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Big Coal Grasping for Stimulus Straws

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Tennessee Valley Authority website
Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill, in Kingston, Tennessee

Here’s an oxymoron if there ever was one: clean coal.

Cyrus Reid, conservation director of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter agrees. In an interview for KERA regarding the $5 million in stimulus funds committed to the University of Texas for carbon storage research, Reid said “the terminology is incorrect… that to say, ‘clean coal’ implies that coal is clean when it’s not.”

Sandia Technologies also received $5 million, bringing Texas’ clean coal stimulus funding to a total of $10 million. These grants are “part of $575 million in funding for 22 projects in 15 states to accelerate work on “‘carbon capture and storage’,” according to Texas Climate News.

What exactly is “carbon capture and storage”? It’s a process of capturing carbon dioxide from large pollution sources, such as fossil fuel power plants, and storing it in a way that prevents it from entering the atmosphere. As staff writer Forrest Wilder wrote on October 5, the definition of just how not-dirty coal has to become in order to be called clean changes depending on who’s talking and who’s listening.

Explaining the intricate details of the carbon capture issue would be impossible in this blog (and is quite frankly beyond the scope of my expertise), but here are a few key points:

  • Emissions would potentially be reduced by 80-90 percent, according to a report done by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. However, it takes more energy (about 25-40 percent more) for a plant to capture and compress CO2, thereby increasing the cost of energy from that plant by 21-91 percent.
  • One potential location for stored CO2 is underground geological formations. This includes oil fields, gas fields, saline formations, unminable coal seams, and saline-filled basalt formations. Various physical (e.g., highly impermeable caprock) and geochemical trapping mechanisms would prevent the CO2 from escaping to the surface. The other most popular potential storage location is in the oceans. However, CO2 kills ocean life, and increases the acidity of the water. Also, the CO2 would eventually mix back in with the atmosphere, so storage wouldn’t be permanent.
  • With any method of storage, the potential risk of leakage is alarming. PBS tells the story of a naturally occuring CO2 repository erupting: “Some 1,700 people living in the valley below Lake Nyos in northwestern Cameroon mysteriously died on the evening of August 26, 1986. Word of the disaster spread, and scientists arrived from around the world. What they discovered was that the crater lake, perched inside a dormant volcano, had become laden with carbon dioxide gas. This gas had suddenly bubbled out of the lake and asphyxiated nearly every living being in the surrounding valley community.”

Texas Climate News reports that “carbon capture and storage is a very popular and increasingly well-funded branch of energy research. The US Department of Energy already committed $4 billion dollars to it.”

But wait! Why aren’t we investing that money in other, actually clean, energy resources, instead of trying to sweep our dirty mess under the bed? Instead of trying to make coal something that it will simply never be?

Last month, the Royal Society of Chemistry, a European organization for advancing chemical sciences commented on carbon capture and storage, and its relevancy in the renewable energy market:

“In order for CCS to be competitive with wind and nuclear [and geothermal], the cost of CCS must be improved … alternative energy technologies also resulted in revenue, while CCS has no significant revenue. Our results show that, with current technology, CCS is less effective than alternative energy in avoiding CO2 emissions. We can most effectively address this issue by pursuing … investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy, nuclear energy, and biofuels until research in CCS (which also faces significant thermodynamic issues) makes it competitive with alternative energy.”

Is Big Coal grasping to remain relevant in an ever-changing energy market?