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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.

A version of this article appeared in the March 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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