Thursday, March 12, 2009

Clean coal: Holding the wolf by his ears

I've written in the past about objections to the use of coal for generating electricity. Its mining, its use, and its disposal all have significant negative implications for human and environmental health. I've also written about why "clean coal" is a poor option for generating electricity in the United States. However, I write now in defense of research (and ultimately commercialization) of clean coal technologies.
The US has a wealth of options for generating electricity through technologies that can be used to phase-out coal. With an economy that, even while struggling continues to support a high standard of living and is central to the global economy and to new technology, we have the means to do this. I like to think we also have the will to innovate and do things better.
This is not true everywhere, though. China and India, two economies surging to a degree never before witnessed, are coal-rich and are wanting for electricity. China's coal, in particular, is high in sulfur, which results in smog and acid precipitation. And, of course, burning any coal introduces carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As these economies snowball, they will continue to demand energy at an accelerating pace. Coal is available to them now and into the future, and it is accessible by means of established, lower-capital technologies.
Coal is unhealthy. Coal is dangerous. But, coal is available. The result is that while the US forges ahead with more sustainable technologies for producing energy, we have to recognize that others will use renewable energy sources to supplement, rather than supplant coal.
This at once creates a need and an opportunity for the US. The need is clear: Pollution doesn't stay put. Many people outside of India and China (including Americans and others who impact US economic and military security) will suffer the ill effects of nations who prioritize old-fashioned means of economic development over long-term needs and human and environmental health. Coal is a mess that we have to deal with, whether we contribute to the mess or not.
The opportunity is equally clear: There is a massive potential market for clean-coal technologies in the developing world. If US scientists and engineers innovate, and US firms commercialize this innovation, this will create US jobs and US wealth.
"Clean coal" remains a misnomer. Coal, in general remains a poor fuel choice in the long run for a number of reasons. However, the real-world strategy to pollution control and prevention must recognize that others will use coal.

Image source: National Archives and Records Administration, ARC Identifier 556411

11 comments:

Sue said...

erd -- I agree with you completely, but I'm going to quibble with you on some wording. People will say, "it's just semantics;" but words are powerful, and the language we use shapes the mental categories that people use to understand their world. I say, yes to the funding for research, but let's 86 the term "clean coal" and NEVER ever use it again. Instead lets speak the truth, let's say that we are in favor of funding research on means to reduce the polluting consequences of coal. Because coal is not now, nor will it ever be "clean." Even if there does turn out, as the result of years of research, a means to reduce the CO2 released by burning coal, there is not now, nor will there ever be a way to "cleanly" mine coal. So, I'm all for research, but let's be honest about what that research is for and what the realistic outcomes of that research are, and never again let that phrase "clean coal" cross our lips again.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Sue,
I agree that the term is marketing flimflam. Do you know of a more realistic term that's being used to describe this suite of technologies/methods?

Pat Jenkins said...

erd let us say for agruements sake that electric vehicles become the norm. can you fathom the amount of electricity that is going to need to be producedto meet the demands.... astronomical my friend...

E. R. Dunhill said...

PJ,
I take an electric vehicle, a Metro Rail train, to work each day. The amount of energy per person that this entails is dramatically less than the amount of energy (per person) that we'd need if each of those riders were in a personal car, regardless of how that car is powered. On the weekend, I walk and take Metro Rail, when I can. If we reduce the need for cars, we can mitigate the added baseload demand you describe.
I agree with you that the solution to energy waste in transportation isn't going to be solved by simply replacing one power source with another. I think people who believe that we can simply justify oversized houses in sprawling suburbs by building some wind turbines and buying a different kind of car are deluding themselves, or simply don't understand the issues. The more logical and feasible solution is to reduce the need for cars. There are lots of ways to do this.
There's also a hugely undervalued electricity issue (my personal favorite), that has a huge potential to impact this problem: demand-side management. I use the term a little differently than some others do; I include conservation and energy efficiency under this term. Conservation measures can be quite simple, like turning out (and unplugging) lights and other devices when not in use, or using a programmable thermostat. Energy efficiency can be similarly simple, as with insulating hotwater pipes and heating/cooling ducts. Energy efficiency can also be more interesting: drain-heat recovery systems, freezers that engage the frost-free cycle at least-demand times of day, LED lighting, ground-source heat pumps, and zillions of others.
I'm curious, what has you thinking about electric cars?

Chris Crawford said...

I agree that the phrase "clean coal" is misleading. There's no question, however, that billions of tons of coal will be burned in the future and we really need to find a way to make that inevitable combustion less destructive.

And there is one possibility that deserves serious consideration: in situ combustion. There are lots of proposals for doing so, and there have been some pilot projects for in situ coal gasification. Perhaps I should put together a piece presenting the state of the art as well as possibilities for the future.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris,
Thanks for commenting. I'd love to read something about in situ technologies for exploiting coal.

Pat Jenkins said...

well obviously your post on coal, and its use for electricty erd is what got me thinking. but let me ask you a question. what is wrong with allowing a person to enjoy himself. having an "oversized house" as you say, or with a special vehicle. must we squelch the "life" out of people for the planet. and let us take this a step further. say we ban all these things for a more "prudent" course of protecting earth. is there any reason to live?

Sue said...

How sad, PJ, to see someone who thinks that "life" is measured in the size of one's house or car; I'd rather see people who measured life in laughter, friends, loved ones, walks in the park, gardens grown, and in the quality of their spiritual life. I'd rather think of fun as the stories we tell, the songs we sing, the activities we shre with those we love. It is a shame, but it seems that too many people today, do equate the quality of life with the size and expensiveness of the things they own, instead of the quality of the relationships they have with others and the quality of their spiritual life.

E. R. Dunhill said...

PJ,
I'm not sure that I've suggested banning big houses or petroleum-powered automobiles, or anything else in this post or my follow-up comments. In fact, I'm not in the habit of suggesting that people ban things.
I do question the logic and the wisdom of two or three people living in a McMansion, or driving an hour-and-a-half to work each way. I'd like to see people value each other, rather than all of the crap that we own.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Sue,
Thanks.

E. R. Dunhill said...

PJ,
Not to belabor the point, but I coincidentally just read about a study by the Pacific Northwest National Lab about electricity generation capacity and electric cars. It's worth mentioning. PNNL concluded that using existing technologies, the US could phase-out nearly three-quarters of conventional passenger cars, light trucks, and SUVs in favor of plug-in hybrids without having to build any additional power plants, because the overwhelming majority of the charging could be done overnight, when there is limited demand relative to current capacity. The estimated benefits would be:
1. A 52% reduction in oil imports.
2. A 27% reduction in the amount of greenhouse gases produced per vehicle-mile traveled. (A large power plant maintained by engineers is more efficient than a small engine.)
3. The cost per mile to run each vehicle would be roughly half of what it costs to run an existing vehicle exclusively on gasoline, because of the low price of off-peak electricity.
Obviously, there are some caveats to this. And, I should emphasize that I've never been much of a proponent of electric cars. However, the study suggests that plug-in hybrids are more economically and technically feasible than we've been led to believe. While I'm at it, I should also emphasize that there are other studies by private firms, government agencies, and academia that draw similar conclusions.
Also, I'm curious as to why American businesses wouldn't want to be at the forefront of a major industrial change, whether that's to the electric power industry or the automotive industry? Why should we choose to take the backseat on innovation?