The second to the last question during the presidential debate on Sunday night was about energy and how the candidates’ policies would influence the nation’s direction. With that, Donald Trump referenced “clean coal,” noting that there’s enough coal to last 1,000 years. Let’s examine that.
What is “clean coal” and is it technically feasible? Coal-fired power plants contribute a third of all man-made carbon emissions in the United States. The goal, though, is to gasify the coal and separate the carbon — before capturing and burying it. While such technologies have been demonstrated, they have yet to have much commercial appeal.
The United States, in fact, is investing $8 billion into the effort. But it has also pulled out of some high profile projects, given that the time tables and budgets keep getting stretched. And the Obama administration has said that it will continue to finance the effort, generally speaking, although it is harder argument to make now that natural gas prices are so cheap.
“We need much more than wind and solar …,” Trump said during the debate “There is a thing called clean coal. Coal will last for a thousand years in this country.”
No doubt, the coal gasification technology is the industry’s best hope of a resurrection. There are advanced coal technologies that do make the generation of coal more efficient and thus less pollutive. But if the objective is to capture and bury carbon, then coal gasification is perhaps the solution. Doable?
To many, the pursuit of carbon capture and storage is an act of frivolity. That is, it is costly and technologically out of reach, all a time when there are other less expensive and less carbon-intensive alternatives, such as natural gas, nuclear energy and green power. To others, though, coal will remain ubiquitous, providing about 60 percent of the global electricity generation in 2035, with most of that demand coming from developing nations. At the same time, coal’s share of the US electric generation portfolio will likely bottom out at 30 percent, for a while.
To that end, carbon capture and storage can bury up to 90 percent of the emissions from stationary sources such as power plants and industrial facilities, says the US Environmental Protection Agency — if the carbon dioxide can be successfully sealed underground.
The bad news: The White House won’t participate in the much ballyhooed FutureGen 2, a plant that would have gasified coal, captured the emissions and buried the carbon. Meantime, the South Mississippi Electric Power Association has dropped out of a different project — Southern Company’s Mississippi-based Kemper facility, saying that it is too expensive. That deal though, which would use carbon to enhance oil recovery, is still on track to rev up.
The good news is that the research and the trials are ongoing.
Coal gasification plants scrub the mercury, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide before they would separate the remaining byproducts: carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which could be used to power everything from cars to power plants. The largest demonstration projects are in Norway, where Statoil is placing 1 million tons of carbon per year into a saline aquifer deep in the North Sea, and in Canada, where the carbon is going into the Weyburn oil field.
Globally, 13 large-scale carbon capture and storage projects are in operation, says the Global CCS Institute, adding that nine more are under construction. Those 22 projects would capture about 40 million tons a year of carbon dioxide, it adds. Meantime, 14 more are in development. One such plant is being built by NRG Energy near Houston. The power sector’s biggest such project went live at Boundary Dam in Estevan, Saskatchewan, Canada on October 2, 2014, it says.
And in the recent past, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Southern Co. announced they had successfully completed an initial demonstration phase of carbon capture at Southern’s coal-fired Plant Barry in Alabama, which was able to recover more than 90 percent of the carbon dioxide, send it through a 10-mile pipeline, and inject it underground.
“We should want new coal builds to be as clean and efficient as possible,” given that developing countries will continue to rely on coal, says Ted Nordhaus, chairman of the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, Calif.
Carbon emissions may be falling in this country. But they are expected to rise elsewhere in the world. That’s why the United States must remain involved with private companies to develop and export advanced coal technologies, even though that strategy is unpopular in some corners.