Clean coal: fuel of the future of fallacy?

WASHINGTON, D.C. - In a surprising reversal of a reversal, the Department of Energy has announced new funding for the "FutureGen" clean coal project, less than 18 months after the previous DOE Secretary pulled the plug.

DOE Secretary Stephen Chu, who previously called coal "very, very bad," said the government will spend more than $1 billion on research on a prototype coal power plant that will capture and sequester the CO2 produced. That's more than double the amount that the private sector will spend on the joint venture.

Though the DOE's plan has turned plenty of heads, down under they are acting even more decisively on clean coal technologies. German company Direct Invest will put $1.

5 billion into clean coal development in Australia. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is also reportedly working on a deal on a clean coal plant in Australia.

The use of the words "clean coal" has sparked an advertising war between the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a consortium of coal industry companies, and The Reality Coalition, whose participants include the Alliance for Climate Protection, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the League of Conservation Voters.

"Clean coal" is a bit of a misnomer since most of the technologies being developed aren't really cleaning the coal burning process but capturing and storing the CO2. Clean diesel was introduced into the marketplace a few years ago with much less contention because the EPA standards required cleaning up diesel fuel's environmental impact in many aspects. Since CO2 is only one of many pollutants generated, for the clean moniker to be applied into coal, a future generation of coal power plants should also greatly reduce the amount of nitrogen oxides, mercury, sulfur dioxides and particulates.

The government's investment in the FutureGen project of more than 2:1 to private dollars is disproportionate when considering who will benefit if the project is a success. The burden should at the minimum be equally split between the public and private sector.

Having the DOE lead the building and financing of a small scale production plant is an aberration from how government research usually works. The DOE's research is ordinarily aimed at basic research for a specific scientific challenge, not the entire process of an industry.

For example, the DOE didn't help out the auto industry by funding the creation of a prototype plug-in hybrid and charging infrastructure; it limited support to components of basic research, such as advanced battery chemistry. (The power of the coal lobby and the President's time spent in Illinois probably had something to do with the revival of interest in FutureGen.)

Because of the importance of coal in the global economy, clean coal in theory is worth pursuing. (We're still spending federal money on hydrogen fuel cells for vehicles after more than 30 years of trying, and today it remains even more of a technical challenge.) Clean coal is needed even more so in developing nations such as China, India and South Africa, whose rapidly growing future energy needs would make a transition to renewables a substantial economic challenge, so it should really be an international effort.

A more effective (and less contention) role for the U.S. government in facing environmental/energy challenges would be to set a new standard requiring an industry-wide reduction in emissions, and then along with basic research provide generous tax incentives for research and implementation of whatever technologies are needed to comply. The private sector should lead in product development, not the DOE.

One significant obstacle is that coal plants can't be easily retrofitted to clean up the process, so the new standard will likely only be required when replacing existing coal plants that reach their end of life.

Finally, rather than putting coal underground in the hopes that it won't impact future generations, shouldn't the aim be to either use CO2 as an energy source as has been proposed, or to have nature take care of some of it by aggressively planting trees and other plants?


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