Cleaning Coal is the Path Forward

Steve Miller | Feb 14, 2012

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When policymakers look for new ways to add jobs to the economy, they need to remember the critical role that American coal is already playing in protecting our jobs and helping our economy. Just as the Hippocratic Oath compels doctors to "first, do no harm," so, too, must our elected and appointed officials ensure that any actions they take will not harm coal and, by extension, our nation's economy.

It is no accident that coal generates nearly half of our nation's electricity. It is because coal is affordable, abundant and reliable and is being increasingly used in more environmentally friendly ways. Thanks in large part to investments by the utility industry in clean coal technology during the past 30 years, major air pollutants from coal-fueled power plants traditionally controlled under the Clean Air Act are more than 80 percent lower per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated.

Coal's ability to serve as a baseload power source means that it provides the electricity needed for millions of American families and businesses, day or night. Coal makes sure that our lights are on, our water is hot, and appliances and computers are working, regardless of whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.

Today, coal is directly responsible for more than a half million U.S. jobs, but this is just the beginning. With even broader deployment of clean coal technologies, we can create new jobs that will keep America competitive through lower-cost energy in addition to building toward a future of using coal with nearly zero emissions.

A 2010 state-by-state study done for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity by BBC Research and Consulting found that investments in technologies that can capture and safely store carbon dioxide would create or support more than 150,000 skilled, high-wage jobs across at least 30 states. If there was ever a time when we needed affordable, reliable energy and new, well-paying jobs, it is now.

To make sure that coal can continue to work for America, the industry needs a clear view of the regulatory landscape. That means federal and state policymakers must ensure that we have both a cleaner environment as well as affordable and reliable electricity.

Over the past few years, the EPA has issued or proposed a cadre of regulations that would result in a substantial decline in the usage of American coal and lead to the premature shutdown of many coal-fueled power plants. A study done for ACCCE by the National Economic Research Associates found that four of the Environmental Protection Agency's new and proposed regulations would lead to significant increases in the price of electricity and natural gas and result in 183,000 jobs lost per year - that's an American job lost every three minutes.

Without reliable energy, we are also at risk of disruptions in the many industries that are the backbone of our country's economy. For example, in addition to the families and small businesses that rely on coal-fueled electricity, the U.S. manufacturing industry relies heavily on coal-fueled electricity for producing American goods. If these industries are faced with increased electricity costs and possible blackouts because of unreasonable regulations on electricity generation, they will be less competitive in the global economy and ultimately that will mean fewer jobs for Americans.

Coal has been America's fuel for decades -- a pillar of our nation's economy. The path forward for the United States therefore must include greater investments in clean coal technologies to continue our nation's environmental progress, and implementation of public policies that recognize coal's key role in supporting American jobs, businesses and families.

This story first appeared in the January/February edition of EnergyBiz magazine. EnergyBiz Insider will run similar commentaries from natural gas, nuclear and green interests.

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Comments

Coal Can't Have It Both Ways

The EPA has issued a number of regulations aimed at making existing coal-fired power plants cleaner.  If the coal industry was really committed to clean coal, it would have either lent vigorous support to those regulations or implemented stringent emissions control technologies voluntarily or both.  Emissions from coal-fired plants already violate the Hippocratic oath by harming the health and welfare of the people who breathe the toxic junk that spews from plants that lack modern emissions control equipment.

As for CO2 sequestration, what the article neglects to mention is the cost of the capital equipment and the amount of a coal plant's output that would be required.  I've heard figures for energy consumption as high as 35% of plant output, which dwarfs the amount of energy a coal plant currently has to devote to cleaning up its emissions. 

If our nation's enegy policy rests on abundant, relatively inexpensive electricity, then it's clear the nation's fleet of coal-fired plants can't be shut down with the wave of a hand.  However if advocates for coal-fired power like Mr. Miller are serious about maintaining or expanding coal's share of our energy mix, their words about clean coal have to be accompanied by deeds, including support for strong power plant emissions rules that ensure clean air and water, and stringent health and safety regulations in the nation's coal mines.

Jack Ellis, Tahoe City, CA

Not interested in advertisements

I am not interested in a series of one-sided advertisements from industry groups. 

Mr. Miller's piece does not mention the human and environmental costs of coal that we trade for the "cheap", carbon-intensive energy.  (http://ilovemountains.org/the-human-cost)

Further, while Mr. Miller applauds the industry for advancements in making coal-fired emissions cleaner (as required by law), he fails to mention the industry's fight against the latest regulations, which the EPA has said will save American more in health care costs than the cost to implement these commercially available technologies.  (http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/0/BD8B3F37EDF5716D8525796D005DD086)

The dichotomy of clean air or jobs is a false one, and I'm not buying it.

