Is Clean Coal Possible?

I dislike coal. Besides CO2, it produces pollutants that kill forests and blacken buildings & lungs. But coal is the fuel of the future. Coal consumption will nearly double by 2030, with 81% of that increase coming from developing countries like China & India, and supply 27% of the world’s energy. Ignore coal and our world goes to hell. That is why President Bush’s clean coal initiative is so important.

The locus of world environmental decision making is shifting from Europe and the U.S. to developing countries such as China & India. Coal consumption in China and India is expected to increase by 3.6 billion tons in the next 30 years. Already the air in many Chinese cities is well neigh unbreathable and Chinese pollution darkens snow in Washington and British Columbia. Everything we do short of addressing this problem is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while ignoring the oncoming iceberg.

Renewable energy and nuclear power may well be the fuels of the more distant future, but we have to face the fact that coal will be a big part of our energy mix for the rest of our lifetimes.

Most Americans probably have not heard of the Asia Pacific Partnership. President Bush announced it less than a year ago but it holds promise as an excellent multilateral way to address energy and environmental issue and help the inevitable economic development to be cleaner and better. I wrote about our relationship with India and last week the Senate overwhelmingly supported the Indian nuclear deal. Nuclear power will mitigate the need for coal, but will not eliminate it. Renewables (including my personal favorite cellulos ethanol), conservation and nuclear power are good options but not sufficient.

After all this, I still do not like coal, but I see that we WILL use more coal, both in the U.S. and especially in developing countries. We need to ensure that we have the best and most efficient technologies available.

Today the Department of Energy announced that it will grant $1 billion in tax credits to clean coal projects. These are working toward a zero emission power plant. I personally do not think a zero emission power plant is possible. All energy production entails risks and costs. But working toward this goal will certainly be better than pretending we can find some magic formula. And we can share technological imporvements with developing countries that will use more coal, cleaning their air and ours.

Sometime in the future, I believe most of the world's energy will come from renewables, but that day is a long ways off. The optimistic scenario is for renewable energy to make up 25% of our energy mix by 2025. With reasonable economic growth, that remaining 75% will be MORE energy than we use today in total. Let's try to generate that energy in a way that is sustainable for our environment.

Posted by Jack at November 30, 2006 5:33 PM
Comment #197117


I was in Dailin, China during December of 95’ and the Chinese use coal for everything, except maybe to power their cars.
I stood on the roof of a 5 story building and could barely see a building of equal size under construction only 3 blocks away.
They will have to come an awful long way to change habits of their population.
The pollution in that country is nearly overwhelming.

Posted by: Rocky at November 30, 2006 6:17 PM
Comment #197130


Glad to see you linking to DOE sites! Next thing I know, you’ll be linking to EIA.

Carbon sequestration is not only possible, we can already do it. The issue is cost, of course. Zero emission plants possible? Well, I think it’s very possible to come damn close, at least.

You are absolutely correct that even if we attain 25 percent of our energy from renewables by 2025 that the remaining 75 percent will actually be more than we consume today. Demand is projected to steadily rise while intensity is projected to continue to decline. More people is one reason, of course.

I agree that, like it or not, coal is crucial to energy independence.

In my optimistic days, I think there will be a tipping point when because of cost effectiveness and, perhaps, public desire, we start to see a rapid adoption of renewable technologies. It’s easy to speculate what they might be, but impossible to be definite. Some researchers, for example, believe we are close to achieving super low cost, very thin and flexible solar panels, which we can easily apply almost anywhere. Because they are so cheap, they can be applied to homes etc in locations we wouldn’t dream of now. Mark my words, sooner or later we will see widespread local production of energy — it’s important to get laws based in all states requiring power companies to buy back local produced power. Some states already do, of course. I’ve talked to a gent running a small shop who described the glee he and his employees had when, after integrating the power he produced through wind and solar into the power grid, actually watched his electricity meter run backwards.

Increasing supply is crucial, but equally crucial is energy efficiency including what we used to call conservation before the Republicans made that a dirty word (sorry, but it’s true). Build into the side of a hill, orient your business or home to either capture solar heat or avoid it, build down into the earth — there are many many ways to make homes and businesses extremely cost effective. These zero-energy homes that have been built — they are possible not only because of locally produced power but because they take advantage of energy efficient lighting, heating and cooling, and appliances and because they are well insulated and oriented properly.

IT can be frustrating because so much energy could be saved by very simple measures. In Texas I went to homes with a weatherization expert who advised low-income elderly folks on how to cut their bills — some of it is very simple. If you are not using a room, close the heating and AC vent.

I freak out when I go to my dad’s house in Texas — during the summer the AC is set to 68 but doors and windows are wide open! Arrrrgggghhhhh.

