Thursday, October 9, 2008

Another Perspective On Clean Coal

The subject of clean coal has come up quite a bit recently, on a couple blogs that I love and respect.

I considered shutting up, because what I am about to say is certainly not going to make me popular, but keeping quiet is really not my style.

Ok, ready? Primed to send me hate mail? Okay, here it is:

I support clean coal.

I know, I know, HOW COULD I!! But let me explain.

Coal is cheaper, and more abundant in many parts of the world, than oil. And as oil supplies continue to be depleted, I believe, pragmatically, that there is no way in heck that you are going to get people to take coal entirely off the table. And that is why any president of the United States HAS to support clean coal. Can you imagine what would happen at a climate change summit, if our president announced he didn't support clean coal? I'll tell you what. India (10% of the world's coal reserves) and China (12% of the world's coal reserves) would walk out. They'd call us eco-imperialists, and could you blame them? Here we go, use up a huge amount of oil reserves, WAY WAY WAY MORE than our fair share, and when oil becomes super expensive, we turn to India and China, and say, "Oh, that vast natural resource of yours? Yeah, don't use that."

You could argue that you can win an election without West Virginia, but there ain't no way you're winning climate change without India and China. And since India and China aren't giving up coal, we have to deal with coal as a pragmatic reality.

So let me explain what I mean by clean coal. When I say I support clean coal, I mean, I support carbon capture and storage. Read the Wikipedia article for more detail, but basically CCS aims to sequester and store carbon, rather than release the carbon in the atmosphere. Now CCS isn't an immediately viable solution. But just because it isn't immediately viable, does not mean that the government shouldn't invest in CCS in the hopes of making it viable within the next 25-40 years. Put it this way: If we know that India and China are going to continue to use coal indefinitely, would you rather have a government that sticks its head under the sand all, "Lalala, I can't HEAR you!" or would you rather have a government that tries to find a pragmatic solution, and thus invests in the R&D that India and China can't afford?

Now is clean coal the only solution? Or even the primary solution? Of course not. Our primary solutions need to be wind, solar, hydro, and simple energy reduction. But given that leading climate scientists believe that the carbon concentration in the atmosphere has to be brought down to 350 ppm, we simply cannot take ANYTHING off the table. Joe Romm says it more eloquently than me:

That’s why I believe it is utterly immoral not to aggressively pursue the development of any plausible low-carbon or zero-carbon technology that has the potential for large scale (several hundred gigawatt) deployment. And serious analysis, like McKinsey’s, says that coal with CCS could be economical by 2030. Moreover, a CCS power plant that runs on coal blended with cellulosic biomass is one of the most plausible carbon-negative forms of electricity you can imagine. So we must pursue the development of coal with CCS, which is what Obama and Biden and virtually every other energy/climate policymaker and analyst mean when they use the term.

And that's why I support CCS or clean coal. Now, look, I am not denying that coal extraction is a terrible, awful business and Crunchy and Erin are right to call attention to it. I'm not super thrilled to be supporting coal, I have to admit. But to me, this isn't about what I like and don't like. This is about what is pragmatic, what is politically feasible, and what is perhaps physically necessary. Enviros are never going to get anywhere by bullying people (or two billion people, as the case may be) around, and imposing our moral code upon others. Moreover, if CCS ever does allow us to produce carbon-negative electricity-and I admit, that we're not close to there right now- but if CCS DOES produce carbon-negative electricity? Then perhaps the process of coal extraction would be justified.

For more information on CCS, read Joe Romm's excellent articles here and here.


JessTrev said...

Thanks, this was most interesting and I hadn't considered that angle. Food for thought. Hope all's well!

Jen S. said...

Thank you. I had been wanting to leave comments to this effect elsewhere, but you said it much more effectively than I could have.

Joyce said...

I agree with you. In Illinois we are trying build a FutureGen plant near where I live, which would use coal mined close by in Southern Illinois (not strip mined, but deep vein coal). All the local people have been looking into the envronmental aspects of it for years, because who wants some big polluter in their back yard? This plant would sequester the carbon far underground in a way that is very clean. It offers hope to our coal industry, trememcous power generation in an area that will not be great for solar or wind, and goodness knows we don't have any rushing rivers to dam for hydro. It will be safer than nuclear. I think it simply has to be part of the mix for areas that are coal rich. We do need to learn to conserve as well, but we aren't gong to give up elecricity altogether.

Crunchy Chicken said...

I wasn't necessarily arguing against clean coal since coal is plentiful and cheap and, therefore, a necessary evil.

My argument was against calling it "clean".

