Clean coal: Unworkable, expensive, but blessed with stimulus money

Big coal's last best hope, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), which is the missing puzzle piece required to create a truly 'clean coal' energy plant, is dead.

The death of CCS, which has not been greatly exaggerated (see here, and here), hasn't prevented the Obama Administration from recently allocating money to stimulate it back to life -- for instance, in field tests, like this one that began last week in an unused West Virginia mine shaft. And it hasn't prevented climate scientist James Hanson from naming CCS as one of many possible solutions to the problem of global warming.

The aim of the research, and of Hansen's endorsement of CCS, one assumes, is toward some practical, if distant goal in time. For now, however, for the serviceable future, the best and most recent evidence against CCS reveals unequivocal and staggering technological and economic obstacles.

Joseph Romm, through his reports in Climate Progress, has already made the case clear. But in a new report from Harvard, Romm, who was Acting Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy in the 1990s, suggests that CCS has now priced itself out of the electricity market. According to Romm, the sunniest, most optimistic outlook has first of its kind CCS producing electricity at 18 cents per kilowatt hour -- which is triple the current price of wind power.

To many observers, the evidence against CCS fairly cries out that policy makers should seek better cleaner and more quickly deployed energy pathways and stop squandering public funds-- and wasting precious time-- on a method that seems so fantastically expensive and ill-advised.

Yet clean coal, as an idea, continues, zombie-like, to live in the public discourse.
And with an annual $40 million dollar war chest, big coal's lobbying group, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, (ACCCE) has successfully kept the phrase "clean coal" -- and the ever-illusive fantasy it suggests -- in constant circulation. It spent $38 million dollars on a national "clean coal" ad campaign in 2008 and $10 million that year on federal lobbying efforts in Washington, according to Congressional Quarterly. That's more lobbying money than any other consortium of companies lobbying in Washington on the subject of climate change.

ACCCE, with assistance from Peabody Energy (BTU), the largest private sector coal company in the world, has recently circulated to Senators who will soon be hashing out the details of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (the Waxman-Markey bill), a map of the United States that purports to show how the bill will drastically raise the electricity rates for almost everyone but a few lucky states.

That map takes a short-term view. For comparison, the Union of Concerned Scientists has issued a different map to accompany a study suggesting electricity customers will save $255 billion dollars by 2030 as a result of effective climate change legislation, (see it here).

In August, ACCCE spent $1 million on ads favoring the use of the clean coal and deployed 200,000 "volunteers," calling them "America's Power Army," to attend town halls in states where coal interests need shoring up. And before that, ACCCE was linked to a public relations firm it had hired, Bonner and Associates, which apparently forged letters from minority organizations in Virginia purporting to be against Waxman-Markey and then sent those letters to congressmen Tom Perriello (D-VA).

ACCCE's campaign of magical thinking (if you repeat something enough times, it seems almost real) has been a spectacular public relations success, especially since clean coal, as a viable, cost-effective technology, doesn't exist. Many television viewers have chortled along with a series of recent ads by which have noted the non-existence of clean coal with grim comic effectiveness.

What we have instead are coal-fired power plants that, by almost any non-coal lobby analysis, are looking more and more like technological dinosaurs that have not simply out-lived their purpose, but seem to be harming the world to a degree that may prove to be irreversible.

Put the question about coal to one of coal's biggest apologists, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, for instance, or to anyone at ACCCE, or the National Mining Association, or to any of the powerful southeastern electric utilities like Southern Company or Peabody Energy (which has ruined the drinking water for thousands of West Virginians by pumping coal sludge loaded with chromium, arsenic, lead and beryllium into the ground), and you will get something that sounds, of course, like the latest good news about cholesterol, say, from the American Butter Institute. "Coal is a cheap, abundant, and now clean American resource," the coal lobby proclaims.

But it isn't. If you watched the Democratic or the Republican Presidential debates on CNN, which ACCCE's predecessor organization, Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC), paid $5 million to co-sponsor, you saw the ads in which a glistening chunk of coal, against a pristine white backdrop, becomes an electrical outlet, and you'd know that over half of America's electricity is generated by coal-fired power plants. The ads make it easy to conflate "clean coal" with "providing over half of America's electricity," and many environmentalists check themselves from making this mistake by inserting the phrase "so-called" in front of the phrase "clean coal," to register a modest note of irony about the technology. But in the case of "clean coal," irony hardly seems to do justice to the truth.

