“There’s no such thing as Clean Coal” – A Liberal’s take on Liberal Stupidity

Clean Coal.  Everyone’s talking about it.  Well, every politician in America is talking about it, at least.  And I can’t blame them.  Being able to clean up and fully utilize North America’s most abundant energy resource is very enticing.  But is it possible?

You may have seen commercials recently for ThisIsReality.org that poke fun at the coal industry for being in ‘denial’ about coal.  “There’s no such thing as clean coal”.

Listen, I’m as liberal as they come.  ThisIsReality.org has the planet’s best interests at heart, but have really lowered themselves by bending facts and making generalizations. They have a page devoted to the “Facts” of clean coal; little one-liners from various groups that make coal seem awful.

I was originally planning to write about PurGen, a new CCS power plant being proposed for Linden, NJ.  After visiting ThisIsReality.org, however, I feel compelled to respond to their “facts” about clean coal.


Burning coal is a leading source of global warming pollution.

Coal is a leading source of global warming pollution, but also generates over half of the electricity in the US.   It is also consumed more than any other energy source internationally. (www.eia.doe.gov)

Burning coal is the dirtiest way we produce electricity.

This is true.  Everyone knows that coal is dirty now.  Coal contains more carbon per unit energy than any other fuel.  When energy is released from coal, CO2 is formed.  This is unavoidable.  Clean coal, in concept, takes this CO2, captures it, and stores it somewhere.  CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) is completely novel at the scale necessary to make a dent into coal CO2 emissions.

There are no homes in America powered by “clean” coal.

This is the equivalent of saying that NASA should never have developed a space program because “not a single human being has ever been to the moon”.  As I just mentioned, CCS and clean coal technologies are new and have not been implemented in the United States yet.  Several projects do exist internationally, however.

CO2 emissions from U.S. coal-based electricity are greater than emissions from all the cars and trucks in America.

I really hate baseless comparisons like this.  Cow farts release more greenhouse gasses than all the cars and trucks in America.

The coal industry is spending millions advertising “clean” coal, but not a single “clean” coal power plant exists in the U.S. today.

In no small part due to close-minded organizations like ThisIsReality.org.

While you might have heard the phrase ‘clean’ coal during the presidential campaign, it’s actually an oxymoron.

This is a quote from Brian Williams on NBC news.  Oh! Well if Brian Williams says so…. it must be true!

There are roughly 600 coal plants producing electricity in the U.S. Not one of them captures and stores its global warming pollution.

You already said this.

‘Clean’ coal is like a healthy cigarette.

Nice analogy, but the quote is from an environmental law attorney from South Carolina.  He’s probably won a lot of lawsuits saying things like this.

There is not a single large-scale demonstration “clean” coal plant in the U.S. today.

Third time saying this.

Virtually all the new coal plants that have been proposed will, just like their predecessors, release 100 percent of the CO2 they produce into the atmosphere, where it will linger—and contribute to global warming.

This one might be the worst.  Its taken from a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists about coal power and it’s future.  The exact quote is taken from the section of the report discussing NON-CCS plants.  The report actually RECOMMENDS that CCS demonstration projects be implemented throughout the United States.

Although carbon sequestration has been the subject of considerable research and analysis, it has yet to be demonstrated in the form of commercial-scale, fully integrated projects at coal-fired power plants.

Same source as the last “fact”.  This is not a defeatist statement.  This is a hopeful statement.  They want these projects to be demonstrated.  In fact, several CCS projects already exist internationally (although admittedly not at the scale we need).

An investment in wind power produces nearly four times as many jobs as the same investment in coal power. And an investment in solar PV power produces almost twice as many jobs, and building retrofits, more than seven times as many jobs as coal power.

The first “fact” to actually show some merit!  This is arguable, but I’m willing to concede this fact to them.

We don’t have a plant here in the United States today that has commercially installed carbon capture technology.


Without the price on greenhouse gas emissions that is delivered by cap-and-trade mechanisms, CO2 capture and storage will remain a daydream.

Agreed.  CCS is not economically viable unless a dollar value is added to carbon emissions.  This in no way demerits CCS’ potential.

I’m not trying to say that CCS is the end-all be-all miracle cure for all of our energy problems.  In fact, I really don’t think CCS will make a huge impact at scale.  Coal is still and will always be our dirtiest fuel source.  The point is that I’m being open-minded and willing to look at the facts, the science, the past experience of CCS projects.  I’m willing to look at the fact that China is putting up a new coal-fired plant every 2 weeks.  The coal’s going to get burnt.  Why not use it as efficiently and cleanly as we possibly can?

Anyone who blindly rejects coal as the ‘cigarette’ of energy sources simply does not know that much about energy.  Period.

Next post will be more engineer-y.  I promise.