Posted by: Trent at November 30, 2006 7:05 PM
Comment #197150


That is why the clean coal technology is so important. No matter what we do in the U.S., Chinese & Indian pollution will smother us if we cannot come up with a better way.


I think we can conserve a lot. As you say, energy per unit of GDP is dropping, which shows we are conserving. Most of the “conservation” comes from the production of energy itself. If we can make a coal plant 5% more efficient, that is worth a lot of closed windows.

Posted by: Jack at November 30, 2006 7:46 PM
Comment #197163

The real promise of coal lies in coal liquefaction and gasification. Coal-to-Liquids (CTL) technology was developed by Germany in the 20’s. The era of cheap petroleum made it uneconomic. Now with the high price of oil CTL fuels are actually cheaper than petroluem based fuels.
They are also much cleaner. Diesels that use it don’t belch the black smoke we’ve come to associate with them. CTL diesel also has a shelf life of 8 years, compared to petroleum diesel’s shelf life of 3-4 months, making it much better for the strategic reserve. It’s also biodegradable.
On Sept. 19 CTL fuel was used to to power a B-52 in a successful test of the viability of alternative fuels for the military.
In the spring of 07 construction will kick off on a $1 bil. coal liquefaction plant in Natchez, Ms. Within a couple of years (possibly sooner) we’ll see CTL fuels on the market.

Posted by: traveller at November 30, 2006 8:51 PM
Comment #197164
After all this, I still do not like coal, but I see that we WILL use more coal… We need to ensure that we have the best and most efficient technologies available.

Duh. Democrats have been saying that for years. Just think, if Republicans hadn’t let coal power plants slip through EPA loopholes for years, America would be the leader in clean coal technology. Selling the tech would go a long way towards evening up our trade deficit with coal-dependent countries like China.

Welcome aboard, Jack. Better late than never.

Posted by: American Pundit at November 30, 2006 9:18 PM
Comment #197168


Sure. Dems are all goodness & light. I wonder how it is that when Dems held Congress or the Presidency or when they held the Congress & the Presidency we didn’t make more progress.

It is also important to remember that government can provide incentives, but the private sector does most of the heavy lifting.

I am also surprised that Dems are so enthusiastic about coal.

Posted by: Jack at November 30, 2006 9:36 PM
Comment #197179
It is also important to remember that government can provide incentives…

Like greenhouse gas emission credits? Why are you Republicans so dead set against a market-based cap & trade system for CO2?

I am also surprised that Dems are so enthusiastic about coal.

Not enthusiastic, just realistic. You made that point yourself. Plus, we’d like to pick up a few more seats in coal country. When you consider the new jobs, new technologies and the green goodness, clean coal is a win-win. ;)

Posted by: American Pundit at November 30, 2006 10:23 PM
Comment #197183

Yeah, I’m not crazy about coal either. I was raised in Montana and heard much about strip mining, etc. Coal extraction doesn’t have to be so environmentally disruptive, of course, but it’s still not something to be happy about. Realistically, though, it’s by far our most abundant fossil fuel. Continuing to pursue clean coal technology is necessary for CO2 reasons espeically, as Jack points out, other big countries also rely so heavily upon it. Sharing clean coal advances just makes sense.

Posted by: Trent at November 30, 2006 10:34 PM
Comment #197206

I generally don’t have emotional reactions to rocks.

I grew up in Ohio,where coal was and is the energy producer of choice, and my ancestry is from the Cannal Coal fields of Kentucky.(Cannal Coal is a high energy-low sulphur coal)

It’s cheap, there is lots of it, and it’s where the market is heading. I don’t criticize India or Brazil for the destruction of their habitats for the sake of development. America may rue it’s own history of massive destruction of it’s own resources, but that doesn’t give us the right to preach to others.

Fossil fuels of any kind aren’t clean in any absolute terms, but neither is Nuclear. We’ve developed all the hydro energy we can in this country. Solar, Wind and Ehanol or Bio diesels cannot replace oil. We are finding ourselves cornered wihout free access to oil. Redcucing our energy consumption significantly will mean a lowering of our standards of living and global power.

There needs to be a leader in this country, who can communicate these ideas effectivly and develop a sensible energy policy. We have no such policy currently. Our population is not shrinking.

Our future: be it wars, economics, or health depends on us getting it right.

Posted by: gergle at December 1, 2006 5:21 AM
Comment #197228


(Yep, I’m still lurking)

As a long-time resident of West Virginia (Myself and several past generations of my family), I have long lived with the myth of “Clean Coal” boasted by Coal companies to try to appease the citizens living in or around mining sites.

I gotta say, we would wholeheartedly welcome TRUE clean coal technology. Unfortunately, drawing on at least a hundred years of history, “We don’t believe them.”

