Can Clean Coal Keep the Lights On?

States are taking it upon themselves to wean America off foreign oil. By Alisa Opar

This summer, California capped greenhouse gas emissions, and lawmakers there said they hoped the move would spur the federal government to do the same. Now, other states unwilling to wait for Congress to act say they are working to secure America’s energy future, in large part by focusing on developing clean coal technologies that include carbon capture and storage.

Brian Schweitzer, governor of Montana, believes the U.S. can decrease its dependence on foreign oil, and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases pumped into the air, through conservation, bio-fuels, and clean coal. Montana has 35 percent of the nation’s coal—120 billion tons, which Schweitzer says could fuel America’s needs for 35 years—which will likely be in greater demand as oil prices refuse to drop. Therefore, Schweitzer is interested in using technologies that minimize CO2 emissions from coal combustion and building an infrastructure to safely sequester the gas underground.

Today, coal-fired power-plants produce more than half the country’s power and emit a third of our CO2. To combat the pollution, some new coal plants are being built as integrated gasification combined cycle power facilities, which allow coal to be converted into a gas to fuel electric turbines and produce a fraction of the smog, soot and mercury emissions of a traditional plant. A couple of these are planned for Montana, and one is being built in West Virginia, another big coal state represented at the meeting.

“We know that we can do it,” said Schweitzer. “But we need a little help.”

Schweitzer is getting that help at a two-day conference that ends today on coal technologies and policy at Columbia University. The goal of the conference is to develop a model policy protocol for deploying carbon capture and storage. Representatives of other coal-producing states, energy, economic and policy experts from Columbia University’s Earth institute, and members of businesses and industry groups are attending the summit.

“States will have an awful lot to say about how coal and carbon sequestration will work out over the next few decades, so it’s important that we engage in these policy discussions,” said Klaus Lackner, director of Columbia’s Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy.

“There’s a way to balance the environment and the needs and appetite we have for energy,” said Joe Manchin, governor of West Virginia.

Eventually, proponents hope to build pipes to send CO2 captured at coal plants to areas where it can be stored long-term hundreds of feet underground, in shale formations or other geological structures.

Before that can happen, there are several hurdles to overcome. Pipelines have to be built, geological structures identified and tested for safety, and the process has to be financially feasible—something most experts say won’t happen until there is a nationwide carbon tax or trading scheme.

But the meeting attendees are confident that if they start planning today, widespread carbon capture and storage will be a reality.

“We have great opportunities, but we have to move now,” said Schweitzer.


Last year, a panel of over 100 scientists and energy experts published a comprehensive report on carbon capture and sequestration for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Buried in the 700+ page report are these points:

+ Carbon capture technology raises the capital costs of new power plants by up to 90%.

+ "Cleaning" coal will nearly DOUBLE the price of electricity.

+ That's why industry will not adopt the technology unless forced to do so by stringent Kyoto-like CO2 mandates.

+ Once developed, the technology is unlikely see widespreads installation until 2050. But that's too late to substantially mitigate our impending climate crisis.

Conclusion: "Clean" coal is too expensive and won't solve quickly enough. Instead, industry is using the promise of clean coal to expand the number of old, dirty coal burning power plants. Don't fall for teh bait-and-switch.

Chris Cooper
Network for New Energy Choices