The Price Tag for Clean Coal

I wanted to get the low down on clean coal (KOL) to see how clean it really is, so I visited some friends at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The modern day descendent of the Atomic Energy Commission, where I had a student job in the seventies, the leading researcher on laser induced nuclear fission, and the administrator of our atomic weapons stockpile, I figured they’d know.

Dirty coal currently supplies us with 35% of our electricity, and total electricity demand is expected to go up 30% by 2030. The industry is spewing out 32 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year and the great majority of independent scientists out there believe that the global warming it is causing will lead us to an environmental disaster within decades.

Carbon Capture and Storage technology (CCS) locks up these emissions deep underground forever. The problem is that there is only one of these plants in operation in North Dakota, a legacy of the Carter administration, and new ones would cost $4 billion each. The low estimate to replace the 250 existing coal plants in the US is $1 trillion, and this will produce electricity that costs 50% more than we now pay. In a gridlocked constrained congress, this is a big ticket that is highly unlikely to get picked up.

While we can build a wall to keep out illegal immigrants from Latin America, it won’t keep out CO2. This is a big problem as China is currently completing one new coal fired plant a week. In fact, the Middle Kingdom is rushing to perfect cheaper CCS technologies, not only for their own use, but also to sell to us. The bottom line is coal can be cleaned, but at a frightful price.

KOL 8-28-13

Smokestacks Coal’s Popularity is Fading Fast