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And Maybe Unicorns Will Save Us

Because there's no such thing as clean coal.

by Eric de Place

Unicorns.bmp Apparently, everybody loves clean coal. Barack Obama loves it and John McCain loves it. Joe Biden really loved it during his VP debate -- and Sarah Palin loved it too.

But here's the problem. Clean coal is very much like a unicorn: it doesn't exist.

And because it doesn't exist, it will not save us from climate change.

Via Kate Sheppard, Carolyn Auwaerter of 1Sky nails it:

"Clean coal" is a contradiction in terms. Conventional coal-burning power plants are the leading cause of global warming pollution in the United States. Coal lobbyists will immediately reply that they can develop coal plants in the future that will capture and sequester carbon pollution.

But this is misleading. Carbon capture and sequestration is unproven, dangerous, and exorbitantly expensive. At best, the technology will not be commercially available until 2030 and the U.S. Department of Energy calculates that installing carbon capture systems will almost double plant costs, which won't provide any relief to Americans' soaring utility bills.


Allow me to elaborate. There are basically two meanings of "clean coal." The first is new conventional coal plants, which can indeed be more efficient and cleaner than the awful old ones. But even the new ones are a disaster. New coal plants are "clean" in the same way that it's "healthy" to switch from Marlboro Reds to Camel Lights.

The other meaning of "clean coal" is happy talk about futuristic coal plants that will capture and sequester carbon. I hope these arrive someday -- truly I do -- but at the moment they're far beyond the engineering horizon. The technology to capture and sequester carbon would be an excellent thing. And I'm all for it. But the potential arrival of this technology is much too risky to bet on.

I really hope that all this "clean coal" nonsense is just empty pandering to coal-producing swing states. That's my best case scenario. Because we need a serious carbon cap right about now. And it's pretty hard to see how coal jibes with any realistic climate protection.

Speaking of carbon caps, that's another thing that Obama, McCain, Biden, and Palin all profess to agree on. But if we're going to hitch our climate strategy to clean coal, there's just one thing left to do: shut our eyes tight and wish with all our heart for the magic global warming unicorns to fly to our rescue!

This piece originally appeared on the Sightline Institute's blog, The Daily Score.

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Anything can be combusted in a way that is clean if we are willing to use the right processes and the right combustion methods – that includes coal, or anything else. We have thousands of coal plant in the US and some of them are old and dirty. If they were replaced right away with the newest coal technologies, you would see a dramatic improvement. I’m talking about things such as fluid bed combustion.

Here’s the good part – they cost less to operate because they produce a lot more heat per pound of coal and because of this, the power companies are willing to pay for them without help from the tax payer.

Say it again – anything can be burnt cleanly if the right combustion technology is used, including coal.

Posted by: Wise Golden on 8 Oct 08

While I agree with the basic premise of this response, I would also like to point out that the use of clean coal technology in the future is virtually guaranteed. Unless we dramatically curb our energy needs through efficiency and conservation means, and unless there is some dramatic, unforeseen "free energy"-level discovery on the alt. energy front -- doubtful, as someone who has several years education in the matter -- there will be clean coal plants built, just like there WILL be drilling in ANWR and off-shore and anywhere else we can get to. That's why enviro protectionism does not work. Block ANWR or pointing out the obvious flaws in clean coal is like the little Dutch boy sticking his fingers in the dike -- it does nothing to address WHY it's economical and desirable to do these obviously harmful things, the fact that we all DEMAND cheap energy and wish to do nothing but suck on that teat until it's dry.

Posted by: dZed on 8 Oct 08

"Say it again – anything can be burnt cleanly if the right combustion technology is used, including coal."

Sorry, but that is old, halfway thinking. Even IF ideal combustion technologies could make trace heavy metals in coal disappear (which they can't), the output is still heavy in CO2.

The theoretical possibility of large-scale combustion carbon capture and successful long-term sequestration has nothing to do with combustion technologies, but rather is a kind of immense post-processing of the combustion output.

We've got to embrace the understanding that CO2 is a major, dangerous air pollutant. Combustion per se, however "clean" in the non-CO2 sense, needs to be scaled back by 90% of more worldwide.

Posted by: Kevin Matthews on 8 Oct 08

Time to usher in the Birth of Blue.

The language of limits, restrictions, and reductions is counter-productive. It is no more helpful for us to denounce clean coal technologies than it is to promote them as the silver bullet.

I don't say this in spite of the problem's severity - I say this because of the problem's severity.

Let's play to our strengths and work smarter, not harder!

Posted by: Kyle Taylor on 8 Oct 08

Coal-fired power plants wouldn't be clean even if only rainbows and butterflies came out of the smokestack.

Where do you think the coal comes from?

MINING! Mostly mountain top removal mining. Yes, very "clean" in the sense of cleaning off entire mountains, leaving a toxic, barren moonscape. Even if you could care less about saving wildlife and forests in the abstract sense, you can't deny the fact that forests are literally providing the air we breathe and purifying the water we drink and attempting to stabilize the climate. I'm talking about ecosystem services--provided free of charge by nature or for trillions of dollars with toxic side effects by humans--take your pick.

It sure takes a lot of energy to do that mining, too. Where do you think that comes from? Some other "clean" process like oil drilling and the wars associated with that?

There is no such thing as clean coal and there never will be such a thing. You couldn't even have clean coal IN THEORY, let alone reality. PERIOD

We're not going to win the coal debate by talking about emissions. There are theoretical ways to clean up emissions. There are no theoretical ways to clean up mining.

Posted by: greensolutions on 8 Oct 08

I agree. "Clean Coal" technology is a downright stupid half-@$$ed way of reducing emmisions and padding coal companies on the back and brushing off environmentalists. The only real solutions are alternative energy. Wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, ocean thermal, its all there. It gives us more than enough energy to power the world five times over. The oil companies and coal companies need to realize that they are going to fail one day and one way or another. If America doesn't realize this soon, then we can start drilling our graves.

Posted by: Cullen on 26 Oct 08



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