“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.

http://action.thisisreality.org/facts

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.

Sigh.

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.

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12 Responses

  1. I always see the thisisreality commercials on tv and laugh because they make an obvious accusation yet don’t back up their claims much. I’m still not completely convinced that CCS is will have much effect in cleaning up coal fired power plants, but its nice to hear both sides of the story.

  2. A little off topic, but I was reading something about Freeman Dyson, an acclaimed Physicist among many other things, and he pointed out that the electricity produced by coal is cheaper for the consumer than electricity produced by renewables, natural gas, nuclear, etc. So in underdeveloped countries with staggering poverty rates, coal based electricity makes sense as it facilitates industrial development and helps the poor climb out of their circumstance. Not too mention, if electricity were expensive, people would probably shut off lights and start burning much more environmentally harmful things like wood, oil, etc in its place.

    As far as coal use in the US, we have so much that is not in our best interest from a security or economic standpoint to turn away from it.

    Good ranting JKace!

  3. I agree that energy independence is important enough to warrant considering all options. We may need to use coal as an interim solution until cleaner options are fully scaled.

    However, carbon emissions are not the only environmental impact of coal energy. What about mountain top removal, groundwater contamination, mercury emissions, and fly ash disposal?

    • This is a very fair point. One should always look at the lifecycle of a fuel, from extraction to enduse, before coming to a conclusion about its environmental impact. This includes looking at the lifecycle of natural gas, which happens to feature some not-so-great stories of water contamination. CFL bulbs still contain mercury. Nothing is perfect. I’m not saying coal is more eco-friendly than natural gas or using CFL bulbs, that’s simply not true. I’m simply stating that the energy problem is real, and no solution should be overlooked.

      -josh

  4. How does Coal gassification fit into this picture? Is this a cleaner way to use coal? Why is there so little discussion about it?

    • Coal gasification is the process of breaking down the complex hydrocarbons in coal to simple components, namely Hydrogen gas and Carbon Monoxide. This gaseous stream of H2 and CO is called ‘syngas’, and can be burnt much like natural gas.

      The problem with coal gasification is that at the end of the process, you release just as much CO2 as you would burning the coal. The fact of the matter is that CO2 is the lowest energy state of carbon, so any sort of fossil fuel combustion will eventually lead to a CO2 stream.

      That being said, gasification effectively lowers all other emissions associated with power generation (SOx, NOx, particulates), and provides the most economically feasible method for CO2 capture. We still, however, need to figure out what to do with all that darn CO2.

  5. I have a question. Please forgive me if it is a stupid one. I have been tld by some engineering folks who are more technically savvy than me that Biomass is carbon neutral since it absorbed carbon while growing and now releases it when it is burned or decays. Why then is deforestation cited as a major source of carbon? Whether we burn wood chips in a powerplant or burn felled trees in Brazil, isn’t the carbon calculus the same?

    • This is absolutely NOT a stupid question. The short answer is yes, burning wood, if you burn it all and you burn it all well, is carbon neutral.

      So, why is deforestation such a big source of GHG’s?

      Your intuition is correct. From a GHG perspective, trees and plants store and release carbon, nothing more. The trick is in how the trees are grown in the first place. Deforestation refers specifically to an unsustainable practice of felling trees and either using or burning them. The land is then often left barren, or turned into human settlement. Since the trees don’t grow back, there is a net release of carbon into the atmosphere.

      Well didn’t those trees suck in the CO2 to begin with?

      Yes, they did, but on a much different timescale and scope. The earth has spent millions of years storing carbon in the form of vast, dense forests that humans are able to cut down within a few hundred years. The only reason the US can claim carbon neutrality with wood biomass is that wood production within the US is relatively sustainable (This isn’t because we’re progressive, we deforested our country centuries ago), and we rarely import wood just to burn it.

      Another way to look at it is to compare it to oil reserves. Oil reserves are the product of millions of years of organic decay and compression, and hence a large carbon sink, like a forest. Burning that oil releases all of those millions of years of carbon sinking effort.

      • Thanks for that rely.

        So if I understand it correctly it really is a question of prospective sustainability. If we grow wood to burn, cut it down, burn it and replant the land it is carbon neutral. If we deforest Brazil and by definition do not replant we have lost the prospective carbon absorption.

        In your considered opinion then how can we reach carbon neutrality when it is the human condition to grow and consume. Won’t we have to have a fundamental paradigm shift in how we, as a civilization, view growth. We have always considered growth to be “good”. But from a carbon footprint standpoint it is not.

        One last question, is the environment capable or reabsorbing carbon other than thru photosynthesis?

  6. Yes – Carbon can be absorbed many ways – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_sequestration

    Also – growth is good and Carbon based energy does not have to be the driver in the future. Think Water, wind, solar and Nuclear. Its hard to fly a plane on renewable energy so in the short term (my lifetime) carbon based fuels will not go away and probably not decline by more than a percentage point – so get busy and develop alternatives!

  7. One of the central catastrophic predictions of the climate change debate is that melting icecaps and glaciers will result in rising sea levels that create havoc with coastal populations the world over. Some sea level data that I have seen and appears credible indicates that sea levels have risen 40-70mm over the last 15 years. http://bobtisdale.blogspot.com/2009/07/sea-level-data-in-monthly-format.html

    To my laymans eye such a sea level change does not seem particularly frightening or indicative of future disaster. Is the melting of the ice caps just in its beginning phase or am I misreading misinterpreting?

    As a good friend of mine asks: ” where is the water going”

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