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[GreenYes] 'Clean Coal' Remains an Oxymoron - Wall Street Journal
- Subject: [GreenYes] 'Clean Coal' Remains an Oxymoron - Wall Street Journal
- From: "Paul Goettlich" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
- Date: Fri, 18 May 2001 18:19:26 -0700
Not all the 'big money,' as he calls it, is not following the advice of the
great and mighty Dr. Who?, the stealth email lurker.
Please excuse this if you already got it from another source. The WSJ thinks
that clean coal is an oxymoron.
'Clean Coal' Remains an Oxymoron, Unlikely to Change for Years to Come
John J Fialka / Wall Street Journal 18may01
WASHINGTON -- Clean-burning coal. The phrase quickened pulses in coal
country when President Bush uttered it during his fall campaign, and it's
getting renewed attention now in his energy plan.
But for all the talk, clean-burning coal will likely remain an oxymoron for
years to come. The utility industry, which uses coal to generate 52% of its
electricity, faces formidable political, economic and technological
obstacles to getting "clean."
Demonstration Projects From the '80s
Not that the government hasn't tried to spur change. During the 1980s,
Congress ponied up $2.75 billion for the Department of Energy's Clean Coal
Technology program, which sponsored 31 demonstration projects. The cleanest
projects, called "combined-cycle coal-gasification plants," turn coal into
gas, which is burned to generate electricity.
So far, there have been no commercial orders for them. In recent years,
utilities have almost exclusively built natural-gas-fired plants, which meet
environmental standards and use a fuel that -- until last year -- was
abundant and cheap. In fact, $467 million of the demonstration money remains
But with the utility industry's recent problems, interest in coal
gasification is building, says Robert S. Kripowicz, who is in charge of the
DOE clean-coal program. "People have begun to realize you can't hang your
hats only on natural gas."
Fuel sources for electricity generation in the US in the year 2000
52% coal/20% Nuclear/16% Gas/7%Hydro/3% Oil/2% Renewables
USDOE, Energy Information Administration
Hundreds of industry executives and politicians have recently trooped
through a gasification plant built by Tampa Electric Co. in Polk County,
Fla., with $140 million of help from the DOE. Situated amid a 1,511-acre
"recreational preserve" that includes five fishing lakes and bird-nesting
islands designed with help from the National Audubon Society, the plant is
10% more efficient than most coal-fired plants.
But it still is far from clean. Coal contains dozens of noxious chemicals,
including lead, arsenic and other heavy metals; sulfur dioxide, which
creates acid rain; nitrogen oxides, which create smog; tiny soot particles,
which can invade and collect in human lungs; mercury, a toxic metal that
accumulates in animals, fish and the humans who eat them; and carbon
dioxide, which many scientists believe is artificially warming Earth's
atmosphere by trapping more heat from the sun.
While the Tampa power plant collects more of these than traditional plants,
plant officials say that it was not built to cope with mercury, which is
facing federal regulation, or CO2. Both continue to go right up the stacks.
As it stands, clean coal remains a hard sell. "When we talk to utilities,
they tell us they are reluctant to make a commitment, because they are
concerned about regulations they might face in five, 10 or 15 years' time.
It's very frustrating for us," says David H. Pai, president of a subsidiary
of Foster Wheeler Corp., the Clinton, N.J., company that builds modern
coal-fired power plants.
What Utilities Want
To stimulate a return to coal-fired plants, Mr. Pai suggests a combination
of government incentives and a new kind of insurance package to protect a
company against future pollution liability. "Otherwise, you're going to have
the Tampa plant sitting there and nobody is going to step up and buy the
next one," he says.
The government has money for incentives: Besides the $467 million in unspent
demonstration money, the Bush budget would add another $2 billion in the
next 10 years. In addition, the administration proposes to extend tax
credits to support research and development projects and directs federal
agencies to "explore new regulatory approaches" that will encourage advances
in clean-coal technology.
For more than 30 years, most coal-fired plants have been exempt from the
federal Clean Air Act's pollution controls. Under a compromise that gave
birth to the law, most of the nation's coal plants were "grandfathered" on
the assumption that older plants would soon wear out. But utilities found
clever ways to keep many of them running, a fact that continues to rile
"Coal is so cheap because its dirtiness still doesn't count against it,"
says David Hawkins, an air-pollution expert for the Natural Resources
"All the data show that the low-hanging fruit for cleaning up the air is
addressing the problem of pollution by utilities," says Kirsten Bryant of
Alabama's Environmental Council. Her group is part of a coalition
campaigning against Atlanta-based Southern Co., one of the nation's largest
operators of coal-fired plants.
"Clean-burning coal is a complete oxymoron," declares Lori Ehrlich, a
Marblehead, Mass., housewife who has taken on PG&E National Energy Group, a
unit of San Francisco-based PG&E Corp. that bought two old coal-fired plants
in Massachusetts. The fight began after one plant, in Salem, left part of
Ms. Ehrlich's house coated in soot.
Ms. Ehrlich formed HealthLink, a community group, that successfully fought
for tougher state regulations. The state's new rules require reductions in
sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and carbon dioxide by 2006. "This
law is much tougher than we had expected," says PG&E spokeswoman Lisa
Franklin. The company, she says, is still considering its options.
Those options, however, don't include coal gasification and other
demonstration-plant options. They "don't make sense economically" as a fix
for the older plants, she says. "We're looking at hundreds of millions of
Possible Solutions for Now
A more likely solution, she thinks, will be adding both a "scrubber," a
small chemical plant that removes sulfur dioxide, and a giant catalytic
converter to trap several other pollutants. As for CO2, PG&E has an
agreement to plant more forests in Malaysia, a move to offset global CO2
accumulation; PG&E gets credits from Massachusetts for that.
PG&E hasn't shunned clean-coal technology altogether. PG&E and Southern have
joined the DOE in the nation's ultimate coal research program, the "Zero
Emissions Coal Alliance." Currently a small research project at Los Alamos
National Laboratory, its ambition is to trap all pollutants, achieving
The Zeca plant will combine coal gasification with a process that traps CO2
in magnesium silicates, a gray powder made from grinding commonly found
rocks. Klaus Lackner, one of the Zeca scientists, says it will require
mining six tons of rocks to trap the CO2 from one ton of coal. The rock dust
would then be buried back in the rock mines.
He figures the process will take at least 20 years to develop and could
double the price of electricity. Noting that coal is the nation's most
plentiful fossil fuel and a cheap source of hydrogen -- which might be used
to power cars -- Mr. Lackner thinks Zeca isn't so far-fetched. "It is not so
expensive that the economy couldn't handle it, but it's expensive enough
that you just don't do it willy-nilly. If you succeed, you are protecting a
"Get your facts first, then you can distort them as much as you please."
Mark Twain, 1835-1910
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