Virtually everybody reading this knows that coal is bad environmentally. It’s the dirtiest of the fossil fuels in terms of carbon emissions and historically the primary cause of acid rain, not to mention negative land and water impacts where it’s mined. But coal is also plentiful, domestically produced, and as a result, cheap. We rely on it to generate more than half of the electric power in the US, including the energy operating the computer on which I’m writing this blog. However, the sad but increasingly unavoidable fact is that as a power source, coal is probably here to stay for some time.
Coal will remain with us because there is simply too much global demand for electrical power to fill the gap with renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear options, even assuming massive scale ups in all of these technologies. Not only the US, but China and India and other countries also rely on coal for power, with the expectation of even more use of it. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), globally, coal fired plants now under construction or planned during the next 20 year will, during their operational lifetimes, emit more atmospheric carbon than all the coal combusted to date.
Intriguing as coal free – alternative energy scenarios, like Ed Mazria’s solar and conservation based, 2030 Challenge are, we simply have to find a way to burn coal more cleanly to make a dent in global warming. Such clean coal processes generally fall under the rubric of Carbon Capture and Sequestration, or CSS. In one form or another, this is a multi step process requiring: a) removal of CO2 before – or – after coal combustion, b) compression of it into a liquid, c) piping it to a safe place, where d) it can be injected/sequestered permanently, generally underground. This storage place might be an oil field, a deep saline aquifer, or in some scenarios, in the ocean depths.
CSS is not a simple process, but neither are the alternatives. Society ran out of simple, cheap energy solutions some time ago. Rather, we exploited seemingly cheap energy solutions without regard to their actual environmental costs. Respected environmental organizations such as the NRDC support the role of CCS in mitigating the worst impacts of climate change. Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Project among other educational institutions, is actively developing CCS technologies.
In the past, there have been arguments that CCS is some sort of smoke and mirrors scheme invented by the power industry to maintain business as usual. While there may be truth to such wishful thinking by some in the power industry hoping for a silver bullet, others are moving ahead with sizeable CCS utility pilot projects; among them Southern Company.
One thing that CCS won’t be is cheap. In all likelihood it will drive up the cost of coal fired power considerably. The good news is that this makes other renewable sources such and solar and wind technologies more price competitive. But if past experience with scrubbers on power plants is any indicator, costs should come down as R & D drives innovation and scale up creates efficiencies. However, any way you look at it, renewable, fossil, or nuclear, power is going to cost a lot more more in the future, making energy efficiency and conservation all the more important.
A final note on terminology. Excuse the somewhat inaccurate reference to “coke” in the title above. The coal coking process and coal combustion to produce power are not the same, but I couldn’t resist the pun.