Home Environment The pros, cons of ‘clean coal’ technology receive scrutiny

The pros, cons of ‘clean coal’ technology receive scrutiny

Following the latest grim reports on the pressing problem of global warming, there is much debate about whether cleaning up coal-fired electric plants will sufficiently address the effect of greenhouse gases on the world’s climate.

Proponents of clean coal technology say new innovations are meeting the challenge of finding affordable and efficient solutions to reducing carbon dioxide emissions. They point to studies and demonstration projects showing that carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a safe and effective method of reducing coal’s negative impact on air quality.

In Canada last month, a new coal power plant opened as the world’s first-ever large-scale commercial coal power plant using CCS, according to Howard J. Herzog, a senior research engineer at the MIT Energy Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writing for The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). About 90 percent of the plant’s CO2 is captured and then transported along pipelines for injection into oil fields some 40 miles away.

Similar projects are underway in Texas and Mississippi in the U.S. as well as others, most notably, in the U.K. and China. And although shifting to clean coal requires enormous investments in infrastructure, so does the shift to renewable energy, Herzog says.

However, those in favor of renewable fuels say that implementation of clean coal technology on a global scale would be massively expensive, but would not significantly reduce the environmental impact of burning coal.

According to Richard Heinberg, a senior fellow-in-residence at the Post Carbon Institute, an advocate for renewable fuels, the economics of clean coal technology simply “don’t work.” Because carbon capture and storage is so expensive, the power industry has little incentive to implement it without a hefty carbon tax, he writes in the WSJ.

Heinberg points out that the process of capturing and storing carbon emissions is estimated to be between 25 percent to 45 percent of the power produced. And, he says, capturing and storing just 38 percent of U.S. coal combustion emissions would involve pipeline and equipment on a size matching the nation’s oil industry.

Because of coal’s impact on global temperatures and its role in high rates of lung disease, the real future is in renewable energy, Heinberg says.