An interesting op-ed from yesterday’s New York Times discusses clean coal. I encourage our readers to read the piece themselves, but for those who want the short version, here’s a summary:
1. FutureGen, a federal program to design a zero-emission clean coal power plant is not going to work for two main reasons:
- Zero-emission clean coal technology doesn’t exist, and might take a really long time to get here
- Huge, politically charged federal research projects like these have not historically accomplished anything
2, If the government is going to support some kind of clean coal, it should support IGCC (Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle), for three reasons:
- IGCC technology already exists
- Once Washington passes a cap-and-trade law of some kind, the cost of carbon will make IGCC cost-competitive
- To generate the same amount of electricity as regular coal plants, IGCC plants use only one third of the coal, which means they naturally cut GHG emissions by two thirds
An important take away message is that when people throw around the term “clean coal”, they may be referring to different things. Here we see two distinct technologies – one theoretical, nonexistent technology that promises zero emissions by sequestering all the carbon dioxide underground, and another, existing technology which squeezes more power out of less coal by gasifying it first (this also makes it easier to sequester the CO2, but we’re not even getting into that now).
However, though I agree with the author that the government should be worrying about practical solutions rather than (in his words) pie-in-the-sky ideas, I think he overplays the benefits of IGCC. True, the technology exists, but it’s extremely expensive. Carbon legislation isn’t going to make it cheaper, it’s just going to make everything else really expensive too. You can’t really expect every utility to pour money into a technology that, while proven, is still wet behind the ears.
But – and this is the author’s main point – the government can, and it should.