Carbon Capture Can't Make Coal Clean

WE Energies has proclaimed that it has captured carbon at a coal-fired plant, but this "success" won't come close to making coal clean.

The clean-tech world is aglow with the news of WE Energies' recent "success" in capturing carbon at the coal-fired power plant in Pleasant Prairie, Wis. Some are heralding a new day for "clean coal," a day that finally promises the ongoing survival of a 19th century energy system through the cunning of a 21st century technology.

But in light of the recent news that Obama-appointed Lisa Jackson (arguably the most pro-environment EPA head we have had in a decade) approved 42 permits to permanently obliterate several dozen mountain tops in Appalachia, burying miles of rivers and streams in the process, the glory of carbon capture quickly wanes.

A full one-third of the U.S. coal supply originates from Appalachia, the most biodiverse temperate forest on earth. And much of that coal is sourced from mining operations by rogue outfits like Massey Coal, which has managed to circumnavigate strict U.S Clean Water Act regulations by applying for permits directly to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

It appears that even the Obama administration has fallen prey to the false belief that coal is cheap and readily available, and therefore its steady supply must be secured for the benefit of the economy, even if by illegal means.

So here's the question: If coal is so readily available, why are we detonating the equivalent of 15,000 tons of ammonium nitrate (roughly the equivalent of one Hiroshima bomb) each week to get it?

Repairing the damage from this "cheap coal" extraction will cost taxpayers trillions of dollars, but despite that fact it is allowed to continue, even without the cover of a viable "clean coal" rhetoric.

Now, with the success of the Wisconsin project, the coal industry got exactly what it wanted -- a viable clean-coal cover.

My great fear is that by legitimizing the most destructive fuel on earth, we may be stepping full on into a nightmare of "clean coal" -- a twisted world order in which hundreds of thousands of unnecessary human deaths and unprecedented environmental catastrophe are all justified in the pursuit of "cheap" coal.

The clean-tech world (and the green community that cheers them on) must learn from past mistakes and take responsibility for the Pandora's box that gets unleashed each time a clean-tech innovation is placed in the hands of a moral-less industry.

Remember how stoked the clean-tech world was a few years ago about the biofuel revolution? Everyone from President Clinton to Willie Nelson was praising Brazil's transition away from dirty oil and into "clean" biofuels.

If you want to see what the biofuel revolution has done to Brazil's once-verdant rainforests read my recent post on termite power and Vice Magazine's sobering portrayal of life in an ethanol "work camp."

We need to start looking at least one step ahead. It seems we've been all too content looking straight down as we march forward on the path to "sustainability" (while patting ourselves on the back no less). Meanwhile, we don't see the proverbial brick wall that is merely a few feet away.

So let me proclaim it: Carbon capture is perhaps the worst possible economic investment we could make right now (maybe only second to liquefying coal to replace gasoline, the folly of which cannot even be put into words).

Why would we invest billions of dollars making a limited, dirty fuel barely acceptable when, within a decade, we could entirely replace coal power with wind and solar -- an investment that would pay us dividends forever since no mining or drilling is required? Renewable fuels are free!

I don't want to berate WE Energies. In addition to funding the Pleasant Prairie carbon capture project, it has also heavily invested in wind energy. So it has its eye on the ball, and its project is truly the closest anyone has come to successfully capturing carbon dioxide at the source. You can read the report here (PDF).

But let's get some things straight about carbon-capture technology:

  1. It is hella expensive! Based on the recent project done in partnership with Alstom, a European carbon-capture company, the cost of sequestering a ton of CO2 is somewhere in the ballpark of $70 per ton! A tree can do the same job for less than $10 a ton.
  2. At best it can only sequester 90 percent of the carbon emitted. Previous attempts yielded far less successful results.
  3. It takes a lot of energy to actually remove the carbon. In other words, you have to burn about 25 percent more coal just to remove the CO2 from the coal. Can anyone say "more mountains?"
  4. Once it's removed, you have to do something with the tons of chilled ammonia containing the CO2. Right now there are not very many uses for CO2, unless you count soda carbonation. Burying it deep underground is an option but one that seems to make the storage of nuclear waste rather simple by comparison.
  5. Optimistically, the technology won't be ready for prime time until 2015, that according to Alstom, the technology partner behind the Wisconsin capture project.

So basically, we would be sinking billions of dollars in capital, capital that could otherwise be used to ramp up smart grid or renewable-energy projects. And at best, it won't be ready for six years and would be operated at a huge expense to both taxpayers and the environment.

And then the hard part begins ... where will all the coal come from?

The logic only works if your path to sustainability entails walking up a hill backward ... on a blown-up mountain.

Karl Burkart is the technology blogger at Mother Nature Network and runs an environmental news video blog at Greendig.
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