Why Clean Coal Is Not, but Renewables Are

As we helplessly watch the spreading brown ooze soak into the porous sands of the Gulf coast courtesy of BP, the encroaching spill should at the same time be seeping into our collective consciousness, goading us into redirecting our national energy strategy away from carbon and toward sustainability. The crisis in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the deadly explosion of Deepwater Horizon is only the latest blow, and not the only hint that fossil fuels are problematic. We also have the recent spate of fatal mining disasters in Kentucky and Virginia to remind us that our addiction to natural gas, oil and coal comes with a high price in lives and lucre. These domestic tragedies, though, however sad, pale in scale and impact to the global effects of dumping 70 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a byproduct of burning fossil fuels. For those who accept the preponderance of scientific evidence, climate change is an existential menace.

Unlike many of my liberal friends, I am not anti-oil as a practical matter; until we transition to an economy based on renewables, oil is a necessary evil if we want to keep our refrigerators cold and our cars running. We cannot escape the reality that fossil fuels account for 80% of total energy demand. Certainly, we must make the transition to green technologies as quickly as possible, and now more than ever. With a growing list of crises we have before us a clarion call to action, a clear signal that fossil fuels must be supplemented and eventually replaced by renewable energy if we wish to see a sustainable future.

But with stubborn conservative calls to "drill baby drill" we instead are burying our heads in the newly tar-coated sands of Florida, pretending hopefully that a fossil-fuel economy is viable. We do so in part by invoking the possibilities of coal as a path to virtually unlimited clean energy. The prospect of clean coal is a good diversion from the gushing leak troubling BP and Transocean, but based on nothing but wishful thinking. The assertion that coal can currently be mined and burned cleanly is in the end as delusional as the claim that new technologies render off-shore drilling perfectly safe. We are dreaming, asleep at the switch as the locomotive pulling our carbon-based economy speeds toward certain derailment.

To snap out of our deadly slumber we must put the idea of clean coal in honest perspective. Offering the false hope of unlimited clean power in coal only delays the inevitable transition to truly green sources of energy. Nevertheless, the attraction to coal is powerful and obvious because the United States sits on a reserve of nearly 250 billion tons of coal, 112 billion of which are high-quality bituminous and anthracite coals; the remainder mainly being lower-energy and dirtier lignite. With such abundance the siren song of energy independence is difficult to resist. A large stable supply also dampens price fluctuations, eliminating a big uncertainty in anticipating future costs for critical industries. Currently coal is used to generate nearly half of all the electricity needs of the United States with more than 500 coal-fired plants of 500 MW or more on line.

But not is all rosy. Burning even the highest quality anthracite is dirty business. One 500 MW power plant generates about 3 million tons of carbon dioxide every year. Other toxic byproducts include fine-grain particulates, heavy metals like mercury, lead, chromium and nickel, trace elements such as arsenic and selenium, and various organics like dichloroethane, benzene, carbon tetrachloride, chloroform, and trichloroethylene. Oxides of nitrogen and sulfur are common pollutants from coal, and are found at higher levels in anthracite than in bituminous coal. The known health consequences of this toxic brew of air and water pollution are many, and include nervous system problems in infants and children, asthma, chronic bronchitis, lung cancer, a suite of cardiovascular problems and kidney disease. The environmental impacts are well documented, and not pretty.

The Promise of Clean Coal Technology

To save the day, and the coal industry, riding over the horizon comes along a White Knight, even if a bit soiled with coal dust, in the form of Integrated Gasification and Combined Cycle (IGCC) coal plants. As industry proponents correctly note, IGCC offers many potential advantages over traditional coal-fired power plants. This is the technological heart of Clean Coal. IGCC works by converting coal to synthetic gas (Syngas) by placing the raw material in a hydrogen-rich environment at high pressures and temperatures. The newly generated gas is processed further to remove impurities and pollutants. The cleansed gas is then used as fuel in a gas turbine, which produces electricity. Better still, excess heat is captured from both the gasification process and from gas turbine exhaust, and then used to create steam, which powers a steam turbine to produce additional electricity. By burning a cleansed gas, and recapturing waste heat, IGCC is more efficient and less polluting than traditional coal plants. If you add carbon recapture to the program, IGCC cuts CO2 emissions by about 40 percent.

