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Aggregating Energy Since 2006

What is Clean Coal?

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I have major problems with the talk about clean coal. The term is not accurate nor appropriate for coal discussions. All the talk of "clean" coal surrounds the technologies which burn it and what happens to pollution and carbon emissions during that process. It totally ignores the many problems of the coal extraction and shipping industry.

The idea of "clean coal" is often used to refer to coal plants which use carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies. The idea is to snatch the carbon dioxide out of the exhaust stream and store it deep under ground where most of it will stay for thousands of years (or ideally longer).

The big question is what type of coal plant is best suited to adding CCS systems after it is built (retrofitting). I had believed that IGCC (integrated gasification combined cycle) was better suited to CCS but now the NY Times is reporting that pulverized coal may still be more economic when it comes to CCS.

"Other than recommending that new coal combustion units should be built with the highest efficiency that is economically justifiable, we do not believe that a clear preference for one technology or the other can be justified," the draft concludes. The M.I.T. study said it was critical that the government "not fall into the trap of picking a technology 'winner.'"

Regardless, CCS is not a proven technology that will function at the level we need it to. The idea of building more coal plants before we know that CCS can be massively commercialized is crazy given a carbon-constrained future.

Even if CCS does become available and its added costs keep coal competitive with other forms of electricity generators, we still have the problem that coal is fundamentally dirty from its birth.

Left-leaning AlterNet has a fantastic article that explores the problems with coal and the debate in West Virginia between coal and wind advocates.

Though coal from Wyoming may not be as devastating to the environment as it has been in West Virginia, the simple fact is that coal mining has many externalities which are not factored into its price.

"Them people up there have no idea of what it's like to live underneath the rule of a coal company. I've watched my mother pull a gun on an insurance man so she could get my father's black lung benefits; I've watched my daddy die of black lung, watched black water roll down my streams, watched my grandson stand in a stream full of dead fish, watched our children go to a school full of coal dust with a sludge dam and a mountaintop removal site behind it," she says.

...

The truth is, while people have spent considerable energy and money figuring out a cleaner way to burn coal, no one has yet come up with a way to get coal out from inside a mountain without destroying the environment and adjacent communities. So, "clean" coal is not much of a solution to people who lives in areas of extraction.

Bear this in mind as you hear about "clean" coal.