For a glimpse of reality, you can take a tour of Georgia Power's Plant Scherer, near Macon, Georgia, the biggest coal-fired plant in the Western hemisphere. It is a true industrial colossus that burns 23,000 tons, or 124 carloads of coal, in less than eight hours. At Plant Scherer you'll find the opposite of clean. It is the largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States (25.3 million tons annually) and is ranked 20th in the world for carbon dioxide emissions.

Burlington Northern/Sante Fe (BNI) which, like Southern Company (SO), helped fund the "Clean Coal" ad campaign, dedicates 36 of these 124-car trains to Plant Scherer. Three arrive every 24 hours, traveling 1,800 miles from the Black Thunder Mine in Wyoming, owned by Arch Coal (ACI) another "Clean Coal" ad contributor.

There are twelve more of these plants in the United States that are roughly in the same league as Plant Scherer, plus more than 600 coal plants that are smaller -- and not one them utilizes technology that can justify the term "Clean Coal."

The technology they use -- Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle, or IGCC -- promises to capture 99 percent of coal's sulfur oxides and 95 percent of its mercury. But it's the third pollutant that the IGCC process removes from coal -- the 88 percent of the carbon dioxide captured -- that remains the biggest problem for the coal industry and will likely become a major business liability for companies operating coal-fired plants.

What to do with the carbon that the IGCC process captures? That's where CCS is supposed to come in -- but, unfortunatley, it doesnt' work and there is no other technological solution for that massive problem.

It has, moreover, become very difficult to build new IGCC coal plants. Texas-based utility TXU was forced to drop eight of a planned 11 new coal-fired plants -- the three remaining were challenged in court. In November of 2007, Southern Company canceled a plant in Florida two months after breaking ground. Florida Republican Governor Charlie Crist joined the efforts of environmentalists to successfully block a second, $5.7 billion, 1,960 megawatt coal plant. Other plants have been derailed in Kansas, Colorado, Delaware, Ohio, South Dakota, North Carolina, Arizona, Iowa and Oklahoma. "And if you can't build a coal plant in Oklahoma," quipped Michael Skelly, a Texas-based wind energy executive, "where the hell can you build one?"

Indeed, according to a report from the Energy Information Administration, of 151 "new or "clean coal" plants planned that year, 59 were refused licenses and close to 50 more are being contested in the courts. As of August, 2009, 88 of the report's 151 plants had been canceled or delayed.

Why? For many, it's because they're too expensive -- 40 percent more expensive to build than traditional coal plants, and they will have higher operating costs, and burn about 25 percent more coal to generate the same amount of electricity. The industry is already bracing for the likely emergence of carbon legislation, probably in the form of a cap and trade system, which, as the coal industry itself is proclaiming, will raise the price of coal-fired electricity.

But even without that legislation, electricity from new coal plants, if and when they ever do come into existence, will be at parity with the prices charged by new wind power plants, for instance, according to Ric O'Connell of the consulting firm Black & Veatch. For the last few years, according to a recent report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, (NREL) wind power projects have been selling electricity at prices that are competitive with wholesale power sources like coal (See page 37 of the report, here). Even electricity generated by old coal plants is being undercut by the depreciation of wind power plants, says NREL's Larry Flowers.

Meantime, US coal is gettingmore expensive. Figures suggesting there are 200 year's worth of U.S. coal reserves have recently been cut in half. Every week ships in Baltimore's port are loading up with Appalachian coal bound for China, which recently became a net importer of coal --a fact that has helped more than double the spot price for Central Appalachian coal futures, from $40 in 2007 to $90 dollars a ton in 2008. One expert who studies the electricity landscape summed up what many others have also said: "the era of cheap coal is over."

Only three percent of people in a recent survey favored coal as a viable source of energy for the country, and 73 percent favored a five year moratorium on new coal-fired plants. What's more, as resistance to coal is mounting, ACCCE's membership is showing signs of falling apart.

This summer Alcoa (AA) left ACCCE, as did Duke Energy, (DUK) citing ACCCE's resistance to climate legislation. Even more recently, Alstom, the French power plant equipment manufacturer, also abandoned ship, expressing regret over ACCCE's position on climate legislation. Many observers are waiting for General Electric (GE) to follow suit.

These defections indicate that the world's largest power companies have awoken to the fact that clean coal isn't viable. But it's still unclear if Congress will ever wake up from the spell of clean coal.

Mark Svenvold, author of Big Weather: Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America, teaches at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey

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