The Problems With IGCC

Unproven technology

IGCC with sequestration and storage of CO2 on a large scale is in its infancy and still unproven economically. Five projects considered in 2007 were cancelled in Florida, Texas, Arizona, and Wyoming; and four others put on hold in Minnesota, Illinois and New York. A 2006 EPA report estimated that CO2 capture costs about $24/ton, and that commercializing sequestration technologies is "highly uncertain."

Syngas is produced at about 1700 degrees Centigrade, while the system used to cleanse the resulting gas operates at about 600 degrees. Enormous heat exchangers are used to operate the plant to accommodate these different operating temperatures. One problem is the deposition of solids in the exchangers, which dramatically reduces their efficiency. This is just one example of why some believe IGCC will have crippling amount of downtime; the systems are complex and rely on potentially unrealized efficiency for economic viability.


Government estimates show that capturing 90% of CO2 emissions increases capital costs by about 47%, and would boost the cost of electricity 38%; and that does not include transportation or storage costs. In fact IGCC, in particular with CO2 capture, is only potentially economically viable with large subsidies from federal, state and local governments. This calls into question why coal should be used at the expense of renewable and clean energy sources like wind and solar power.

CO2 Emissions

Coal-fired power plants are the world's largest source of greenhouse gases (40%). Coal emits about 3 pounds of CO2 for every pound of coal burned (a consequence of oxygen bonding chemically with the carbon); and the U.S. burns more than 1 billion tons of coal every year. Even though the new IGCC plant emits 65% less CO2 than traditional, that is still a huge amount.

Water Contamination

The good news is that water is used to cleanse the raw Syngas gas of pollutants; the bad news is the water becomes highly contaminated in the process. A typical 500 MW plant produces about 5 million metric tons of wastewater each year containing all those nasty pollutants mentioned earlier.

Costs and Inefficiencies of Carbon Recapture and Sequestration

The process of capturing CO2 decreases plant output by about 25% and increases water consumption by about 23%, leading to more pollution rather than less. Another problem is that the market for captured CO2 is still young and unproven, although growing. One obvious use is in enhanced oil recovery (EOR), which can increase the yield of a mature oil field by as much as fifty percent. One primary means of doing this is to use gas injection. A commonly used gas is CO2. About half to two-thirds of the CO2 returns with the produced oil; the gas is then re-injected into the reservoir, where it remains trapped by the porous rock from which the oil came. Oil production from CO2 EOR is about 300,000 barrels per day (compared to a total U.S. daily production level of about 8 million barrels). Pure sequestration, unassociated with EOR, is also in its infancy. The largest project is currently injecting about one million tons of CO2 per year in a saline aquifer under the North Sea.

Low Comparative Value

If high capital costs are considered, along with reduced efficiencies in CO2 capture, coal is more costly than renewables. Wind costs about 3-6 cents/kW; solar photovoltaic costs about 14-25 cents/kW; concentrated solar costs about 11 cents/kW. A report from the Sixth Annual Conference on Carbon Capture & Sequestration expects IGCC to come in at between 7-11 cents/kW. The cost advantage over renewable sources of energy is not at all evident.

Why Renewables Make Sense

Even these comparative costs per kilowatt hour between renewables and conventional energy sources tell only part of the story. Fossil fuels are competitive in part because tax laws and regulations heavily favor the industry, providing lavish subsidies and a favorable climate in which to operate. In addition, the true costs of using fossil fuels are "externalized." Nowhere in the price per gallon of gasoline will you find the cost of lost wages from respiratory disease and lung cancer. The price of a barrel of oil does not include damage caused by acid rain. If renewable energy sources were playing on a level field, their immediate viability would not be in doubt.

