The Expensive Myth of Clean Coal

“Clean coal” is a term that is getting a lot of coverage these days but the moniker makes as much sense as calling Paris Hilton “pedantic”.
As a fuel source, coal is as filthy as they come – emitting about 67% more CO2 per unit of energy than natural gas.
The process of coal mining itself also releases large amounts of trapped methane gas into the atmosphere. The US Geological Survey estimates that there is an incredible 700 trillion cubic feet of methane trapped in domestic coal deposits.
Methane is twenty one times as powerful as greenhouse gas as CO2, and according to the IPCC accounts for 9% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
There is so much trapped methane in coal deposits that it is more profitable in many areas to extract “coal bed methane” by surface drilling and leave the coal in the ground.
The much more common method of conventional coal mining simply allows this dangerous gas to escape into our atmospheric fishbowl.
But climate change is big news and coal is big business. As a result there is a vigorous PR campaign to try and rehabilitate the public image of the coal.
Enter a $1.8 billion project in Illinois to build a “clean coal” research facility to showcase emission-free coal power. They plan to capture the CO2 from the coal combustion and inject it deep into underlying rock formations. So what’s that catch?
Even if this project was a success when it is finally slated to go online 2012, it remains only one single plant and a small one at that. There are now about 600 conventional coal plants in the US burning on average about 1.4 million tons of coal each every year.
There are also over 150 fully polluting coal plants on the drawing board in the US.
About 40% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US come from coal. Throwing over $1 billion of taxpayer’s dollars towards a single token “clean coal” plant sounds like a very expensive Potemkin village for benefit of the coal lobby.
It is also telling that the US government was unsuccessful in getting their industry partners to pick up more of the tab for this boondoggle. Spending that kind of money on a plant that would only supply energy to 150,000 homes is an excellent example of dubious economics to this unproven technology.
At only 245 MW generating capacity and a cost of $1.8 billion, this so called clean coal plant would be about twice as expensive as building equivalent wind generating facilities and slightly more than solar – both of which are guaranteed to produce zero emissions forever.
Lastly, even if carbon capture technology would work, it does nothing to mitigate methane emissions from coal mining.
Coal is dirty. Don’t buy the whitewash.


While this plant uses Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle technology and is capable of being attached to carbon sequestration infrastructure, it will not actually sequester the carbon it emits. As such, it will be only incrementally better than a standard coal plant with the same electrical output.

I have written a bit about ‘clean’ coal:

Clean coal isn’t cheap

Cleaner coal

Coal and climate change

I’m in a terribly uncomfortable position here. I agree that coal is the worst possible energy source; I’d love to phase out coal completely. I agree that none of the various plans for “clean coal” will produce an acceptable solution anytime soon.


I really hate to think that we’d completely dispense with this monumental source of energy. I see coal in much the same terms as I see fusion: you’re kidding yourself if you think it’s going to work anytime soon, but it’s such a huge source that we should keep looking for ways to utilize it. I’m not sure that $1.8 billion is a worthwhile investment because the plant in question is really not making much of step forward. I’d like to see research in the various technologies for extracting energy or methane from the ground by doing the chemical processing in situ. Yes, this is a long ways off. But the thought of all those quads just sitting there…

Gad, I never thought that I would be speaking up for coal. I can happily condemn this experiment because it looks more like a PR stunt than genuine research.

It’s not a stunt and it’s not PR, it is a demonstration project. You can’t scale all the way up without a demonstration.

I’m pretty concerned that it seems that a lot of people don’t want this to work. That’s disturbing.

Getting the world through its overpopulated phase without catastrophe will require energy. There are tradeoffs and damages associated with anything ten billion people do, but the worst thing they can do is become desperate and miserable. We really have to avoid that.

Avoiding huge climate change and huge pollution is part of that.

Avoiding coal people making money despite their past misdeeds is not. It may be a sort of rough justice but if clean coal turns out to be feasible (and I am assured by responsible professionals of my own acquaintance that it is) then opposing it out of a sense of pique is a very very very bad idea.

Your point is sound, Michael. Yes, we don’t want to hold past mistakes against the coal industry. But I think it appropriate to bring some skepticism to the coal industry’s claims of finally cleaning up its act. We’ve been hearing these promises for 40 years now. It’s true that they’ve made some progress, but each small step forward is trumpeted as “clean coal” – and it never is.

