The Expensive Myth of Clean Coal

“Clean coal” is a term that is getting a lot of coverage these days but the moniker makes as much sense as calling the Beverly Hillbillies "highbrow".

As a fuel source, coal is as filthy as they come – emitting about 67% more CO2 per unit of energy than natural gas.

The process of coal mining itself also releases large amounts of trapped methane gas into the atmosphere. The US Geological Survey estimates that there is an incredible 700 trillion cubic feet of methane trapped in domestic coal deposits. Methane is twenty one times as powerful as greenhouse gas as CO2, and according to the IPCC accounts for 9% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

There is so much trapped methane in coal deposits that it is more profitable in many areas to extract “coal bed methane” by surface drilling and leave the coal in the ground. The much more common method of conventional coal mining simply allows this dangerous gas to escape into our atmospheric fishbowl.

But climate change is big news and coal is big business. As a result there is a vigorous PR campaign to try and rehabilitate the public image of the coal.

Enter a $1.8 billion project in Illinois to build a “clean coal” research facility to showcase emission-free coal power. They plan to capture the CO2 from the coal combustion and inject it deep into underlying rock formations. So what’s that catch?

Even if this project was a success when it is finally slated to go online 2012, it remains only one single plant and a small one at that. There are now about 600 conventional coal plants in the US burning on average about 1.4 million tons of coal each every year.
There are also over 150 fully polluting coal plants on the drawing board in the US.

About 40% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US come from coal. Throwing over $1 billion of taxpayer’s dollars towards a single token “clean coal” plant sounds like a very expensive Potemkin village for benefit of the coal lobby.

It is also telling that the US government was unsuccessful in getting their industry partners to pick up more of the tab for this boondoggle. Spending that kind of money on a plant that would only supply energy to 150,000 homes is an excellent example of dubious economics to this unproven technology.

At only 245 MW generating capacity and a cost of $1.8 billion, this so called clean coal plant would be about twice as expensive as building equivalent wind generating facilities and slightly more than solar – both of which are guaranteed to produce zero emissions forever.

Lastly, even if carbon capture technology would work, it does nothing to mitigate methane emissions from coal mining.

Coal is dirty. Don’t buy the whitewash.
This was published on Desmog Blog on January 9, 2008

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