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“This is Reality”: “Clean Coal” Vaporware

December 4th, 2008 · 3 Comments

Today, Al Gore and a coalition of leading environmental organizations are launching This is REALITY.org. Simply put, despite all the glowing ads that you’ve seen and bipartisan romancing of clean coal, “clean coal” remains not much more than powerpoint slides and technological dreams that might (MIGHT) work in 20 years or so, at a very high cost. What is the reality today?

Simple fact: COAL IS DIRTY! From mountain top removal, through distribution, burning, and the waste, whether fly ash deposits, particulates into our lungs, mercury in the oceans, or CO2 in the atmosphere.

From today’s press release:

Environmental experts agree that coal is the dirtiest fuel America uses to produce electricity.

You don’t need to be an “environmental expert” to agree to this. This is simply, well, fact.

“The reality is that there’s not a single home or business in America today powered by clean coal,” said Brian Hardwick of the Alliance for Climate Protection. “If coal really wants to be part of America’s energy future, the industry can start by making a real commitment to eliminating their pollution that is a leading cause of global
warming.”

“The industry can …” But is there any indication that they are willing or interested in doing so?

Simple fact. The coal industry spent $100,000,000s seeking to influence the election and the discussion of coal over the past year. Santas distributed Clean Coal a year ago at the Metro stations near the US Capitol. (Quite appropriately, because the only way we’re getting “clean coal”, in terms of atmospheric pollution, in the near term is if the elves make it at the North Pole (as long as there is ice still there) and Sanata delivers it down coal plant smokestacks).

“The industry can …”

“It is high time for the coal industry to come clean and admit to the American people that today clean coal is not a reality.” Hardwick continued, “No matter how much they say it in their advertising, coal can’t truly be clean until the plants can capture global warming pollution. With so much at stake, we can’t afford to hang our hats on an
illusion.”

And, let us be clear, that the “illusion” of clean coal is even worse than you think because the effects of coal on our planet and our health go well beyond simply Global Warming (and acidification of the oceans due to CO2). There are the reduced levels of Acid Rain. (Yes, that clean-up mainly worked — yeah, enviromental regulation and pollution mandates for helping improve our lives). There are the 24,000 Americans (and more than 100,000 more globally) who die prematurely each year due to coal-fired electricity plant emissions. There are the scars on the earth from mining. (By the way, a tip of the hat to Bank of America for ending any future loans for mountain-top removal yesterday.) There is the radioactive and otherwise dangerous fly ash after burning. And, … And, the list is far too long.

As for the “illusion”, the capture and permanent sequestration (storage for 1000s of years) of carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired plants is being experimented on, at a small scale, in a few places around the world. We (the large WE) don’t really have a clear idea as to whether this can work at large scale. The costs of doing it will be quite high. And, if it can be made to work, it won’t be available and working at mass scale for decades. We can’t wait decades for this pollution to end. And, those massive amount of resources that need to be spent to see whether CCS can work at mass scale can be used to deploy existing and develop/deploy new paths for breaking our addiction to coal. By the time CCS would be deployable on mass scale, America could be basically fully off coal … with much of the world not far behind.

Al Gore has laid out a 10 year plan for eliminating fossil fuels from America’s electrical grid. Google (and CEO/Obama Advisor Eric Schmidt) has laid out a path for doing this in 20 years. (As have I.) Let’s think of this this way: Gore’s 10 year should be our “objective target”, what we’d really like to achieve. Schmidt’s (and my) 20-year path should be our “threshhold” target, or the minimum that we can achieve.

Energy Efficiency (negawatts and negagallons) is a reality today and can have a major impact on our energy situation, QUICKLY and profitably.

Nuclear Power, whatever you think of it, is a reality today and a real option for tomorrow.

Wind Power is a reality today and an ever growing option for tomorrow.

Solar Power is a reality today and an increasingly viable option for tomorrow.

Hydropower, Geothermal Power, Biomass are all reality today and provide options for tomorrow.

Clean Coal is vaporware today and something that might … MIGHT … work tomorrow.

I am not ready to bet my children’s future on an uncertain might. Are you?

Tags: Energy · clean emissions · coal

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 David Lewis // Dec 9, 2008 at 7:18 pm

    This campaign of Gore’s is not his finest hour.

