How About Some Clean Coal for Our Stockings?

With our current situation of cheap natural gas, no price on carbon providing an incentive to decarbonize, and no carbon pollution regulation of existing coal plants, industry efforts are dead in their tracks.
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If we're good, maybe Santa will put some clean coal in our stockings. No joke. Not kidding.

Yep. I'm serious.

But if we've been naughty, well, we'll get a fracking switch. Ouch!

Switching to natural gas is naughty, but investing in clean coal is nice? Huh? Did somebody slip me a holiday brownie from Colorado? Isn't natural gas the "clean" fossil fuel, while coal is the dirtiest?

As I've written about elsewhere, natural gas has been touted as a "bridge" to a clean energy future, a temporary solution until renewables are ready to dominate our energy mix. But there are two basic problems.

First, recent studies are suggesting that there is a lot more leakage from gas fields and infrastructure, with these so-called "fugitive emissions" making gas about as bad as coal from a climate perspective.

While we may be able to address this first problem, the second one is more physically intractable. Overcoming global warming requires exponential change in emissions reductions driven by major investments in renewables and efficiency, whereas natural gas offers a fractional solution. Right now cheap gas is hindering the creation of clean energy capacity via renewables by dominating new generation: between 2000-2010 natural gas accounted for 81% of new electricity capacity.

Displacing exponential solutions with a fractional one. That's the big problem with gas as a climate solution. As Stanford's Ken Caldeira has argued, relying on gas instead of investing in renewables and efficiency simply delays by a few decades the planet-altering consequences we must avoid, making natural gas the "fool's gold" of climate action in my view.

Right now natural gas is also kicking coal's butt here in the US. This spring - for the first time ever - electricity powered by natural gas equaled that from coal, and then surged ahead in August.

Some might think that coal is on the ropes, about to go down for the count, and we should be ready to hit them again if they get up. Maybe even kick them when they're down.

Aside from a little matter of Christians not kicking folks, there's a big problem with this thinking - coal ain't on the ropes. Any talk of coal's demise is a mirage. Coal is still the world's energy champ.

Yes, some old coal-burning power plants are being shut down here in the US; about 9% of current coal-generating capacity will be retired by 2016. And yes, currently gas has pulled ahead of coal for generating electricity in the US, in large measure because it is cheaper, leading to the idling of about half of the existing coal-burning power plants. But this situation could change fairly quickly. In other words, much of this present reduction in coal-based electricity is a temporary market phenomenon, not structural.

So here's where we are: cheap gas has us idling about half of the existing coal capacity, fooling us into thinking this is progress, and displacing exponential solutions with a fractional one in the guise of being clean and climate-friendly. Not a good outcome for overcoming global warming. Instead of making sound, sober long-term investments in renewables and efficiency that will reap exponential rewards, we are partying it up on a cheap gas credit card with a very high climate-impacts rate.

What is even more important to understand is that the current US coal situation is an aberration when compared to the rest of the world. Declines in coal consumption here have been offset by increases elsewhere. In 2011 coal was once again the fastest growing fossil fuel worldwide, with the vast majority of the growth in production and all of the growth in consumption occurring in the Asia Pacific region. This is merely the continuation of several trends.

First, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), over the last decade coal has met almost half of new energy demand worldwide.

Second, the Asia Pacific region, dominated by China and India, has and will continue to consume coal at an incredible rate.

China currently has twice the coal-fired generating capacity as the US. And while our coal-burning power plants are old and on a gradual decline, China and India's fleets are young and growing. The IEA projects that by 2020 India will become the largest net importer of coal and by 2025 will surpass the US as the second largest user of coal.

But the emerging economies of China and India are not the only places where coal will grow.

Two forces are propelling coal forward in developing countries: (1) the drive to address energy poverty, and (2) the growing urbanization in poor countries. Cheap energy for cities bursting at the seams, filled with those trying to climb out of poverty - that's the situation.

As one astute energy analyst, Gregor Macdonald, observed:

Coal's versatility, in that it can be stored cheaply and transported via ship, rail, truck, or in smaller quantities by small personal transport, makes it the logical energy choice for the developing world. ... Most important is that the cheap price of coal, especially when burned without environmental regulations, aligns with developing world wages.

Where does all of this lead? To the need for the US to help in cleaning up coal if we're going to overcome global warming.

Yet with our current situation of cheap natural gas, no price on carbon providing an incentive to decarbonize, and no carbon pollution regulation of existing coal plants, industry efforts are dead in their tracks.

That's why the Obama Administration's R & D efforts on clean coal are crucial: the government must keep such efforts from stalling out.

We are going to have to find a way to either stop coal's carbon pollution from getting into the atmosphere through the more conventional Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) options, or through approaches that soak it up once released - like Klaus Lackner's artificial trees do. (On the latter, see the excellent NOVA video, Power Surge, starting at minute 14.)

While it's theoretically possible for the world to create sustainable economic progress with a rapid phase-out of coal, it's not likely. And while I personally think CCS may not be how we end up addressing this coal-and-climate problem, it's an option we need to have in our tool kit. Indeed, the IEA sees CCS providing 19% of the solution through 2050, compared to 17% for renewables.

So, yes, I hope Santa brings us some "clean coal" for our stockings, and puts some "CCS tools" for our "climate action toolkit" under the tree.

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