Again and again and again we watch as our mountains are stripped of all (not just the coal) of their natural resources are told by Big Coal to “Look at all the wonderful landscape (flat I might add)we created for you when we were finished mining it only to learn that in the process our existing streams were destroyed, and the ones left were poisoned. This is not even mentioning the sludge ponds and slurries left over that further poison and destroy not only the land and resources, but homes, families and entire communities have been wiped out as a result of this “clean coal” mining. And…I’m not even going to get into underground mining and the tragedies and disasters it has cost the people of West Virginia.

We want STRICT, legislation in place to protect our land, our families and our environment and we want STRICT, enforcement with hefty penalties when companies are in violation.

We DON’T trust them and for darn good reason.

Just one example I’ll give as to why we are so negative toward Big Coal: Don Blankenship, President of Massey Energy (an OUT OF STATE Company) just dropped 2 million dollars of his OWN MONEY on a negative ad campaign trying to get our legislaters voted out and his own “folks” voted in. Boy, did it get ugly!
Fortunately, WV Voters even those who rely on the coal industry for their survival had to question why this man with his out-of-state company had such an interest in West Virginia politics as to drop that kind of money to oust existing policy-makers in favor of his own.

I haven’t linked any references, but just google Massey Energy and WV or Don Blankenship and WV and stand back.

Again, I (and most West Virginians) are DO WANT clean Coal technology. But simply calling it “clean won’t make it so.


Posted by: sassyliberal at December 1, 2006 10:55 AM
Comment #197246

Jack, while I agree with your sentiments and arguments, how do you propose we eliminate the partisan warfare that will take place over taxing oil based energy to the point of making alternatives price competitive?

Also, you seem to have omitted infrastructure redesign which conserves energy as potentially the single greatest potential step toward energy independence for the dollar invested.

All electric SUV’s are just around the corner with new innovations in battery design. Incredible savings and independence can be yielded by moving toward earth or other cheap berming materials insulating up to 80% of new home construction exterior walls, cutting heating and cooling costs up to 75%. Installing solar water heaters in all new homes is a very cheap cost and energy saving measure.

But with each of these proposals comes a horde of lobbyists representing industries which would lose as a consequence. How can that be addressed? Lobby reform, perhaps?

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 1, 2006 12:58 PM
Comment #197265

David R.,

Do you have any evidence that lobbying concerns are preventing the adoption of energy efficient practices and technologies?

Posted by: Trent at December 1, 2006 2:22 PM
Comment #197282

Coal, Oil, Ethanol, Electricity, Water, Wind, etc. I don’t care what we use as long as it’s not foreign. The last time we used our resources only, gas was 96 cents per gallon. The environmentalists have shackled us to our enemies by begging our coal, oil, and shale fields to be set up as federal reserves. We have the largest shale deposit in the world. Shale can be converted to oil.

If politicians want to gain the love of the people, they must cut off every trade into foreign energy resources (ally or enemy) and ignore the howl of the enviromentalist.

Posted by: stubborn conservative at December 1, 2006 4:22 PM
Comment #197294


When gas was 96 cents a gallon, we were already using a lot of foreign oil. We started to be a net importer sometime in the 1960s (as I recall. I would not bet my life on it).

Back when we were net exporters, gas was about 20 cents a gallon. That sounds good, but you might recall that a cup of coffee was about a nickel. Last time I got gas, it was $2.05. Coffee costs about the same. Maybe that gas is not such a bad deal.

Posted by: Jack at December 1, 2006 5:19 PM
Comment #197324

Jack, where can you get coffe for a nickel? Around here it’s about a buck.

Posted by: traveller at December 1, 2006 8:42 PM
Comment #197353


I am comparing the price of coffee when gas was 20 cents. These days people happily pay $1.50-3.00. On the other hand, they think the price of gas is too high.

Posted by: Jack at December 1, 2006 11:24 PM
Comment #197371

I’m all for renewables — and Jack is wrong, they aren’t something to look forward to in the future. The technology is already here, right now. While Hydrogen fuel cells have been a complete waste of our tax dollars, Solar just keeps getting better and better — and cheaper and lighter in weight. Just needs some effective govt. support and some nice big chunks of private industry money to get behind this clean, efficient technology. Also, I’ve always said that I’m against nuclear power, but recently, I’ve been reading about Thorium, and it’s sounds very promising. Some basic info about Thorium can be found on this excellent website.

Posted by: Adrienne at December 2, 2006 2:21 AM
Comment #197374

Trent, do you have any evidence oil and gas companies aren’t lobbying for their corporate futures?

The lobbyists push for ANWR and coastal drilling is only an attempt to keep us oil addicted. The Lobbyists push for more natural gas infrastructure is an attempt to preserve our dependence on carbon based fuels. And what of the oil transport lobbyists, oil brokerages, derrick builders, off shore drilling rig manufacturers? Do you really believe they are lobbying for alternative fuels and independence from carbon based energy?

