Cleaner coal

Coal is a witches’ brew of chemicals including hydrocarbons, sulphur, and other elements and molecules. Burning it is a dirty business, producing toxic and carcinogenic emissions including arsenic, selenium, cyanide, nitrous oxides, particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds. Coal plants also produce large amounts of carbon dioxide, thus contributing to climate change. That said, some coal plant designs can reduce both toxic and climatically relevant emissions to a considerable extent. Given concerns about energy security – coupled with the vast coal reserves in the United States, United Kingdom, China, and elsewhere – giving some serious thought to cleaner coal technology is sensible.

Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) plants are the best existing option for a number of reasons. Rather than burning coal directly, they use heat to convert it into syngas, which is then burned. Such plants can also produce syngas from heavy petroleum residues (think of the oil sands) or biomass. One advantage of this approach is that it simplifies the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, which seek to bury carbon emissions in stable geological formations. This is because the carbon can be removed from the syngas prior to combustion, rather than having to be separated from hot flue gases before they go out the smokestack.

The problems with IGCC include a higher cost (perhaps $3,593 per kilowatt, compared with less than $1,290 for conventional coal) and lower reliability than simpler designs (this diagram reveals the complexity of IGCC systems). In the absence of effective carbon sequestration, such plants will also continue to emit very high levels of greenhouse gasses. If carbon pricing policies emerge in states that make extensive use of coal for energy, both of these problems may be reduced to some extent. In the first place, having to pay for carbon emissions would reduce the relative cost of lower-emissions technologies. In the second place, such pricing would induce the development and deployment of CCS.

One way or another, it will eventually be necessary to leave virtually all of the carbon that is currently trapped in coal in the ground, rather than letting it accumulate in the atmosphere. Whether that is done by leaving the coal itself underground or simply returning the carbon once the energy has been extracted is not necessarily a matter of huge environmental importance (though coal mining is a hazardous business that produces lots of contamination). That said, CCS remains a somewhat speculative and unproven technology. ‘Clean coal’ advocates will be on much stronger ground if a single electricity generating, economically viable, carbon sequestering power plant can be constructed.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

13 thoughts on “Cleaner coal”

  1. Coal is lame. It’s carbon in a very low energy state. Oil is much better.

  2. Oil is:
    * $89 a barrel
    * Likely to run out in less than 100 years
    * Dangerously concentrated in oil sands (Alberta, etc)
    * Otherwise, largely under lands controlled by nasty regimes

    We may have a half-century worth of coal left. That will give us a long time to figure out efficient solar cells and/or fusion reactors.

  3. Power Plant Rejected Over Carbon Dioxide For First Time

    By Steven Mufson
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, October 19, 2007; Page A01

    The Kansas Department of Health and Environment yesterday became the first government agency in the United States to cite carbon dioxide emissions as the reason for rejecting an air permit for a proposed coal-fired electricity generating plant, saying that the greenhouse gas threatens public health and the environment.

  4. I wanted to alert you to a new report from Ceres that examines the insurance industry’s response to global warming.
    As the world’s largest industry, with core competencies in risk management and finance, the insurance industry is well positioned to be part of the solution to climate change.

    The report, authored by IPCC scientist Evan Mills of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, finds that insurers worldwide are now offering hundreds of initiatives to tackle climate change and rising weather losses. The number of initiatives identified, which include pay-as-you-drive auto insurance, green buildings insurance, and weather derivatives for renewable energy projects, has more than doubled since a similar report was released last year.

    However, the report also highlights the fact that two-thirds of insurers are not yet experimenting with these approaches.

    The report is available for download at

  5. Electric power is fungible. With a nationally interconnected transmission network, it does little good to halt new coal capacity in one state if the residents or regulatory authorities in other states are unwilling to reduce their coal use. In the first New York Times story linked above, Stephen Miller, a representative of the Sunflower Electric Power Corporation which planned to build the new generators, noted that the company might respond to the ruling by building new transmission capacity to a coal-burning plant in neighboring Missouri.

    If environmental concerns place supply constraints on new coal capacity, the price of power will rise. Those growing potential margins will provide power companies with a significant incentive to build coal plants somewhere, and they’ll also increase the probability that a willing state might cash in by becoming a haven for coal power generation. The problem with carbon emissions is that their negative costs are borne by a very large and distributed population. Without action coordinated at a national or international level, it will be difficult for individual green efforts to stick given potential profit opportunities. Growing opposition to new coal capacity should be taken as support for strong national policy solutions, and not as the solultion itself.

  6. Scientists See Coal As Key Challenge

    The Associated Press
    Monday, October 22, 2007; 2:26 PM

    — The proliferation of coal-burning power plants around the world may pose “the single greatest challenge” to averting dangerous climate change, an international panel of scientists reported Monday.

