By Walter Christmas
Many politicians from coal-producing states have talked about investing our energy future in “clean coal technology.” But what does that mean? And is that our best move with regards to energy costs and environmental concerns like global climate change?
A recent Inside Energy article gives a fairly balanced look at the topic, providing a brief and relevant summary of clean coal technology as it currently stands in the United States.
In addition, here are some key points to understand:
1. There is currently no regulation standard set for what can be termed “clean coal.” So, when politicians pander to coal-producing states by being optimistic about future investment in clean coal, they aren’t saying that it will depend on how clean the process must be. It’s possible that a carbon reduction of even 50 percent would not come close enough to satisfy supporters of clean energy standards and renewable portfolio standards.
2. “Clean Coal” only refers to removing carbon emissions from the burning of coal. It does not take into account the increasing carbon footprint of the mining process. As we continue to mine lower and lower grades of coal (lower BTU’s per ton), we must mine and burn a greater volume of coal to produce the same amount of electricity.
3. Coal plants lose efficiency over time — yet another reason that we will have to mine and burn more and more coal over the years.
4. Carbon scrubbing technology doesn’t help address the problem that energy production from coal uses a tremendous amount of water. The following figure from the Western Resource Advocates compares the water consumption by various methods of electricity production. The options for coal burning methods that include CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) require a similar amount or more water than traditional coal.
5. The jury is still out as to whether or not CCS actually works. The theory is that up to 90 percent of the carbon released can be captured and stored in geologic formations below the earth’s surface. However, opponents point out that the ground beneath our feet does not hold gases. Radon, for example, is a dangerous gas that is poisonous to humans and must be purged from homes as it percolates up through the ground — CO2 is a much lighter and much smaller gas molecule than radon.
6. Conventional coal electricity is currently among the cheapest energy sources available, but producing electricity from coal in a way that also allows us to capture 90 percent of the carbon is not cheap. As the Inside Energy article points out, of the six clean coal projects funded with $4 billion of taxpayer money, only one isn’t financially distressed. This does not bode well for the short term viability of clean coal energy production.
Meanwhile, U.S. wind energy costs utilities about the same per kilowatt-hour or megawatt-hour. America’s utility operators are seeking more wind energy for their total energy portfolios because of two main reasons; First, the cost per unit is very low (3-7 cents per kilowatt-hour), and second, because the vast majority of the cost of wind energy is accounted for in the purchase and installation of the turbines themselves, making it easy to negotiate a profitable wholesale price. Wind energy producers often sign 20-year power purchase agreements (PPA’s) with utilities in which the price is negotiated for the next two decades. If there’s one thing a chief financial officer of any business loves, it’s predictable future overhead costs.
It seems pretty clear that even if the U.S. can drastically reduce the cost of electricity produced by clean coal technology, there are far more reasons to invest in renewable energy options instead. Renewable energy costs are stable and predictable. Renewable energy uses far less fresh water, a resource that is becoming critically difficult to manage. And, renewable energy does not require continuing mining operations for the production phase like coal does. The United States has a lot of coal; there are no arguments there. But just because a resource can be exploited doesn’t mean that it should.
Walter Christmas is an instructor for the Wind Energy Technology program at Ecotech Institute.