I must confess, however, that coal will have to play a role in the economic development of many countries, especially China. I think that the best we can do is work hard to develop cost-effective alternatives quickly so that we can offer them an alternative that won’t ruin everybody else’s lives.

As to the distinction between demonstration project and PR stunt, I don’t this demonstrating very much. Without the actual sequestration, it’s still nothing more than a conventional power plant. Attaching diversion equipment without actually diverting the CO2 seems like a big waste of time to me. Perhaps I underestimate the magnitude of the technical problems involved in diversion. But as I see it, the tough problem is sequestration, not diversion, and so solving the easy problem and evading the tough problem seems more like PR than research to me.

Again, correct me if I’ve misunderstood the technology.

BTW, I have to add, that is one helluva sexy coal-burner in the picture. Dig those crazy stacks!

Keep in mind she hasn’t got two brain cells to rub together! Paris Hilton thinks AGW is a a fast-food burger joint.

Fern Mackenzie

There is one simple way you can contribute! Unplug your computer and turn off your lights. Its idiots like you that hipe the problem and have no solutions!

Check out the coal industry’s spin on these things. (Not Coal Industry–KY State Sponsored)

Clean coal refers to sulfur dioxide output, not carbon dioxide output. Western “clean” coal has much lower sulfur content than eastern “dirty” coal. So, when you burn clean coal, you get much less SO2 than you do burning dirty coal.

The expression “clean coal” dates back to the ’70s, well before the current concern over greenhouse gasses.

Good point, Bob. There are several different types of coal, related to the degree of alteration form peat, and these types, in conjunction with paleoenvironmental factors determine the sulphur content of coals. Less sulphur = cleaner coal.

I think that the original post was a bit misguided. From a practical standpoint, the US is the Saudi Arabia of coal (I realize that this blog is Canadian, but that doesn’t seem to be the target audience for this post, does it…) and coal power is something that we’re just going to have to learn to live with for the foreseeable future. The infrastructure for alternatives might be viable in 50 years with a concerted effort, but until then coal is going to be the dominant energy source. So, any research (no matter how hyped) that goes into making coal a less harmful source of energy is a good thing.

I would argue that, from a lot of perspectives, coal is a preferred source of energy over oil b/c its harder to get, doesn’t have as many other harmful applications (ie, with coal, you can’t easily refine it to fuel your car or supply Dow), and we’re sitting on it so its less harmful to transport. Yes, there are a lot of negatives with mining and environmental effects, but those can mostly be remedied if the financial commitment is there. Then there is the CO2 emission issue, which needs to be confronted (sequestration?). However, unless you’re willing to throw your full support behind the nuclear power industry, what are you realistically proposing as an alternative? Isn’t it more reasonable to eliminate petroleum as an energy source first?

I’m reading so much good feedbacks from people that I decide to give one myself. It would much more efficient to contract companies such as FuelTek with their specialized coal cleaning technologies rather than waste taxpayers dollars by building a new “clean coal” plant. If they want to go green, mind as well switch the whole energy source to wind or solar.

Here is the problem that I was trying to get at above…

We use SO much coal that it would take decades to build enough wind turbines (etc) to make a dent in the amount of coal based energy that we use. Simply deciding, “ok, now we only want green energy…”, isn’t even an option at this point unless you’re prepared take on a 100k DIY project. Short of discovering “cold fusion”, I dare say we’re stuck with coal for quite a long time, so we might as well figure out how to make it something we can live with…

Put another way, we may be addicted to oil… but we’re dependent on coal.

“Throwing over $1 billion of taxpayer’s dollars towards a single token “clean coal” plant sounds like a very expensive Potemkin village for benefit of the coal lobby.”
The point of the project is to prove a concept, and IGCC carbon-capture ready plants will become cheaper and easier to build as research advances.
Switching to “clean coal” technologies is like switching from incandescent to fluorescent lightbulbs. Realistically, we’re never going to stop using lightbulbs, but we can make them much more environmentally friendly through the use of technology.

that you could be persuaded to change the photo at the top of this article? Ms Hilton makes me gag, and I think the guys have had an eyeful by now.