Why “Clean Coal” Will Never Be

Going green — By Stephanie on February 9, 2011 at 6:37 am
wmd coal mine2 Why Clean Coal Will Never Be

What can be clean about coal?

Recently, I keep hearing about “clean coal” from unexpected sources.  Last month at the Driving Green event sponsored by Ford Motor Company at NAIAS in Detroit, Stewart Brand touted the benefits of clean coal and nuclear energy as alternatives to renewable resources.  Then, just last week, President Obama – a Democrat, lest you need reminding – mentioned clean coal in his State of the Union speech as one of the ways we should address energy issues in the U.S.  In addition to these somewhat unlikely sources, we were bombarded by “clean coal” advertisements sponsored by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity during the 2008 Presidential campaign.

Two years of this nonsense leads me to wonder when we will wake up to the addiction that is the basis of our energy policies?  Can we quit coal?  Why should we continue to believe that a “clean coal” alternative is viable when not a single molecule of CO2 spewing from a smokestack has been sequestered?  When coal miners continue to die in accidents and black lung, and coal ash presents its own, unique environmental challenges.

As discussed in a TIME magazine article following the toxic coal ash dump in December 2008:

The “clean coal” campaign was always more PR than reality — currently there’s no economical way to capture and sequester carbon emissions from coal, and many experts doubt there ever will be. But now the idea of clean coal might be truly dead, buried beneath the 1.1 billion gallons of water mixed with toxic coal ash that on Dec. 22 burst through a dike next to the Kingston coal plant in the Tennessee Valley and blanketed several hundred acres of land, destroying nearby houses. The accident — which released 100 times more waste than the Exxon Valdez disaster — has polluted the waterways of Harriman, Tenn., with potentially dangerous levels of toxic metals like arsenic and mercury, and left much of the town uninhabitable.

coal sludge Why Clean Coal Will Never Be

Is "Clean Coal" knocking on your door?

Even if you don’t believe in global climate change, you can believe that no matter how big we dream about sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, the people that live near coal fired plants are exposed to cancer-causing hazardous waste in their soil and in their drinking water.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that the arsenic levels in coal ash can increase the risk of cancer several hundred times over.

Sure doesn’t sound “clean” to me!

Many people – Al Gore included – believe that “clean coal” will never be.  Sure, we can require coal plants to install better filters to keep carbon, mercury and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, but we are still left with toxic coal ash resulting from burning the fossil fuels.

So, why continue to pursue this myth?

For one, people only consider the direct cost of purchasing electricity generated by burning coal compared to harvested from wind, solar or geothermal.  This cost does not take into consideration environmental, health-related and societal impacts.  Utilities do not pass these external costs on to the consumer, but we will all pay at some point!

If the money spent to get us to buy the idea of “clean coal” was spent instead on renewable resource R&D, we could be that much closer to grid parity between solar, wind and geothermal and coal-based electricity.  Even if you support advancement of clean coal technology, keep in mind that experts estimate that commercial-scale carbon capture and sequestration will not be viable and widely adopted before 2020-2025.  Moreover, the technology required to clean coal is expensive and will significantly raise the cost of this source of power.

Moreover, so-called “clean coal” technology – if it is ever successfully employed – would simply take the toxins from the air into the ground.  Sequestered sulfur dioxide may leak, cause geological instability or even contaminate drinking water aquifers.  In other words, its not any better than the still unregulated coal ash containment issue.

I’m thinking we might have better luck inventing the so-called “healthy cigarette” than finding a way to safely burn coal for our energy needs.  Or maybe we are all just smoking something!

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