Clean Coal: It's Not a Misnomer, But is it the Answer?

Advances in clean coal are promising -- really! -- but the industry and society shouldn't celebrate just yet.

Bill Sigmon is about to do the impossible. Later this year, Sigmon's company, American Electric Power, will generate electricity from coal while belching less carbon dioxide into the air.

At AEP's giant coal-fired Mountaineer power plant in the tiny town of New Haven, West Virginia, Sigmon's team will equip the smokestack with new technology that uses chilled ammonia to trap carbon dioxide before it can be released. The CO2 will then be liquefied and transferred via a short pipeline to a site where it will be injected into a well a mile and a half underground -- hopefully its permanent resting place. "It's critical that the industry begins to understand how to capture carbon and what we do with it after we capture it," Sigmon says.

In a Southern twang, Sigmon, AEP's senior vice president of engineering, projects, and field services, calls it a "big move forward." And it is: the first U.S. project to both capture and store carbon within an operating plant. Environmentalists like to deride "clean" coal. (See the sneering TV ads in which a man enters the "clean-coal plant" and steps into a deserted landscape.) But guess what? We're stuck with our 600 coal-fired plants -- they produce 50% of our electricity -- and we need technology to clean them up. Coal plants produce 32% of all U.S. carbon emissions. We can hope that coal will fade away when renewable alternatives emerge. Until then, we may have to give clean coal a smudgy embrace as a key part of our energy near-future.

"This is not like a flight to the moon," declares Frank Alix, a nuclear engineer who once worked on Navy submarines and is now pursuing carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. "All the scientists you talk to believe this is imminently doable and there are no significant barriers to be overcome." Alix is developing a clean-coal system not within a large utility company but at his startup, Powerspan, located in an old Air Force base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. A little more than a year ago, Powerspan licensed carbon-capture technology from the U.S. Department of Energy -- which has spent millions researching the idea -- and refined it. Alix says Powerspan's approach will add a manageable 3 to 4 cents per kilowatt-hour to the current cost of coal-fueled electricity while removing 90% of the CO2.

Still, clean-coal technology has yet to prove it can work on a large scale. AEP's Mountaineer project, as groundbreaking as it is, will remove only between 100,000 and 300,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions annually. That's less than 4% of the 8.5 million metric tons the West Virginia plant spews every year. Powerspan is working with Basin Electric Power Cooperative on a test plant in North Dakota, but that won't be operational until 2012.

Herein lies the problem with singing the praises of clean coal: It is still at least six or seven years from prime time. And the coal industry has embraced CCS today as a license to build even more plants. Coal plants, even ones with CCS, will still emit mercury, nitrous oxide, and other toxins. Not to mention the lingering environmental issues surrounding coal mining.

We need clean coal in the mix while even safer alternate-energy technologies such as wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass prove themselves. Make no mistake: It's a stopgap measure. It's hard to see how keeping coal as "the backbone of the U.S. electricity system for decades if not centuries," as the coal industry suggests triumphantly, is a good idea in the long run.

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  • Emil Möller

    please recall Shell US CEO: "Carbon Capture and storage is uncertain to deliver and when it does, it will be after 15 years from now." --- Please tell me how 'a good interim measure' fits in this statement. ---Coal 'doesn't go away quickly' due to our lack of vision, leadership and clout. Not because of some inherent quality of coal. Same with burning other fossils, or any addiction for that matter. --- Given the gravity of the matter, perhaps we should reverse the burden of proof: why would 100% clean energy within 10 years NOT be possible?

  • Emil Möller

    please recall Shell US CEO: "Carbon Capture and storage is uncertain to deliver and when it does, it will be after 15 years from now." --- Please tell me how 'a good interim measure' fits in this statement. ---Coal 'doesn't go away quickly' due to our lack of vision, leadership and bold action. Not because of some inherent quality of coal. Same with burning other fossils, or any addiction for that matter. --- Given the gravity of the matter, perhaps we should reverse the burden of proof: why would 100% clean energy within 10 years NOT be possible?

  • John Ruzicka

    Clean coal isn't a long-term solution, but could be a good interim measure (along with several others) that can be rolled out on a large scale in a relatively short time. Coal isn't going away quickly, so this can at least reduce its negative effects.

  • Emil Möller

    coal has served us well in the past, but considering its side effects has run its course.--- If cleaning it up were realistically possible, deliver relief sufficiently quick and not drain $$ at the detriment of real / final clean power generating options, we should put our cards on that option. --- But that simply is not the case_it is not possible on any significant scale/it will take at least 15 years to deliver a significant relief [and facilitate a fossil / defensive/ suboptimal excusing state of mind, which we enact to our own detrimnent] and press heavy on our $$ and material budget. --- After which we've not addressed the underlying issues: our unsustainable use of resources, be they coal, oil, natural gas, rare materials. Whatever people kill one another for. See www.oilcrashmovie.com on this.--- Think of what a war like economic effort, of all industrialzed nations could do. An effort to address the consequences of our fossil party driven high standard of living. This would evoke the best in other nations and will multiply our effort, thus making it effective. --- This would be an honorable and intelligent pathway towards a better place for all children, of all species of all times.

  • Jonathan Gilbert

    Coal is such a big source of electricity, 40% worldwide and 50% in USA, that if we don't find a way to clean it up, we lose. If we are successful in most of the new renewable technologies, but fail in coal, we lose. But if we win at cleaning up coal, we will win even if we are only marginally successful at the new renewable technologies.

  • Emil Möller

    and it's unneccesary, since alternatives are already there and only need scaling up --- when solar thermal power plants (which have a spotless track record for reliably delevering energy for decades), would be coupled with wind farms, geo thermal and other -local- sources through a super grid & smart grids (including plug in cars) we would be having the basis for a ~~~solar powered circular economy~~~ --- Nations, enterprises, academia, media, communities should stop squibbling. Start realizing WE are the terrorists of our children, standing between them and solutions gathering dust on the shelves enabling a good life for them. Start acting as if the future of all children, of all species of all times would interest us. Raise our voice, so our leaders know what we want / what will keep them in office & business.--- Next stop: http://en.cop15.dk/

  • Emil Möller

    continuing burning fossils is costly on many vectors:

    1. 25% of the original energy content is lost in the process of cleaning up
    2. cleaning up adds 40 to 65% to the cost to consumers
    3. taking all costs into account (mining, transport, emissions, residues) makes it even more expensive
    4. $$ invested in this technology are not spend in true clean solutions (solar, wind, geo thermal, wave, etc)
    5. any $ invested has a good chance to never deliver climate relief at all, since it is not proven it will work at large scale
    6. if it works, it will start making a difference in 15 years (source: Shell's US CEO)
    7. the cost in $$ and materials for the pipeline-network between coal power plants and sites where CO2 can be injected are very high, due to large distances involved