  7. The cost of a federal project aimed at demonstrating the viability of cleanly burning coal and sequestering carbon dioxide emissions has nearly doubled to $1.8 billion, the Energy Department said in a report released Friday.

    Publication of the final environmental impact statement (EIS) for FutureGen is scheduled to be announced in the Federal Register on Nov. 16, starting a 30-day public comment period after which the department is expected to give the go-ahead for each of the four sites examined — Mattoon and Tuscola in Illinois, and Jewett and Odessa in Texas.

    The FutureGen Alliance, an association of coal companies and electric utilities that have joined DOE to design and build the 275-megawatt power plant, will then make the final site selection, with an announcement expected in December.

    The finalized EIS updates the project’s price tag. In March 2004, DOE told Congress it would cost $950 million in 2004 dollars — a cost to be shared between the department and the FutureGen Alliance, with government paying 74 percent and industry paying 26 percent. The final EIS updates the total bill to $1.757 billion in as-spent dollars, with additional adjustments expected as work unfolds.

    When operational, the plant is projected to generate $300 million from electricity sales over an unspecified time period, which DOE says will yield a net cost of $1.456 billion.

  8. For the second time in six weeks, a Florida coal-fired power project that promised to use carbon-capture technology has been cancelled due to concerns about regulatory uncertainty.

    The Orlando Utilities Commission and Southern Co., which broke ground on the 285-megawattt clean coal plant in September, said yesterday that the project will be converted into a natural gas-fired power plant, rather than a coal-based integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) facility as originally planned.

    “Our first priority is to provide our customers with reliable electric service at the most affordable rates,” Orlando Utilities CEO and General Manager Ken Ksionek said in a statement. “In light of the changing federal and state regulatory landscape regarding emissions, the IGCC project is no longer as economically viable for OUC as it was when we first entered the project.”

    The uncertainty stems from actions taken by Gov. Charlie Crist (R) last summer to force the state to reduce its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to 1990 levels by 2025.

    Last month, Tampa Electric Co. cancelled an even larger coal-fired IGCC project at its Polk Energy Station that was to come online in 2013, citing risks to investors due to Crist’s mandate as well as growing support for nationwide CO2 regulation in Congress.

    In both Tampa and Orlando, developers planned to build the IGCC plants to be carbon-capture ready, but they did not intend to immediately sequester CO2 emissions. The addition of sequestration technology could increase the construction costs by hundreds of millions of dollars, officials said, thus raising risks for investors.

    The $557 million Orlando Utilities project, scheduled to come online in 2010, was along with TECO’s plant among a select group of new power projects that won Energy Department support under the Bush administration’s Clean Coal Power Initiative. In February 2006, DOE committed $235 million to help design and build the Orlando facility.

  9. An inconvenient, dirty truth

    From Friday’s Globe and Mail
    November 16, 2007 at 6:16 AM EST

    ROME — If you want to make money and don’t mind spitting up black phlegm and destroying the planet, buy coal. While the energy markets and the media are obsessed with rising oil prices, the developing world is quietly gearing up for a coal development and consumption spree of astounding proportions. The energy markets of tomorrow are not about oil and hydrogen and wind turbines spinning lazily on ridges. They’re about coal, which is cheap and plentiful but also the worst news for the environment that you could imagine in the post-Al Gore world.

  10. The Syllogism of Doom [dum dum duuum]
    Why clean coal is so darn appealing

    1. If we (that is, humanity) increase our use of coal, the atmosphere will likely tip over into irreversible, catastrophic warming.
    2. We are going to increase our use of coal.
    3. The atmosphere will likely tip over into irreversible, catastrophic warming.

  11. Report finds massive hidden energy costs, mostly from coal

    A new report from the National Research Council on the “hidden costs of energy” is, frankly, stunning. In a sane world, it would be headline news.

    Producing and using energy imposes all sorts of costs on public health, crop yields, ecosystems, recreation, educational performance … the list goes on. Many of these costs don’t end up reflected in the market price of energy; consumers don’t see them or factor them into purchasing decisions. They are hidden, paid indirectly through, for example, health-care spending or environmental-remediation costs. Such costs are external to energy markets—externalities, as economists call them—and they represent an enormous subsidy to the dirtiest sources of energy.

    I’m always left somewhat dissatisfied by discussions about externalities. People seem to imagine them as external in some sort of metaphysical way, as though the costs inhabit an immaterial and weightless ether. (“Social” costs, they’re sometimes called.) But costs are costs. Someone pays them, with real money. They dampen economic productivity, like driving with one foot pressing the brake.

    Of that $120 billion, a whopping $62 billion—over half—came from one source: coal-fired electricity plants. And that’s only a partial accounting.

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