    Read: the I.P.C.C. Special Report on Carbon Capture and Storage, and/or, the M.I.T. The Future of Coal report, and/or McKinsey Carbon Capture and Storage: Assessing the Economics. Also, Mark Jaccard’s “Sustainable Fossil Fuels” is a good interpretation of cost figures that are presented in the I.P.C.C. material. A more accessible summary of the situation and costs is The Economist Special Report on Energy published in June this year.

    To sum up what serious examination of what is known about carbon capture says: the IPCC says the technology is “well understood” i.e. ready to go right now, any time anyone wants to build the full scale plants. Obviously, the first five or ten of these are going to be more costly than the rest. But, the IPCC notes, carbon capture and storage is “economically feasible under specific conditions” right now, where there is a carbon tax high enough to force industry to do it, i.e. as in Norway. Or, the storage part of the technology is in use commercially where there is a “niche market” for the waste product, i.e. CO2. 50,000,000 tonnes of CO2 is injected underground into old oil fields in North America every year as part of enhanced oil recovery schemes. So this idea that the technology has yet to be developed, as if it were just a gleam in the eye of some scientist in a lab is preposterous, and Gore and his fellow campaigners know it.

    Every time I read a critic of CCS I pay attention when they discuss costs. Sure enough, your post doesn’t put any cost figures in any terms anyone could understand. Here’s how Mark Jaccard, in his “Sustainable Fossil Fuels” book, as he interprets the IPCC figures published in their Special Report on Carbon Capture and Storage, which Jaccard says synthesizes all the literature on the subject of recent years, puts the cost: it would cost 6 - 7.5 cents a kw/hr to produce electricity if CCS was employed, compared to the widely cited 5 cents a kw/hr for coal fired power now. See my DeSmogBlog post “Read the IPCC Special Report on Carbon Capture and Storage, posted under Kevin Grandia’s post entitled “The Reality of Clean Coal” December 8 2008.

  • 2 David Lewis // Dec 14, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    Greenpeace is one of the backers of this anti clean coal campaign. I say fine, stick a pin into Big Coal over their massive all talk and no build carbon capture campaign, but, I say, everyone dumping on carbon capture technology itself is going to0 far.

    I read the Greenpeace report “False Hope: Why carbon capture and storage won’t save the climate” and wondered about this large print headline in the executive summary

    “CCS will arrive on the battlefield far too late to help the world avoid dangerous climate change”

    which appeared to sum up the bottom line of the Greenpeace position.

    So, I looked it up. At first, I just loaded the UN document it came from, i.e. “Avoiding dangerous climate change: strategies for mitigation” put out by the UNDP, and typed the quote into the Adobe search box. Nothing came up. I went over the entire document and finally found the paragraph Greenpeace had cut and pasted their headline sentence from. Here it is:

    “With planned rates of deployment, there will be just 11 CCS plants in operation by 2015…. At this rate, one of the key technologies in the battle against global warming will arrive on the battlefield far too late to help the world avoid dangerous climate change”

    Greenpeace has taken a UN document which calls out to civilization that it should speed up deployment of CCS technology and transfer it to the developing world, hacked it up, and presented its hack as if someone authoritative agreed with them that CCS will be too little too late no matter what is done.

    This is the exact opposite of what the authors of the UN report intended their words to mean.

    This UN document sees the failure of the full scale deployment of CCS to be the major barrier to developing world willingness to sign on to the international agreements such as Kyoto or Copenhagen.

    For instance: India and China are basing their effort to achieve something like the developed world living standard on coal fired power. According to this UN report Greenpeace cites the expansion in India and China amounts to the entire capacity of Germany, Japan, and the UK combined, added by 2015. All of it is going to be nonCCS is the technology is not developed quickly.

    “From a global public goods perspective, there is an overwhelming interest in developed countries speeding up the deployment of CCS technologies at home, and then ensuring that they are available to developing countries as soon as possible and at the lowest price”.

  • 3 The Art of the Prank » Blog Archive » Mythology in the Making: Clean Coal // Dec 17, 2008 at 12:28 am

    [...] power plants. But “clean coal” is nothing but a meaningless phrase — “vaporware” in the words of one environmental blogger. As Al Gore pointed out in a recent op-ed for the [...]

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