The idea for wireless electricity has been around for a while, but the nuts and bolts of it have been difficult to hash out.  A company, inspired by work at MIT, WiTricity has made an adapter of sorts that plugs into a wall, acts as a wireless transmitter and sends electricity to devices such as TVs and phones. The great part of the video is he shows it works.

Considering the obvious market barriers such as high costs and public scrutiny over safety, do you guys see this a game changing technology? Plugging things in is annoying and batteries are bad for the environment (and very expensive).

Perhaps the more interesting question is – do you guys see this as being something that can be scaled up to transmit power directly from the plant to cities and homes? The advantages of wireless transmission on grid congestion would be immense. Questions to think about would be, how far can the electricity be transmitted? What would be the limiting factors? Would this make our grid more or less susceptible to attack (we probably would be much safer from the grid crippling squirrels)?

Losses in transmission would be interesting to look at. What sort of currents would be induced in motors or anything with windings caught in the path of the field? Lot of questions…would love to hear what everyone thinks

Detonation-Cycle Gas Turbine aka Engine/Turbine HYBRID

Get out your cook-meters folks, we got a live one.

A new engine design patented by Turbine Truck Engines, Inc. (TTE) takes the best aspects of turbines and engines and attempts to synergize them.  Currently in the 5th generation of design, the “Eng-bine” (maybe “Tur-gine”?) boasts:

  • no pistons or valves, and uses no lube oil, filters or pumps
  • uses over 30% less fuel than current engine technologies
  • significantly reduces nitrogen oxide (NO, NO2, N2O2) and carbon monoxide (CO) emissions
  • operates on all fuels: hydrocarbon, hydrogen and synthetic
  • has flex-fuel and mixed fuels capability
  • has few moving parts, requiring less maintenance
  • has a high power-to-weight ratio
  • is lightweight (less than 2 lbs. per hp)
  • is air cooled
  • has cold start capability

Now we’ve seen cooky engine designs before, but a couple things stand out about the DC-GT.

First, Turbine Truck Engines, Inc is a publicly traded company (TTEG) that just formed an alliance with a premier Chinese manufacturing company, Tianjin Outsky Technology, Inc.

Secondly, the upside is tremendous.  The flex fuel capability combined with the potential increases in fuel efficiency make this engine a revolutionary product.  It also holds promise as a low-maintenance alternative to traditional engines.  I could also see this product with applications in electricity production; the quick start-up time and high efficiency make it an ideal candidate for hybrid-renewable power systems.

So how does it work?

Instead of using pistons, a turbine that looks almost like a Pelton wheel is spun by carefully timed combustion in the “EIC” chambers.  Air is supplied by a single blower, fuel is supplied by separate fuels lines for each chamber.  They claim that the timing is a result of the different lengths of fuel lines as shown below.   The chamber at the end of the blue arrows will detonate first, since the line is shorter (Not sure if I buy this).

Once combustion occurs, the backpressure through the air line causes the second combustion chamber to recieve the next ‘dose’ of air-fuel.  The second chamber then detonates, sending the air-fuel back to the first chamber.  Rinse, repeat.

There are a couple of things that worry me about the system (especially since i just bought a bunch of their stock).

  1. Why is it running at 16,000 RPMs?  It seems like they’re testing the product unloaded.  It would be interesting to see the engine run with a load on the system.
  2. The engine sounds absurdly loud.
  3. The CEO was formerly a real estate developer.

Any thoughts?


Energy Efficiency: Big Upside, Low Sex Appeal

A report was released recently from Mckinsey & Company, one of the (if not the) most prestigous management consulting firms worldwide, regarding the potential cost savings of energy efficiency projects in the United States.  This incredibly in-depth study has been refined over the past few years and provides hard evidence that there’s plenty of work out there for people in the energy industry.

I’ll give you the meat & potatoes :  Mckinsey projects that an investment of $520 billion over the next 10 years will yield a gross savings of $1.2 trillion by 2020.  That an NPV of $680 billion.


Here’s an idea of the scale we’re talking about.  For a better idea, lets talk about what one could do with $680 billion dollars.

  1. Pay for the ENTIRE Iraq war, from day one to today.  You’d have an extra $7.5 billion to buy yourself a few gumballs.
  2. Pay for all of the US’s social security for a year, with $100 billion left over.
  3. Host 3,700 “My super sweet 16” parties.

So why haven’t these savings been realized yet?  A lot of reasons… structural, financial, and cultural.

Structural:  Our economy is set up in a way that demeans the true cost of energy use.

Financial: There’s simply not enough capital to invest in non-growth projects.

Cultural: People just don’t care.

There is no sex appeal in efficiency.   The current ‘green’ movement in the United States is so much more about glitz and exposure than real, definitive environmental impact.  Let’s illustrate this with an example.   Which is better for the environment… a Prius or a Programmable Thermostat?

