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Imagine a future where:
- Half of the America’s electricity is generated by coal-fired power plants which remove pollutants from smoke stacks (a process known as “scrubbing”) and pump CO2 emissions into underground caverns (a process known as “carbon sequestration” – only experimental at this stage).
- Energy independence from foreign oil by converting America’s vast coal resources into synthetic fuel (“synfuel”) again sequestering the CO2 in underground caverns. Minus the sequestration, conversion of coal to synfuel was a process used by Germany in WWII to fulfill over 90% of their aviation and 50% of their automotive fuel needs.
There are two major problems with this picture disregarded by the peddlers of the clean coal economy. First, generating electricity and fuel from coal is cheap and competitive only when done without carbon sequestration, but quite expensive when done with it (cost of producing electricity can increase by nearly 50% from an estimated $56 per MWh to $79 according to Jeff Gogell in “Big Coal”). Second, mining coal is still dangerous, an environmental catastrophe and one of the most inadequately compensated jobs (average wages have actually decreased by 20% in real terms over the past 20 years even though worker productivity has tripled).
Proponents of clean coal deflect to the “near future” on the first problem and completely punt on the second (“we’re much better than China when it comes to coal mine mortalities and we’re using more cost-effective technologies everyday” say mining executives, I’m sure not directly to the families of the Utah miners or the residents of West Virginia who have witnessed entire mountains removed in a process aptly called, “mountaintop removal mining”). Advocates like governor Brian Schweitzer (D) of Montana, would like us to believe that cost-effective clean coal is around the corner and that synfuel processing plants and coal power plants going up today can easily be converted to include carbon sequestration tomorrow. They obfuscate concerns over global warming with patriotic claims about national energy security and cheaper fuel:
“Like all Americans, Montanans are… tired of paying $3 a gallon gas, tired of supporting the kind of tyrants that young Americans have spent two centuries fighting and dying to defeat.”
Yes, clean coal technology will be an important and necessary component of a diverse energy economy in the future but not for the reasons the advocates are loudest about. Clean coal is not the cleanest, nor the cheapest option setting aside the myriad problems associated with coal mining (which one has to hope will be more harshly regulated and better compensated with higher scrutiny on the industry).
Coal, is however, the most abundant resource in exactly the countries which have the largest energy needs: the US (which has an estimated 270 billion tons of reserves, enough for 250 years worth of generation), Russia and China (which constructs 1 coal-fired power plant per week to meet it’s growing energy demands, read more in a NY Times article). In order for China and Russia to budge on clean coal, the US will not only have to walk the walk to prove that the technology is viable, but be strong leaders in the international community on carbon capping policies that would make clean coal cost-competitive with coal plants not sequestering carbon (by adding a carbon tax to the cost of generation). Furthermore, I have yet to see an energy proposal that suggests how the US, which now derives over 50% of our electricity from coal, will meet our energy needs in the future without coal (even if a new generation of nuclear power plants were commissioned).
I support clean coal as a realistic second best, but I find it troubling that more public debate has not been devoted directly to the topic considering it’s magnitude and importance.
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