Energy Insights from Policy Expert Marilyn Brown
Clean Coal: Myth or Reality?
An attack on coal is being mounted by many environmental groups across the United States. The Sierra Club, for instance, has initiated a "Beyond Coal Campaign," and the Natural Resources Defense Council is systematically fighting each and every proposed new coal plant. James Hansen (a climate scientist who heads NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies) has called for a moratorium on building new conventional coal plants.
At the same time, leaders of the electric power industry are pushing back. Many appear to agree with Michael Morris, president, chairman and CEO of American Electric Power, that "The fuel opportunities in our business today are really coal or nuclear." They emphasize the fact that the United States has larger known coal reserves than any other country on Earth, and because of its fortuitous coal endowments, the U.S. needs to place coal squarely in the center of its strategic energy planning. But they recognize that to do this, they need to promote "clean coal."
But what do they mean by clean coal, and is it clean enough for the American public? Clean coal technology is a generic term for technologies that reduce the environmental impacts of coal energy generation, which are numerous. Coal mining removes mountaintops and causes acid drainage into river systems; toxic sludge is created while preparing coal to be burned, and it can spill out of its impoundment as recently occurred in Kingston, Tennessee; its acid precipitation damages fisheries, crops, forests, and livestock; and when coal is burned, it releases sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, particulates, and a lot of carbon dioxide that contributes to global climate change.
All of these environmental assaults must be fixed; however, the most immediate need is to ensure that the carbon contained in coal is not released to the atmosphere. Mining for coal is still a dirty business, but based on the American public's concern about climate change, it's important that we at least reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from coal combustion.
Reflecting this public priority, Congress has established research programs in the area of carbon capture and storage. DOE and the coal industry have spent billions of dollars developing and deploying clean coal technologies, including carbon capture and storage. The expenditure has been unsuccessful to date in that there is not a single commercial-scale coal-fired power station in the U.S. that captures and stores more than token amounts of CO2. But there are dozens of pilot projects that, if successful, could offer the rest of the world a technological fix to carbon dioxide emissions from coal combustion. Whether or not this creates overall "clean coal" is debatable.
Until clean coal is a reality and until the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions is codified into a legislative framework, many argue that the construction of new coal plants using traditional technology would be imprudent. According to the National Energy Technology Laboratory, 43 coal plants are in various phases of progression in the U.S., ranging from permitted (10) or near construction (6) to under construction (27), representing a total new capacity of 22 GW.
The trend over several years has been for most coal power plant developments to be delayed, and there has been an increasing number of cancellations due to regulatory uncertainty (regarding climate change) and strained project economics.
Climate scientists and economists recognize that even if the United States were to wean itself from coal (which is not likely and also possibly unwise), China and India will not. So, it's imperative that we work to radically limit the amount of carbon dioxide thrown into the atmosphere by coal power plants.
Coal plants account for approximately one-third of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, and these emissions are forecast to increase both absolutely and as a proportion of total U.S. emissions over the next 15 years. In contrast, carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. transportation fuels are forecast to nearly level off in absolute terms and to shrink their proportionate contribution over the same time frame, as the efficiency of U.S. cars and SUVs improves.
More efficient electricity consumption can play a similar role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. But to avoid dangerous levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere while allowing coal to be a prominent source of U.S. power production, we must learn to store and capture carbon dioxide. Clean coal may be a myth today, but it must be a reality in the next decade or two.