Clean coal: too costly, too little, too late

The projected expenses of carbon capture and storage far exceed estimates on the social cost of carbon, which ultimately determines the maximum price of CO2 remediation that can be economically justified. The pace of increased global coal usage is also outdistancing the prospects for commercial deployment of CCS. The inherent energy requirements of capturing and compressing CO2 increase the demand for coal and cooling water considerably, making it unrealistic to expect that China and India could ever implement such resource-intensive technologies on a wide scale. Without their participation, however, CCS strategies are reduced to token efforts for soothing the consciences of affluent societies, while obscuring the problem of shifting carbon balances in the biosphere to the possible grave imperilment of human existence. Adaptation to global climate change sidesteps its effects without remedying its causes. Ocean acidification resulting from ongoing CO2 absorption is a cumulative and irreversible process that may obliterate vital food chains for coastal countries within a few decades. Retrofitting existing installations whenever economically prudent ignores the fact that the global environmental bank account is already overdrawn. A radical technological shift in energy production is therefore a cultural imperative.

Clean coal: too costly, too little, too late

The projected expenses of carbon capture and storage far exceed estimates on the social cost of carbon, which ultimately determines the maximum price of CO2 remediation that can be economically justified. The pace of increased global coal usage is also outdistancing the prospects for commercial deployment of CCS. The inherent energy requirements of capturing and compressing CO2 increase the demand for coal and cooling water considerably, making it unrealistic to expect that China and India could ever implement such resource-intensive technologies on a wide scale. Without their participation, however, CCS strategies are reduced to token efforts for soothing the consciences of affluent societies, while obscuring the problem of shifting carbon balances in the biosphere to the possible grave imperilment of human existence. Adaptation to global climate change sidesteps its effects without remedying its causes. Ocean acidification resulting from ongoing CO2 absorption is a cumulative and irreversible process that may obliterate vital food chains for coastal countries within a few decades. Retrofitting existing installations whenever economically prudent ignores the fact that the global environmental bank account is already overdrawn. A radical technological shift in energy production is therefore a cultural imperative.

Cleaning Coal

Coal's current share of electric power generation is less than 50% and declining for good reason.  It is no longer the cheapest source of power.  Coal's historic price advantage was only obtained by foisting its true cost onto society at large.  Increasingly society is unwilling to shoulder these external health and environmental costs.  As coal is "cleaned" it becomes more expensive.  Too many commentators such as Mr. Miller focus only on the internalization of the combustion costs of coal.  however, coal is dirty at every stage of the production process.  Mining coal leaves a trail of dead and sick miners as well as destroyed montains, forests, prairies, and streams.  The promised prosperity coal is supposed to deliver has never materialized in the coal producing areas of the country.  If one overlays a map of the highest poverty areas of the country, it corresponds almost perfectly with the highest coal production areas, and this has been true for over half a century.  Recent studies have documented that the cost of producing coal in these regions exceeds the economic benefits.  The sooner we move away from coal, the better! 

phase out coal as quickly as possible

Coal is nasty at every step of the supply chain---from mining to transport to stack emissions to ash management.  But the industry seems especially dirty politically, with its long history of lies, oppression, and violence.

Lets phase out coal as quickly as possible, in favor of non-combustion alternatives.

Coal is the new oil.

Coal is the new oil.  The world reached its "Peak Oil" moment several years ago.  Just as it happened when the USA hit its "Peak Oil" in 1970, the world has entered its next phase in its ability to produce oil fast enough.  Unlike the USA, Planet Earth cannot import oil from somewhere else.  We saw a 10-fold increase in US gasoline prices after US Peak Oil occured.  It is likely another 10-fold increase will occur over the next decade or so with China and India's increasing demand.

Already heat from oil is 8 times more expensive than heat from coal.  Altona energy is claiming it will produce vehicle-ready diesel from coal at $1.56 per gallon.  We should be making our vehicle fuels out of coal, not oil.  All of coal's impurities are captured during the FT oil synthesis process.  If the process energy is nuclear, no CO2 would escape and upgrading hydrogen from water splitting would be available.

If the United States converted its 300 largest coal burning power plants to 1,300F molten salt thorium burning boilers, sufficent coal would be freed up to produce the equivalent of two Iran's worth of synthetic oil - a 12% increase in the world's oil supply.  The power plant's coal handling equipment could be reconnected to a small coal-to-oil refinery located on the far side of every power plant's coal yard, the slag returned to the coal mine.

Coal's second era is beginning.

Jim Holm, PE

http://www.coal2nuclear.com