But even the cost issue misses the point, although that is typically the focus of discussion. The important point is that the next few centuries belong to the country smart enough to be the first to master green technologies and renewable energy. The false dichotomy between growth and the environment is an anachronism born from the failures of conservative thought. Conservatives believe that growth is only possible at the expense of the environment, and that any and all efforts to protect our resources impede growth. That philosophy is wrong on every count. Environmentalism is not the ideology of socialists, but instead the true engine of all future economic growth. Just as the United States rose to greatness on the engine of industrialization, the world's next great superpower will come to dominate by advancing green technologies. The false choice offered by the right is dangerous not only to the environment but to our national security. The next superpower will be the country that moves quickly to solar, wind and (sane) biofuel power. Those seeking to integrate green and growth will ultimately triumph, simply as a matter of economics. The victory will ride on the back of clean, renewable sources of power leading to energy independence and the next iteration of the industrial revolution.

Global Competition for a Green Economy

The United States should rightfully lead this charge to a green economy, but only will if faithful right-wing skeptics adopt a more enlightened attitude appropriate to the 21st century and move away from the odd idea that any effort to discuss green growth is a left wing conspiracy. Going green smartly is how our national interests will be secured.

Meanwhile, China is not waiting for us to get our national act together, with a commitment to invest $217 billion on green technology over the next five years. With China breathing down our neck, we cannot afford a debacle like we saw with health care. The initial $80 billion in the Obama stimulus package dedicated to green technology was nothing but a small down payment, a great start but nowhere near sufficient. The additional $15 billion annual expenditure called for is not enough as a sustained commitment. The $600-plus billion from carbon reduction is more in line with the magnitude necessary to make a difference but that amount depends, at least for now, on too many uncertain legislative steps to be counted seriously at the moment. We play around while the competition kills us.

China's new dominance in renewable energy is a terrible indictment of U.S. energy policy because by every right the lead was ours to lose. We have allowed our fascination with unfettered free markets to dominate our energy policy, and as a result we are now second rate. We have stymied research, provided perverse incentives to the oil industry, and subsidized inefficiency. And while we do all that our friends to the East have become the world's largest manufacturer of solar panels, overtaking the United States as a world leader in this field. China is now number one in the world in the use of off-grid wind turbines and they are poised to take the front slot for energy produced by wind turbines connected to the grid, moving quickly from fourth place as recently as 2008. And while we lose ground to China, we do so too with other countries. Germany now invests more than the United States in renewable energy. To put that in perspective Germany has a GDP of $3.65 trillion, compared to $14.5 trillion in the United States. So while our economy is almost four times the size of Germany we invest less money in our future, not on a percentage basis but in actual dollars.

We have run out of time for debate, and need to act quickly now. Specifically that means spending gobs of money on research, implementation and infrastructure development: research to discover new technologies; implementation to ensure wide adoption of the technologies in play now; and a restructuring of tax incentives to promote clean growth, discourage waste and accelerate the development of the extensive infrastructure changes necessary to widely adopt clean energy technologies. While the predominant emphasis must be on the private sector, we will also need direct government investment in certain areas beyond research, such as modernizing the grid.


Given the abundance of domestic coal, and the enormous economic and security advantages of weaning ourselves from foreign oil, the United States should invest properly in clean coal technology. We would be irresponsible not to pursue that option. But the technology is not ready for commercialization. Much more needs to be done before our coal reserves can be used without endangering the environment or our health.

Fortunately, we have clean, non-polluting renewable energy sources mature enough now for market, already less costly than clean coal. While investing in IGCC research (and related technologies), the United States should simultaneously be investing heavily in wind, solar, geothermal and smart biomass power. We need to evaluate energy technologies on merit rather than through the lens of narrow dogma. With facts rather than emotion we can evaluate clean coal and renewables with a cool analytical eye and offer real comparisons to competing technologies.

Now is the time to create the renewable energy equivalent of the Manhattan Project or the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. We need to push our transition to green energy technologies quickly, massively, with unwavering commitment. This is our opportunity. As President Obama is fond of saying, "This is our time." Let's act. Let's act now. Let's lead the world to a sustainable future. Let's hope our grandchildren look back on the mess in the Gulf of Mexico and wonder why we ever drilled for oil or mined coal.

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist, former White House senior policy analyst and author of, Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World (Jacquie Jordan, Inc). Follow Jeff Schweitzer on Twitter and on Facebook.