Plus, there are definite economic issues with capture and sequestration that no one seems to mention, as well as the risk of what would happen if all that CO2 gets burped back up into the atmosphere.

ruchi said...

Mamabird, I aim to provide food for thought!

Jen, you're welcome.

Joyce, sounds interesting. I'll have to do some reasearch on FutureGen. :)

Crunchy, yeah, looking back at your post, I think we actually more or less agree. I think you're right, and that we *should* be calling it CCS. I guess the problem for politicians is that Carbon Capture and Storage is too wordy for a 15 second sound bite. And you're right that there are risks, for sure. The big one being that CCS might never work. But I guess right now I'm not willing to give up on any possibility. I'd love you to post more about the economic issues with CCS, since I really value your perspective.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

I've always been very ambivalent about coal. I was born in one of the UK's major coal producing areas, my Dad's father and both of my Mum's grandfathers were coal miners, and the devastation of the local environment is matched only by the devastation of the local communities caused by shutting down the mines. So if they can find a way to reduce the impact on the environment while keeping those jobs and communities alive, then yeah, let's do it!

Jerry Critter said...

I agree that the term "clean" should not be used with coal. There is very little, if anything, that is clean about coal. CCS addresses only one aspect of coal -- what to do with one of the major pollutants of the combustion of coal.

There is a whole other set of problems with the extraction of coal in the first place -- both from a miner safety point of view and from an environmental (although not necessarily climate) point of view.

To keep coal economic while eliminating environmental, climatic, and human damage is a huge and possibly impossible task.

Donna said...

I basically agree with you. My problem is with the method they use to extract the coal. From the admitably small reading I've done on the subject, coal could be extracted in a much more environmentally friendly manner, but it's not because some big corps are greedy bullies. Coal USEd to be extracted much more cleanly than it is today. If that's what India & China are doing, more power to them.

Stephanie said...

Trade offs!

Hey, we were just talking about this in one of my classes.

And then I forgot whatever else I was going to say. Oh yeah! I forgot again to stop thinking in terms of absolutes. Thanks for the reminder.

EJ said...

So if coal isn't good then what type of energy do you all think we should use? They ALL have drawbacks and none of them are truly renewable/sustainable.

Conservation and using less best in my mind. But thats easy to say from an affluent position.

ruchi said...

Cath, I think with coal (as with many things) there is no easy answer. I don't pretend to say that CCS is a silver bullet. For one, it's not something that works right now. So .... but yeah, I'm hopeful that one day CCS will be a viable solution.

Jerry Critter, I agree that keeping coal economic while eliminating human, environmental, and climactic challenge is incredibly daunting. But if we don't invest in the technology, it definitely will remain impossible, whereas if we do invest in the technology, it might be possible. Given that either way, the world is going to use coal, I think we should be investing in the R&D.

Donna, I'm not sure how India and China extract their coal. My point was that regardless, they are going to extract their coal. And so we should work on the R&D to make CCS a possibility, so that we can export that R&D over to India and China.

Stephanie, I know it's tricky, isn't it? I forget a lot of times too. :)

E, you're right. For developed countries such as the US, Canada, and Europe, my personal opinion is that we can use LESS energy. Because we are incredibly wasteful with it. After that, it's going to come down to a place by place criteria. The Southwest of the US would concentrate on solar. Hydro where there are rivers. In France, they use nuclear, and seem to be doing okay with it.

In the developing world, or the undeveloped world, it's another story. They are going to need more energy. And right now, what they can often afford, is coal. I think, what we need to do is two-fold. First of all: we need to have a Marshall Environmental Plan that would basically give money to developing countries for solar, wind, and hydro power energy. Because currently those energy sources can't compete with coal. That's not going to stop the countries from using coal, but I think it will stem the tide a little. Secondly, we have to engage in the R&D for CCS so that in 25 years time, we can perhaps export that technology as well. But, right now we're just letting them fend for themselves. That's not going to help us at all.

Anonymous said...

We maybe at peak oil, but we have hundreds of years of coal that we can burn.

So unless we can make solar, wind, tidal energy significantly cheaper than coal, taking clean coal off the table is simply unrealistic.

Most of all, I think we need strong global cap and trade systems that enables the market to choose the right energy source.

Anonymous said...

I agree and I know that stance isn't popular with my environmentalist friends. But until there are real, affordable, and efficient alternatives we really don't have much of a choice. Yes, the process can be improved but I don't think coal can or should be taken off of the table until something else comes along. Not to mention the what the impact would be on communities where coal is the ONLY source of income.

Glad that things are going great for you!