Pipe Dreams The Question of Clean Coal

Can we burn our coal and save the planet from global warming, too? That’s the promise held out by “clean coal.”

Often referred to as “Carbon Capture and Storage” technology, or CCS, clean coal has been widely heralded as a potential bridge that could tide humanity over until renewable energies mature.

With CCS, the carbon would be siphoned off at the time the electricity is generated, compressed into liquid form, then transported, probably via pipelines, for storage underground in abandoned oil and gas fields or on sea beds.

Experiments are underway in several countries, including the U.S., which spent five years and $1.5 billion on clean coal technology as part of the FutureGen project in Illinois. In 2008, the Department of Energy pulled the plug on the experiment after cost overruns nearly doubled spending. This year, however, the Obama administration has resurrected FutureGen. The Energy Department announced in June that it will pump more than $1.5 billion into research to build a prototype coal power plant capable of capturing and sequestering the CO2 produced. But the coalition of coal and power companies behind the FutureGen Project does not appear stable. Two members—Atlanta-based American Electric Power along with Southern Co.—backed out as of June 2009, citing financial concerns.

Meanwhile, the Swedish power company Vattenfall opened the first CCS pilot power plant in Spremberg, Germany, in September 2008, which is now undergoing a three-year testing period. The United Kingdom says it will open its first plant in 2014. The European Union plans about a dozen.

But many scientists question whether the technology will ever be commercially viable. And environmentalists say pinning our hopes on clean coal is a distraction that will make it more difficult to achieve real reductions in carbon emissions.

Critics also say CCS projects have helped the coal power industry mislead the public into thinking clean coal already exists. While most people refer to CCS when using the expression “clean coal,” industry-funded organizations such as American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity include newer U.S. coal plants under the same umbrella. While it’s true that the newer plants emit far fewer greenhouse gases than coal plants built before 1990, the industry didn’t make those improvements voluntarily. They were mandated by the Clean Air Act and other environmental laws. And despite today’s tougher standards, coal is still a major contributor to global warming.

But perhaps the biggest problem with CCS is that it’s not going to be ready anytime soon. While global warming forecasters often assume that the technology will be working by 2020, it’s expected to take decades longer and trillions of dollars before it can be rolled out on a large scale.

Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba, told The New York Times that to move just 10% of the compressed carbon dioxide that coal-fired plants emit in one year would be like moving more than the entire worldwide annual flow of oil. “Beware of the scale,” Smil admonished.