Coal continues to be the largest source of energy all over the world. In fact, 41 percent of the world’s electricity requirement is provided by coal.
But we all know that coal is dirty and that it is the single biggest threat to the Earth’s climate. Why? Let me count thy ways:
Coal is responsible for climate change.
Coal combustion is single-handedly responsible for 70 percent of carbon dioxide emissions the world over. It also releases black carbon particles that trap heat and cause global warming. What’s more, coal mining releases methane which also contributes to climate change. A study showed that curbing black carbon and methane alone can significantly cut global warming by as much as .5 degree Celsius.
Coal demands a lot of water and pollutes our waterways.
As it is, we are already putting a lot of strain on our water supply. The coal industry requires fresh water supply that is big enough to meet the requirements of at least a billion people. Plus, coal mining and coal plants cause water pollution, contaminating our waterways.
Given all of these, there is no doubt that we must break free from coal to save the planet and ourselves. For politicians and some advocates, however, the answer to this is “clean coal”. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), coal remains to be “relatively cheap, readily available, secure and reliable source of power.” Thus, it is their argument to continue accessing coal but with the help of technologies in order to minimize its negative impacts.
Coal causes air pollution and negatively impacts our health.
Coal pollutes the air we breathe. Coal plants release toxic mercury into the air that can affect people’s nervous, immune and digestive systems. It also releases nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide that can both affect the lungs as well as other toxic chemicals such as lead, cadmium, among others.
But the questions remain: Is this really possible? Can coal ever be ‘clean’? Or is this another PR greenwashing effort?
‘Clean coal’ refers to technologies officially known as carbon capture and storage or CCS. This technology allows for the “capture of carbon dioxide generated at coal plants and store it underground in rock formations and aquifers.”
IEA stresses that CCS should be an important component of the implementation of the Paris Agreement. According to the agency, as much as a 12 percent reduction in carbon emissions can be achieved by 2050 through CCS. Plus, if existing coal plants were upgraded to high-efficiency, at least 19 percent of total emissions can be reduced on an annual basis. Also, there is the claim that other clean coal technologies can be applied to reduce the emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulphur oxide; increase coal combustion efficiency; and remove coal impurities to reduce emissions.
If this is true, then this bodes well for the environment. Currently, countries are still very much dependent on coal. We have the United States, China, India, Germany, Australia, to name a few.
But, it seems that the argument for clean coal is riddled with flaws.
In the United States, the push for clean coal began in the first term of President George W. Bush, followed by President Barack Obama and now, by President Donald Trump. In fact, the Obama administration invested millions of dollars into the research and development of clean coal. Unfortunately, the USA’s pet project in clean coal viablility— the Kemper Project in Mississippi — has turned out to be a dud.
In an investigation completed by The Guardian, it was found that “numerous structural problems with the project had emerged during construction and internal documents questioned the very foundation of the plant’s viability.” What is most concerning about the design of the Kemper Project was that it was found that it could only be “up and running on coal just 30-45% of the time during its first three to five years.” This means that the viability of producing clean coal seemed to be a “pipe dream or, at best, unachievable for a decade.” Currently, the Kemper Project has already been abandoned, after pouring in $4 billion over budget.
In 2015, the Obama administration also pulled the plug on FutureGen 2.0, a forerunner of the Kemper Project, after the government spent as much as $200 million of the earmarked $1 billion in federal funds. The official reason cited was insufficient time for project completion prior to the expiration of federal funding.
The only CCS coal plant that is currently in operation in the United States right is the Petra Nova plant in Houston, Texas. It came online in January 2017 and is one of only two existing CCS plants in the world. The other one is the Boundary Dam plant in Saskatchewan, Canada. While the Petra Nova plant has only been running for about a year and technically still in its infancy, there is already critique that it makes a “tiny difference to the generator’s emissions and demonstrates that the technology is un-investable.”
So is ‘clean coal’ sustainable?
The quick answer is NO. The CCS technology is very expensive. David Greeson, NRG’s Vice-President of Development said that “the challenge is going to be how to figure out how to do one of these [CCS plants] with government subsidies.” He adds: “We doubt that we’ll see unending government subsidy, like wind and solar have seen, in the CCS industry.” It must be noted that the U.S. Department of Energy has bankrolled as much as $190 million of the costs of putting up Petra Nova. This year, 2018, Trump has cut the funding of the Office of Fossil Energy by 85 percent, a department responsible for conducting research on reducing coal pollution.
The European Environment Agency (EEA) noted that CCS can help in the transition to a low carbon economy. However, it is not a long-term solution. “Our report shows that while CCS may have an overall positive effect on air pollution, emissions of some pollutants may increase. Understanding these types of trade-offs are extremely important if we are to deploy this technology across Europe and the world,” EEA Executive Director Professor Jacqueline McGlade said.
Also, clean coal will never be able to mitigate coal mining’s effects on our waterways and wildlife.
Based on this, it looks like the CCS may only work as a medium-term solution if at all, considering its continuing negative environmental effects. In order to respond to the goals of the Paris Agreement, the ultimate goal is to shift from coal and fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy.
In the meantime, beware of clean coal advocates. As Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said in 2009, “the coal industry and the carbon industry, in general, are the largest contributors to the political process… You don’t have politicians representing the American public, but rather the people who finance their campaigns.”
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