Is Clean Coal Ready for Primetime?

By Keith Kloor | November 28, 2012 2:40 pm

Do you remember BP’s Beyond Petroleum ad campaign in the 2000s?  As a writer at Adweek noted in 2010 (in the wake of BP’s disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill), the campaign “has always been borderline ludicrous, positioning the oil company as essentially anti-oil (or post-oil).”

Well, if that was ludicrous, what do we call the idea of clean coal, which the coal lobby has successfully propagated in recent years?

Over at Slate, I have a new piece that argues, “Clean coal is no joke.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, coal
  • Jarmo

    China will probably put their hopes on shale gas and nuclear rather than CCS. Their problem is energy shortage and the energy required by CCS is off the grid. Also lack of suitable locations to store the CO2.

    UCG + CCS might make  better sense  as UCG makes use of deeper coal seems that cannot be exploited otherwise. They could pump the CO2 back to fill the space where the coal was underground.

    If UCG+CCS technology is developed to access seams up to 600 meter depth, for example Powder River basin has over 200 billion tons of coal that can be exploited. If technology can be used offshore like in oil drilling, the North Sea bottom has 3000 billion tons of coal. In both cases CO2 can be pumped back to existing oil wells.

  • MarkB

    Commenters at Slate have a good point – if you can’t do it at a reasonable cost, then it isn’t really technologically feasible. You could turn lead into gold – it’s ‘technically feasible’ – but the cost is ridiculous. And unlike the Slate commenters, I’ll add that a carbon tax high enough to make carbon capture effective would result in heads on spikes in Washington D.C. Literally – they’d find the spikes just to make the point.

  • Tom Fuller

    CCS? Wow. Well, I hope you’re right. I don’t think it will be any time soon…

  • harrywr2

    ‘Clean Coal’ has limited long term attractiveness unless a use can be found for the captured CO2. The Chinese will invest in it for their ‘coal rich’ regions…but not the country as a whole.When we first started talking about ‘clean coal’ the idea that global coal prices would remain in the $2/MMBtu range was widely accepted. So the slightly less expensive then nuclear capital costs of a clean coal plant made some sense.Global coal prices haven’t remained in the $2/MMBtu range, they are at or above the $4/MMBtu price.Possibly it may play a role in peaking or synfuels. I.E. burn coal for peaking in the day then transform the captured CO2 into liquid synfuel by night. It’s a possible scenario. It’s probably worth a full scale demonstration and the Chinese will probably build a full scale demonstrator.As far as yet another repeat of WRI’s nonsense 1200 GW of new coal fired plants being planned…I can find no evidence.The Chinese are ‘spinning up’ their nuke construction. They’ll have 42 GW completed by 2015 with ‘shovel in the ground’ on another 20 GW. Which gives them a build rate of 8GW per year in 2015.

  • grypo

    Your Slate article doesn’t suggest that it ‘ready’ for anything, so I gather your point is that it needs to be, which is another way of saying we’re screwed.

    Also, the report on the amount of coal plants isn’t likely a good predictive picture. It merely looks at permits and business hopes or plans that aren’t even in order. The future of China and India with coal is not set, or even close to it. Policy matters there, much more than here, as the economy is centrally managed. It’s not a rosy picture either way, but the report you highlight is quite alarmist.

  • Tom Scharf

    It doesn’t matter.  If we could do it cheaply, the greens would file lawsuits and prevent it from being buried underground due to all sorts of dubious environmental concerns.  We can’t bury nuclear waste now, and instead it just sits around in a much more vulnerable setting.  But, hey, I’m not cynical.  

  • Jack Hughes

    Keith have you ever studied science?

  • BBD

    Well, if that was ludicrous, what do we call the idea of clean coal, which the coal lobby has successfully propagated in recent years?

    We call it tactial misrepresentation by the coal industry 😉

  • BBD

    Or even ‘tactical’ misrepresentation.