A Prius saves about 6,000 lbs/year of carbon emissions over a traditional mid-sized sedan.  A programmable thermostat will save about 1,700 lbs/year over a traditional thermostat.  In general a hybrid costs about $8,000 more than a traditional mid-sized sedan.  A programmable thermostat costs about $20 more than a traditional one.  In other words, you can pay $1.30 per pound of carbon reduced by buying a prius.  Or you can pay $0.01 per pound for the thermostat.

Unfortunately, you can’t drive your programmable thermostat around town to show everyone how ‘green’ you are.

Downsizing Dilemmas

why can some things that work on the lab bench (fuel cells, for example) have difficulty scaling up in size?   Topic for a long post.  For fuel cells, it is about cost… piling stacks upon stacks does not allow for economies of scale.   What interests me today is downsizing things that work on big scales – what problems do we get when we try to make them small?    Case in point are gasifiers. Successfully built at grand scale (IGCC power plants), there are frightfully few examples that work economically on the small scale.  why???  I will throw out two – first, small scale systems will startup and shutdown frequently which is a problem with gasifiers that need perfect temperatures.  Second, and along the same lines, small gasifiers will behave more three dimensionally because of their limited size.   There will necessarily be horizontal gradients in temperature, for example, which can be ignored in monster sized vessels.   Others???

Carbon Capture, Viable or just another Parasitic Load?

Carbon Capture Plant Opens in Germany Amid Reservations

Energy giant Vattenfall has launched an emissions-free coal-fired test plant near Berlin using a technology touted as a huge potential breakthrough in the fight against global warming. But critics aren’t convinced.

Swedish energy utility Vattenfall sees carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a revolutionary answer to global warming which is largely blamed on carbon dioxide released when fossil fuels burn.

“This technology will become more important than offshore wind farms,” said Vattenfall boss Lars Josefsson.

“Our project at Schwarze Pumpe puts us at the forefront of this technology in the world,” said Tuomo Hatakka, the chief executive of Vattenfall Europe, referring to the the 70-million euro plant in eastern Germany.

Vattenfall, one of Europe’s largest energy companies, hopes the project will help provide energy security through plentiful coal supplies while avoiding the CO2 emissions that are blamed for global warming.

Vattenfall underscores “clean technology” aspect

A Finnish-born executive who heads the Swedish group’s Berlin-based subsidiary, Hatakka told German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung the process was viable because companies will have to buy EU allowances for every ton of carbon dioxide they release into the air.

Chancellor Merkel visits a carbon capture and storage plant in eastern GermanyBildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: The CCS test plant has drawn prominent visitors including Chancellor Merkel

“In tandem with EU-wide trading in emission rights, CCS will be economic. At 30 to 35 euros per emission certificate, the technology breaks even,” he said.

The 30-megawatt pilot plant at Schwarze Pumpe in the Lausitz region of eastern Germany is very small compared to conventional power stations. But it’s the first coal-fired power plant in the world ready to capture and store its own carbon dioxide emissions — a so-called CCS plant.

Carbon dioxide emitted when lignite coal burns will not be vented up a chimney but piped away, compressed to a liquid and pumped into deep, porous rock. The concentrated carbon dioxide will then be injected “for permanent storage” in a gas field in northern Germany.

Vattenfall plans to build two “demonstration plants” 10 times that size in Germany and Denmark by 2015 at the latest. Hatakka said the company aimed to commission its first “large-scale CCS power station” in 2020.

The outcome of this new plant will be heat, water vapor, nine tons of CO2 per hour and a milestone in clean energy technology, according to  Markus Füller, a spokesman for Vattenfall.

“This process is necessary if we ever hope to continue using soft, lignite coal, he says. We need to get a handle on the CO2 problem, and we think this technology is the way to do it,” Füller said.

Critics aren’t convinced

But environmentalists say the technology uses far more energy than existing power generation and warn that there are no secure long-term storage facilities for the gas.

German conservation group BUND on Monday denounced the project as simply a cover allowing Vattenfall to expand its network of conventional coal-fired power stations in Germany.

Cooling towers of a coal power plant in GermanyBildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: Some critics say the focus should be on expanding cheaper renewable energy rather than on polluting coal

Thorben Becker of BUND said it was still uncertain if CCS worked on a large scale. CCS power stations would obtain 10 per cent less power from the coal than conventional plants did, and it was not clear if there were enough suitable sites to dump the CO2.

“Instead of concentrating on far cheaper renewable energy, Vattenfall is locking itself in for decades to converting climate-damaging brown coal into electricity,” he said.

The European Union wants to have 10 or 12 full-scale CCS power stations within the next few years, but it is not clear who will pay the high costs of building and running the plants.

Is burning “Biomass” carbon neutral?

This fundamental question keeps coming back to me again and again from many people. 

Is burning “Biomass” carbon neutral?

FYI: The EIA Greenhouse Gas reporting protocol treats “Biomass” particularly wood or wood-chips carbon neutral.