Why Clean Coal Is Years Away

Coal is here to stay, but efforts to cut emissions are ambitious, expensive, and have largely stumbled.

Coal smoke and steam vapor pour out of the Bruce Mansfield Power Plant over a nearby residential area in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. The 2460 MW coal-fired plant in western Pennsylvania is one of the 12 biggest carbon dioxide polluting power plants in the U.S.

Coal smoke and steam vapor pour out of the Bruce Mansfield Power Plant over a nearby residential area in Shippingport, Pennsylvania.

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The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, the industry's main lobbying group, says there are more than $6 billion of projects around the country that are related to clean coal. In fact, many have little or nothing to do with carbon dioxide emissions but instead involve nitrogen and sulfur oxides. Those that do pertain to CO2 appear to be advancing slowly. There's a project in West Virginia that's been stalled by litigation for several years, one in Florida that's been canceled, and another in Minnesota that's been stuck in the planning stage for several years.

So, what's needed to break this cycle? Money, for one thing. Credit Suisse Group says $15 billion needs to be invested in CCS over the next 10 years for it to play an important role in climate change. The International Energy Agency says $20 billion. Pew's global warming center puts the number as high as $30 billion. Those numbers dwarf the actual investments thus far. The Bush administration spent about $2.5 billion on advanced coal technology—an unprecedented amount, to be sure, but far below the estimates of what will be needed. CCS proponents say both the government and the private sector need to step up their investments.

Financing, of course, would help accelerate the deployment of vital trials or demonstration projects. The industry is locked in a vicious game of chicken and egg. In order for large-scale technology to be put in place, the costs need to come down, but for the costs to come down, the technology needs to be put in place, or "perfected," as officials say. Carbon capture techniques might work well enough in a lab, but experts say they don't know what will happen if they put chemical scrubbers on a 500-megawatt commercial coal plant and try to capture all—or even half—of its CO2. Policy experts say at least 10 to 12 of these demonstration plants are needed to test, analyze, and commercialize the technology. During the campaign, Obama committed himself to building five.

Meanwhile, there's still a need for research. As MIT's Howard Herzog, a leading coal technology researcher, puts it, some capture technologies are pretty well advanced. "Maybe you can shave some costs, but you're not going to cut the costs in half," he says. "There are basic laws of science—laws of thermodynamics—you just can't get around." On the other hand, there are novel technologies in the research pipeline, such as those being looked at by Lee of Chevron, that have higher risk but also potentially higher reward. "It's not a slam-dunk which of these technologies is the right one," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said recently. "We want to pursue a suite of solutions." In Chu's assessment, DOE should be investing in pilot projects looking at different ways of siphoning off CO2: before coal is combusted, after it's combusted, or even burning coal in pure oxygen rather than regular air.

Not surprisingly, there are plenty of environmentalists who are terribly unhappy with the focus on coal. They'd rather see money go elsewhere, for scaling up wind or solar power, or for huge improvements in energy efficiency. One of their key arguments is that coal combustion, even if it doesn't release CO2, is still going to be dirty. "You can burn it more cleanly, but no matter how much you scrub coal, you will always have a waste stream. You're just transferring it from one place to another," says Emily Rochon, CCS policy coordinator for Greenpeace International.

But given just how reliant the nation is on coal power, the only real question seems to be how clean it will eventually become.

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