Clean Coal Fact or Fiction

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Now that is a real problem! Does anyone else see a problem with this?

Our current coal power plants produce approximately 1/3 of our carbon emissions, and 40% worldwide, with modest increases predicted worldwide, except Asia, mainly China, which is projected to more than double by 2030. And I won’t even touch on all the other harmful toxins released not only by burning coal, but by mining it, and the costs of those mines on the local communities’ health and well-being. Many new hopes do lie in the promising technology of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), which eliminates the carbon emissions from any carbon based fuel supply from atmospheric release, only to move those CO2 emissions to another location. Where those other storage places for CO2 is will create more issues though, and pose more threats on the horizon.

Carbon Capture and Sequestration Issues

Clean Coal Storage Issues

There are few options for storage of used CO2, one of which is used to help remove oil from old oil and gas reservoirs, increasing production. This is also referred to as enhanced oil recovery, with the US leading the world using about 32 million tons of CO2 gas annually.(By the way, at current estimates, coal burning emits roughly 9 billion tons of CO2 annually, while other estimates put CO2 emissions from power generation at over 25 billion tons of CO2, with an expected 43% increase in use from 2000 to 2020.) This process also helps to offset the high costs of CCS. They are also looking at and testing saline formations, which doesn’t have any productive value-added side effects, but it does have a high storage capacity, with an estimated 500 billion tons of storage space in the US. Another storage option is un-mine-able coal seams, or coal-bed methane, which are seams that are either too thin or too deep to be mined. However, CCS is not an easy or inexpensive process, and uses roughly 20-25% of the power plants output due to reduced plant efficiency and energy requirements for the process. It is also estimated that with today’s commercially available CCS technologies, it will add roughly 75% to the cost of electricity for a new pulverized coal power plant, and near 35% for a new advanced gasification-based plant. With newer technologies like oxyfuel combustion however, CO2 can be captured at nearly half the cost of capture from conventional plants.
One major issue also looms over the storage issue, that being the places and means of getting it there. We still haven’t got a place to dispose of Nuclear Waste (Yucca Mountain, Nevada) in the US, and similar issues will probably arise with the storage of CO2. These will need to be sequestered for at least several hundred years as well. Rock strata have held CO2 and methane for millions of years, and there is no reason to think any different of critically chosen sites, however selling that to nearby residents may pose an issue. The 1986 eruption of millions of tonnes of CO2 from Lake Nyos in Cameroon resulted in the asphyxiation of 1700 people, so a mistake, earthquake, or other natural geological phenomenon could have devastating effects, not only on nearby residents, but on the climate as well. Just take a look at the effects of the recent quake on Haiti, and that was with no additional man made side-effects like billions of tons of CO2. So, as with any new technology or science, there are always going to be potential side effects, some of them more deadly than others. It is also known that CSS would leak at the rate of .1 to 1% annually, which, after many years of storage would in turn produce large scale emissions, and may exceed sustainable greenhouse gas emission levels alone. Also looming over the storage of CO2 emissions is the future of those emissions. While we are dumping dangerous levels of CO2 into the ground, or wherever they wind up, what will our future generations do with them? Who will watch over them, monitor them, and safeguard them? What happens when the Electric Companies, Oil Companies, or Coal Companies move on? Who will assume the ecological and financial responsibilities of taking care of those sites? More importantly, imagine if they were suddenly released by some natural earth force, billions of tons of CO2 potentially unleashed in one fell swoop. That alone could cause another global warming crisis many decades from now all by itself. The lack of a long term plan for responsible energy creation and supply has been one of the primary reasons for our current climate issues, along with a lack of understanding.

Clean Coal Implementation

Implementation is even more of an issue though, as more of these systems come online. It took us a over a hundred years to develop or existing energy supply chain as it stands today. To completely revamp our current system in a matter of several years to effectively stabilize CO2 emissions, which many leading experts claim is near the tipping point to global meltdown, is more of a pipe dream than a reality. Although in West Texas, there is currently 5800 km of pipelines connecting oilfields to several CO2 sources in the USA, much more would need to be built. As it stands with current proposals and plans, those many hundreds, or thousands of kilometers of new pipelines would primarily be located in densely populated areas as well, which could have very serious safety implications. The financial costs would also great; building those pipelines, other transportation methods, storage facilities and storage sites won’t come cheap, and is prohibitively expensive for the private sector without government subsidies.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found that “With greenhouse gas emission limits imposed, many integrated assessments foresee the deployment of CCS systems on a large scale within a few decades from the start of any significant climate change mitigation regime,” and that “notwithstanding significant penetration of CCS systems by 2050, the majority of CCS deployment will occur in the second half of this century” (7).” Also, at MIT, they have concluded that with CCS in place, we will be using more coal in 2050 than today, while keeping CO2 emissions only slightly more elevated than the current level. All the “clean coal” press has mainly been hype though, and a sales pitch by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, with an estimated minimum of $45 million spent on advertising in 2008. While all this hype and media blitzing is going on, even the ACCCE’s spokesman Joe Lucas admitted that any commercialization and widespread use of CCS is still at least 10 to 15 years away.

