article I stated:

As you know by now, this blog is all about Sustainable decisions.  Is CCS really a sustainable decision?  Or is it some technology that the Coal Industry is praying gets adopted.  Is CCS not the ultimate example of treating the SYMPTOMS (CO2) and not the actual DISEASE (fossil fuel power)?

I realize that for the near future, Coal power is going to be a necessity.  Despite what Al Gore says, I dont think it is feasibly possible to generate 100% of our power from renewables in 10 years.  But I do think we should be doing all we can in that time to advance alternative generation technology so that at some point we WILL be able to generate 100% free of fossil fuel.  Carbon Capture really does nothing to advance alternative forms of generation.  It doesn’t advance the technology or bring down costs.  It does act as a band aid for the coal industry.

But ignoring CO2 emissions for the moment, how else does CCS help our environment?  If we are all honest with ourselves, we have to admit that a tiny chance exists that CCS will have zero impact on the environment.  And how does CCS address the wonderful Coal questions of mountaintop removal, coal ash sludge ponds, mercury and other hazardous emissions ?  It doesn’t.

Popular Mechanics recently touched on the same point in their article, "The Myth of Clean Coal":

But that's the easy part. The harder challenge would be transporting and burying all of this high-pressure CO2. American Electric Power recently began a CCS project at its Mountaineer Plant in West Virginia. The operation captures a few hundred tons of CO2 a day. That's a start--but a typical 500-megawatt power plant produces about 10,000 tons daily. Collectively, America's coal-fired power plants generate 1.5 billion tons per year. Capturing that would mean filling 30 million barrels with liquid CO2 every single day--about one and a half times the volume of crude oil the country consumes. It took roughly a century to build the infrastructure we use to distribute petroleum products. Could we build an even bigger CCS infrastructure of pumps, pipelines and wells quickly enough to hit the ambitious targets the climate bill envisions? Serious plans to engineer--much less finance--such a vast project aren't even on the table.

Here's a final problem: We don't know if the gas will stay buried. We could easily spend hundreds of billions injecting CO2 into the earth only to have it start leaking out again in a few decades. None of this means that CCS is impossible to achieve. But it is a dangerous gamble to assume that it will become technically and economically feasible any time soon.

At the moment, the Senate's climate bill is on the back burner. And many Americans remain dubious about both the causes and the appropriate solutions for global warming. (Recent revelations that several climate scientists apparently tried to squelch legitimate debate certainly don't inspire confidence.) But concern over greenhouse gas emissions will continue, and the pressure to regu-late them is growing. Wouldn't it be a shame if we created a policy that burdens American consumers with higher energy prices and yet does virtually nothing to reduce our CO2 emissions? By embracing the clean-coal myth, that lose-lose scenario may be exactly what we stand to achieve.

Let's forget about CCS, CO2 and Climate Change for a moment, what about the other issues that are non-debatable when it comes to coal power generation like air pollution.  The AJC recently ran a very interesting article titled "Georgia Power warns of high costs for cleaner air".  I love that title.  It's like saying, "Ford motor company warns that cars will have a higher costs because of seat belts!"

The only quote in the article from Georgia Power mentioned zero of the environmental impacts, but all of the economic impacts:

Tom Fanning, CEO of Southern Co., Georgia Power’s parent, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that the rules mean the utility will have to reduce its dependency on traditional coal and switch to natural gas, the price of which is volatile.

“It’s going to reduce reliability and increase costs,” he said.

I think society understands that it costs more money up front to operate sustainably but that is benefits everyone in the long run.  If dirty coal plants would have been built or retrofitted with the correct environmental controls long ago, we wouldn't be facing this issue now.   That's why coal power is cheap, externalities like pollution aren't accounted for in the initial analysis!

As a customer of Georgia Power, I think they do an excellent job of providing electricity to my home and to other homes and businesses in Georgia.  But as an advocate for a more sustainable future, it never ceases to amaze me how some organizations have blinders on when it comes to their contribution to the health of the environment and people who live in that environment.  I have an addition to what the CEO of Southern Company could have said to the AJC in response to tighter environmental controls on coal power plants:

"It's going to reduce reliability and increase costs, but it's also going to improve the environment and the health of our ratepayers, and that can only be a good thing.  If the higher costs of electricity concern you, read Mapawatt Blog to figure out things you can do to reduce your energy bill"

Ok, so maybe he doesn't have to say that last sentence.  But you get the point.  There is more being a responsible corporate citizen than just producing your product as cheap as you can.  It's time everyone started believing that.

Oh yeah, there is no such thing as clean coal.


For a great article regarding the image at the top of the post of the Georgia Power coal plant that is being converted to a natural gas plant for environmental reasons (among others) click here.

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Clean coal has always been a myth. I believe that other forms of energy need to be exploited but we need to be aware of the impacts they have as well. Wind power seems like a great idea at first but it has down sides as well. (not on the same level as coal) They are quite noisy and if enough are used (granted you need a lot) you will start to see some changes in the weather patterns. I think that wind energy has a place in the big picture but I would not make it a major player. I would venture to say that solar (in all of its various forms) will be the biggest game changer with hopefully the least amount of side effects. I saw the article linked below a few years ago and still hold out hope for its future. I was working at natural gas plant earlier this year and was sad to hear they may be mothballing it when it was complete. I hope that the workers were wrong..... I do agree that a part of the whole problem is the wasteful use of energy. I fussed at my wife last night b/c she left the hall lights on when we left for work.

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