|A dirty dozen gems about|
|Not just a river in Egypt|
In theory, new production technologies burn the coal cleaner than before, and harness more energy per-pound than with prior technologies. CO2 is still released into the atmosphere, and thus "clean" does not mean carbon neutral, but sulphurous impurities can be dramatically cut using "clean" coal.
 The term
The issue is more complex than both those against the use of coal and those who favour coal. "Clean coal" is strictly a marketing term used by the coal industry. In actuality, the idea behind clean coal is sequestering carbon emissions from coal plants, which will then be buried underground "for eternity." However eternity is a long time and the technology is still in the development phase. In fact, burying the CO2 underground is a bigger problem than permanent disposal of nuclear waste: CO2 is a water-soluble gas rather than a chemically inert, insoluble solid and requires storage for an infinitely longer period of time.
New coal-burning power plants do not (yet) use this technology. On the other hand, new coal-burning plants are indeed "cleaner" than older plants, because of the addition of newer technologies which scrub sulphur and other emissions from the plants, and as coal currently generates 40-50% of U.S. electricity production (and this isn't going away any time soon, unfortunately), opposing new plants means that older, even dirtier plants will continue to operate.
Cleaner, though, is not the same as clean. The idea, according to the there-is-no-clean-coal side of the debate, is to replace those old, dirtier coal plants with sources of energy which do not pollute. This would mean wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric and especially nuclear. The main problem with expanding nuclear energy is its negative public perception, in which the anti-nuclear movement plays a big role. It's a rule proven true many times that when nuclear is off the table, the default goes back to fossil fuels and specifically coal. The coal industry, for its part, has muddled the debate too with billboards claiming coal is "now clean and green," which is just bullshit. It isn't, and they should just admit it.
Complicating the issue is the fact that there is such a thing as clean coal - if by "clean" you mean "low sulphur" as opposed to "no carbon dioxide." It's called anthracite. Anthracite was once used to heat many homes, but since the dawn of electric and natural gas heating, homes having their own coal furnaces are a rarity, and anthracite is rarely used. Anthracite mainly comes from northeastern Pennsylvania where the coal industry (a few small family-owned underground mines) has been on life support for decades due to lack of demand. When the coal industry talks about "clean coal," you can be sure they aren't talking about clean-burning (and expensive) anthracite, but about the dirty sub-bituminous stuff from their non-union strip mines in Wyoming.
However, no matter how little sulphur or other chemicals anthracite possesses, it's pretty clear that burning it will produce substantial quantities of CO2 which will have to be dealt with somehow if it is to be called "clean."
Some coals can be turned into coke, which is almost pure carbon with no impurities. Doing so requires the coal to be baked in an airless coking furnace, which is not only expensive to build but also consumes energy in its own right -- and you still have to do something with the impurities liberated by the coking process.
Coke is just about the cleanest coal there is, but it's not a viable alternative for generating electric power and would not likely result in less total air pollution overall. And it certainly isn't "clean" as far a greenhouse gas production (CO2) is concerned.
Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle, more commonly known as IGCC, is a highly complex method of reducing coal emissions by turning coal into synthesis gas (aka: syngas) and then removing impurities within the gas before it is used for fuel. Furthermore, the "combined cycle" allows for a secondary to recover residual heat and steam and use it for additional energy. Overall, IGCC reduces mercury and sulphur dioxide emissions, when compared to pulverized coal burning, by around 35%-45% and carbon dioxide emissions by around 25%-30%. It also increases the fuel efficiency of the coal burned to around 75% of peak efficiency, whereas traditional coal turbines get around 55% of peak efficiency at best.
However, IGCC, while cleaner, is still not totally clean. IGCC generation plants also cost around 20% more to build than pulverized coal plants, making them less attractive to utility companies.
Sequestering, also known by the woo term "carbon capture," is another method of reducing coal emissions promoted by energy producing companies, even though the science behind it is, more or less, absolute bull.
Basically, sequestering is where coal-burning power plants pump all their carbon emissions underground into the coarse rock miles underground, thus attempting to "sequester" it into somewhere where it cannot escape. This method, however, is more about the utility companies burying their heads in the sand than actually burying carbon emissions for the reasons explained below:
- Once carbon dioxide is pumped underground in large quantities (in this case, billions of tons), it displaces natural groundwater pools, causing groundwater to seep elsewhere underground, which greatly increases the risk of sink-holes and water seepage on the surface above.
- Carbon dioxide is naturally buoyant, and will thus spread up to a 15 mile radius around its initial injection point, and seep back out of the earth.
- Carbon dioxide can also chemically change certain composures of groundwater into carbonic acid, which eats away at surrounding rock beds and thus also destroys natural aquifers.
 Extracting coal
Of course, nothing is said about how you get the coal. Mining costs and transportation usually make up a very sizeable chunk of pollutants when following a life cycle assessment of a product and these cannot be eliminated from the mining process unless you powered your mine equipment on wind and solar power. And if you live in Colorado, for example, and see the mountain side strip mines, or have lived in the Appalachian Mountains where they cap (blow) the tops of mountains off - leaving you with a hill instead of a mountain - you wonder how it can be "low impact" on the environment.
Just for the record, those boys in West Virginia hard at work underground so you ungrateful kiddies can power up your computers don't like mountaintop removal either, as it requires far fewer miners than underground mining and is a threat to their job security.
 See also
 External Links
- Far Left Side cartoon: There's no such thing as clean coal
- Conniff, Richard. "The Myth of Clean Coal", Yale University Environment 360 website, 3 June 2008.
- ↑ In the most modern systems, the sulphur is scrubbed from flue gases using converters, although this is a very expensive solution. See Drax Power Station.
- ↑ Normally, flammable gases are collected and burned in a centralized manner (flare torch) for safety reasons (usually an outdoor structure), so you can't collect all of the CO2.
- ↑ Wikipedia on anthracite
- ↑ How IGCC works
- ↑ Though if you could do this effectively, why not just power everything on it?