Currently, scientists warn us repeatedly about the need to act almost immediately to reduce our CO2 emissions as well as other greenhouse gases to slow the tide of global warming, no pun intended. Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the Nobel Prize Winning IPCC warns us that if we don’t act by 2012, it will be too late, and that we need to reverse any growth of greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2015.

Clean Coal Costs

The costs will be high, for as it stands now, coal is cheap to mine and cheap to burn. I guess we get what we pay for, don’t we. According to ACCCE, the cost of any carbon management system (pg. 3, p3) to the American people will end up being in the billions, or even trillions of dollars. The U.S. stimulus package included roughly a 3.4 billion CCS allocation, and the European Union has adopted incentives for power plants to adopt CCS technologies. According to the Center for American Progress, the ACCCE companies, whose slogan is “a commitment to clean” spent 3.5 billion in CCS research (Chart 1) over several years, while reaping a combined profit of $57 billion (Chart 2). And we were worried Exxon-Mobil was making too much money. The new FutureGen project in Illinois will cost roughly 1.8 billion to develop with a lifetime estimated $300 million return on that investment which will be returned to the project, thus resulting in a net 1.5 billion project cost. It will generate 275 megawatts, enough for 150,000 homes, and produce between 1 and 2.5 million tons of CO2 annually. These new plants will not be cheap, and certainly won’t be built by 2012, much less 2015. According to the International Energy Agency, it is also estimated that current CCS spending is not even close to where it ought to be to reduce emissions by 20% by the year 2020 as currently planned. They also suggest that at least 20 billion should be utilized for near-term demonstrations, and that an additional $15 billion is needed with a time frame of ten years. These projections aren’t even in the same state as current economic output towards CCS research and development, both by the ACCCE and the US government.

Clean Coal Conclusion

The science unfortunately seems to not be in our favor at this point, and dragging our feet like we have been since the first mention of greenhouse gases and global warming cannot be accepted anymore. Whatever the reasons for our past denial of climate change and global warming, they cannot be denied anymore. The vast reluctance of any governmental agency, agent, or representative must be held accountable by a world that may be dramatically changed due to their negligence, and should be treated as a war crime against humanity. Ideally, we should eliminate the use of fossil fuels altogether, and work on long term solutions and implementations rather than stop gap, short term ideas. The short term ideas for us turn into long term debates, which turn into longer debates and more studies, which generate more questions and more studies, and usually have negative side effects. Misdirection is a strategy used in warfare, and should not be used to generate misconceptions about the future of energy and for that matter, life on this planet as we know it.

Clean coal is just one such misdirection, and a boatload of misinformation. Clean Coal, clean or not, oil, and any other carbon based fuels should not even be considered as an option for the future of our planet. Weaning us off it at an accelerated rate should be a mandate, for the cost of doing what we are currently doing, which is nothing, will be even higher.

There is another alarming note to take into consideration, just to show how much politics plays a role in this. The Bush Administration canceled the FutureGen Project in 2008, in which the Congressional auditors found significant flaws in, but stopped short of saying that it was politically motivated, seeing as a site in Illinois was chosen over 2 sites in Texas. Now how ethical is that? I’m taking my basketball away so no one can play anymore is no way of dealing with rejection considering a matter of global importance the likes of which have never before been witnessed by mankind. This may be the most challenging moment in mankind’s history, maybe even the planets, when the decisions that we make or ignore over the next few years could literally affect every form of life on this planet as we know it. This is really no time for politics, and the time has come to voice our opinions and make sure our voices are heard loud and clear. The cost of doing nothing, or dragging our feet are more than the costs of implementing new strategies.

There are many, many points to ponder, and if I were to touch on all of them, it would take me years to write this article alone. In short, we need to act, and act as soon as possible, and not with feel good solutions which will be years in development and even more years in implementation. We need solutions which exist today, which can be implemented today, and which don’t jeopardize future generations and our delicate climate. We need to make changes NOW, and the time for debate is over. We know solar and wind are clean, and have no potential side effects, so we must employ and expand on those technologies, along with the reduction in our current CO2 emissions, which is where CCS can help for the short term, but in the long term, should not even be considered. Clean coal is a fraud, with serious potential side effects further down the road. We should put an end to the clean coal myth, debunk the clean coal movement back to the dark ages. The thought of profit over the future of the planet is just absurd, but that is Corporate World for you. I once heard of an Ethics Instructor at a fairly well recognized College telling the students that if you think you can get away with it, then do it! Clean Coal is just one such instance of that ethics class I imagine.

The future is now, as George Allen stated back in the 70’s as coach of Washington Redskins, although the analogy may not be as direct as I would like. But act we must, and take considerable actions in the very near future to abate any further climate change issues which loom on the horizon. It would be nice if we had more time, but unfortunately we squandered that time debating whether or not global warming even existed. Let’s work together and get the proverbial ball rolling towards that cleaner and brighter future that many dream of, and begin to make that a reality, and not another 30 year debate.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) advocates public policies that advance environmental improvement, economic prosperity, and energy security. ACCCE believes that the robust utilization of coal – America’s most abundant energy resource – is essential to providing affordable, reliable electricity for millions of U.S. consumers and a growing domestic economy. Further, ACCCE is committed to continued and enhanced U.S. leadership in developing and deploying new, advanced clean coal technologies that protect and improve the environment.

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