Just a modicum of economics familiarity will dictate that lobbyists in such industries will indeed lobby to obstruct, divert, and misinform in order to preserve ever increasing profit margins as driven by increasing scarcity and growing global demand.

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 2, 2006 2:29 AM
Comment #197386

David R.,

Without re-reading, I think you had suggested that lobbying concerns where attacking energy-efficient techologies and practices. Perhaps we’ve had a miscommunication. To me, renewable energy sources are a different issue than energy efficiency. One deals with supply; the other with consumption. I found surprising what I took to be a claim that big lobbyists are trying to prevent me from buying energy-efficient appliances or weatherizing my house. I worked in this field for awhile and saw no evidence of that.

As far as big oil lobbying for support of their interests. Of course it does; no disagreement there.

Curiously, many privately owned power producers actually encourage energy efficiency and conservation. If you get online and search for energy efficiency rebates, you’ll find hudnreds of utilities offering rebates for the purchase of energy efficient stuff. Why? Because it makes business sense. If they can slow the growth of demand, they can delay the extremely expensive production of new power plants. It makes business sense.

Posted by: Trent at December 2, 2006 7:37 AM
Comment #197387
If we can make a coal plant 5% more efficient, that is worth a lot of closed windows.

Yes. And if we make industrial and manufacturing processes more efficient, we save a lot too. If we hadn’t improved these processes so much over the decades, we’d be in a lot worse shape. One government program I heartily approve of is the Industrial Technologies Program. The gains in energy efficiency caused by this program have in many cases been enormous. Unfortunately from a PR perspective, they are invisible to most Americans.

There are two sides to the energy issue: production and consumption. I think in these discussions we too often only focus on production. Both are equally important.

Posted by: Trent at December 2, 2006 8:19 AM
Comment #197410

David Remer:

I’m all for ANWR oil. The place is barely habited and the ground looks like the moon. I do not want us to become oil addicted though. Drill for oil while coming up with those alternative fuels. When we have the alternatives, we will hoard up the oil and give it to no one. 100 years later when oil is scarce, we shall sell our oil at high rates and give OPEC a taste of their medicine.

Posted by: stubborn conservative at December 2, 2006 12:49 PM
Comment #197450

Stubborn, one reason you are a conservative and I am a social liberal is because you tell the ANWR wildlife, sorry, die, we need your land. I say we share this great nation with our wildlife and when the American people and its Congress establish an Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, it should remain a refuge from greedy commercial profiteers like oil companies or anyone else who can scheme a profit from displacing the wildlife.

In other words, conservatives make all principles and contracts negotiable after the fact if profit potential is discovered to be impeded by previous contracts and principles. As a social liberal, I believe such contracts and principles (like Habeas Corpus, Geneva Conventions, ANWR) are not to be blown away because your party’s affiliates figure out a way to profit by their degradation.

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 2, 2006 7:03 PM
Comment #197481

David R. Remer,
Your fantasies about both conservatives and the ANWR are amusing.
Here, try some facts for a change. (presents arguments in favor of drilling) (presents both sides of the debate) (presents arguments against drilling)

Posted by: traveller at December 2, 2006 10:59 PM
Comment #197492



Posted by: stubborn conservative at December 3, 2006 12:56 AM
Comment #197592

Full exploitation of ANWR would have a negligible effect on foreign oil imports. Look at the government’s estimate (in particular, page 94, figure 90, and accompanying text).

Posted by: Trent at December 3, 2006 9:03 PM
Comment #197682

It now costs 13 dollars and change to extract a barrel. of oil from the Canadian tar sands. that oil is being sold on the open market for around 60 dollars a barrel.

Posted by: jlw at December 4, 2006 6:39 PM
Comment #197724


Do you own a car? If you do, do you really believe if costs you only whatever you pay for gas to drive that car? When you figure the cost of your car, you have to figure in the cost of buying the car, insurance, maintenance etc. When you are all done, you understand that the cost of gas is only a small part of the total.

When you say it costs $13 to get a barrel of oil from the oil sand, I suppose you may be right if you count only the variable cost. It is a common problems among non-investors to figure only variable costs.

In oil,there is also the cost of unavoidable mistakes. You have to explore many kilometers before you find the right one.

You also do not take into account the future. When you sell something, you are not interested in the previous cost, you are interested in the cost of future units.

Beyond all this, it is a terrible thing if oil is cheap. If you are concerned about the environment, you have to advocate higher energy prices. If oil is $13 a barrel, no alternative power makes any sense.

Posted by: Jack at December 4, 2006 10:47 PM
Comment #356080

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