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 April 19, 2009
Clean Coal - It's Possible, but Not for a While

 U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu says the U.S. should invest in technology to reduce the carbon produced by burning coal, but it will take at least eight years to be sure such systems work.

Quoted in a Wall Street Journal article, Secretary Chu said "It absolutely is worthwhile to invest in carbon capture and storage because we are not in a vacuum." His comments were made following an appearance at an Energy Information Administration conference.

"Even if the United States or Europe turns its back on coal, India and China will not," he said. Mr. Chu added that "quite frankly I doubt if the United States will turn its back on coal. We are generating over 50% of our electrical energy from coal."

As for so-called clean-coal technology, Mr. Chu said "it would take probably a minimum of eight years or more to really have confidence that these technologies will work in a cost-effective way." As a result, "energy efficiency, energy conservation are where the greatest gains will be."

The issue of clean coal has been on the front burner for some time, with opinions divided as to whether it is possible to deploy technologies that could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a scale and at a price that is economically feasible. (See GLOBE-Net article What’s in the Wind for the Coal Industry?)

President Barack Obama has championed the development of clean coal technologies, recognizing that the transition to other less polluting forms of energy is likely to take some time.

Coal-producing states have stepped up lobbying efforts with the Obama administration to keep coal, which is both abundant and cheap, as a major part of the country’s energy mix.

One quarter of the world’s coal reserves are found within the United States, and the energy content of the nation’s coal resources exceeds that of all the world’s known recoverable oil.  Coal is also the workhorse of the nation’s electric power industry, supplying more than half the electricity consumed by Americans.

Coal-fired electric generating plants are the cornerstone of America’s central power system. To preserve this economically-vital energy foundation, innovative, low-cost environmental compliance technologies and efficiency-boosting innovations are being developed by the U.S. Energy Department’s Fossil Energy research program.

The Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy is working with the private sector to develop technologies for emission-free coal plants. The research and development program is pioneering more effective pollution controls for existing coal-fired power plants and an array of new technologies that would eliminate air and water pollutants from the next generation of power plants. 

The research also involves technologies to capture the greenhouse gases emitted by coal plants and to store the emissions underground to prevent them from entering the atmosphere. While many coal companies are working on clean-coal technology, the overriding issue is whether such technology is worth the enormous up front investment that is required.

Solving this problem will involve efforts from many countries. Australia, another nation rich in coal resources, is the new home to the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute. The announcement was made last week by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd at the inaugural meeting of the institute’s founding members in Canberra.

The institute aims to accelerate the deployment of carbon capture and storage technology globally and the sharing of information to deal with the reality of coal-fired electricity generation, "the greatest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions created by human activity, Prime Minister Rudd said at the launch.

In addition to Australia, national government members include: Abu Dhabi, Canada, the European Commission, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States. The government of China is a collaborating participant.

The International Energy Agency, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and many governments around the world have declared that carbon capture and storage technologies, particularly for coal-fired power plants, are critical to enabling deep, rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

Even if it takes eight years to be sure such technologies are feasible, as Energy Secretary Chu predicts, the investments required will be worth it in the long run.

An informative and comprehensive guide to carbon capture and storage is available here. It includes a Slide Show- "What Does Carbon Capture and Storage Look Like?" - that looks at existing technology to take the carbon dioxide out of coal burning and other fossil fuel use.

For More Information: Wall Street Journal On-line