  • Steve Fitzpatrick

    Keith, it is a well written piece.Unfortunately, the cost/complexity/technical difficulties would seem to put widespread use of CO2 sequestration beyond the world of the plausible, unless there are specific local circumstances that make it less costly/difficult.  IMO it is economically more sensible to make a quick substitution of natural gas for coal (thermally much more efficient, and much lower emissions to boot) to cut CO2 emissions (and a host of pollutants like sulfur, N2O, mercury, etc!), and focus investment on getting the cost of nuclear power plants down.  In the long to very long term (hundreds of years and more), humanity will continue to need vast amounts of energy, and nuclear seems the most viable large scale source, especially if costs can be reduced.  Better for a large store of reduced carbon (coal) to remain available for other uses in the distant future, perhaps even including a future need to avoid an ice age.

  • harrywr2

    The Chinese have already demonstrated clean coal with CCS. The financial ‘viability’ rests on producing a product from the captured CO2. I.E. Finding a cheap way to produce synfuels.

    Iceland has a demonstration Carbon Capture to methanol project-

    Transportation fuel and peaking are both big ‘clean energy challenges’. Burning fossil for peaking with CCS then producing synthetic transportation fuels isn’t a ‘zero emissions’ option…but it has the potential to be a ‘twofer’.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    Sorry Keith but your Slate article sucks. Clean coal is a joke. To see why, consider all of the low carbon technologies that are economical when carbon prices are lower than $100-150/tCO2. I guarantee that you’ll have a pretty long list.

    But hey don’t take my word for it. Call up the guys at DOE’s clean coal and CCS division and let us know what they say…

  • BillC

    I don’t know that anyone has enough insight to know whether coal gasification with CCS, thorium nukes or solar are a waste of research money…One could potentially make the argument for fusion as a waste of research money.

  • Gaythia Weis

    I agree with Marlowe Johnson.  Also, the point is to produce energy, and thus the analysis ought to be done with an energy budget not a monetary one.  The amounts of coal that would need to be burned to implement these CO2 recovery or disposal techniques is substantially above that currently needed to produce a given amount of usable power.Still, short term, China can do things like import overseas coal or contract for fancy sounding technology if they feel like it, they have plenty of $$$.  If they cared about the health of their populace, however, what they need to invest in as “clean coal” is still generations behind us, such smokestack items as scrubbers and particulate removal.

  • Bobito

    #4 and #11:
    UC San Diego has found a way to convert CO2 in to something useful as well.  Using solar no less!

    But, in the end, the CO2 makes it to the atmosphere so I doubt many greens will be jumping towards these types of solutions.  Even though they provide double the bank for the CO2 buck (ie: you get to use the energy ~twice).

  • Gaythia Weis

    Especially in areas like the southwestern US, water use in energy produciton needs to be fully accounted for:

  • harrywr2

    #14 Gaythia Weis

    If they cared about the health of their populace, however, what they
    need to invest in as “clean coal” is still generations behind us, such
    smokestack items as scrubbers and particulate removal.

    White paper on China’s 12th 5th year plan updated October 2012

    It speeds up the elimination of small thermal power
    units marked by high energy consumption and heavy pollution. In order to
    strictly control pollutant emissions from coal-fired power plants,
    newly built coal-fired power generating sets must install dust-removing,
    desulfurization and denitration facilitie
    s, and the existing plants are
    asked to speed up their dust removal, desulfurization and denitration

    They are spending on cleaning up the smokestack. China is moving so fast it’s hard to keep up. What was true 2 or 3 years ago(which is what tends to drive public perception) may not be true tomorrow morning at 9.

  • kdk33

    The financial “˜viability’ rests on producing a product from the captured CO2.

    Not that climate discussions are much tied to reality, but let’s review some basic thermodynamics. When hydrocarbons burn they make CO2 and H2O and release energy. The only way to make useful stuff from CO2 is put that energy back. The only way to net lower CO2 emissions is use a zero (or low) carbon energy source. The motivation to make useful stuff from CO2 is because we don’t have a zero (low) carbon energy source.

    If we had a zero (low) carbon energy source it would be best deplyed making what? hint: usefull stuff from CO2 is the wrong answer.

    If you want to make useful stuff from CO2 you should: a) use taxpayer money to subsidize research and technology development ventures, or b) plant a tree? hint: the answer is b.

    But carry on.


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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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