With all due respect to President Obama, his repeated flogging of so-called 'clean coal' makes no sense (except politically) because there is no such thing.
Let’s start with a quick review of the problems with existing, traditional coal burning. First, coal has to be mined, which of course is devastating in its own right, costs a lot of money, and is done by some very unseemly characters. Also, methane (global warming) is released during the mining process. Then transporting the stuff from mine to plant creates significant emissions. Once at the power plant, serious emissions start: coal burning releases carbon dioxide (global warming), sulfur dioxide (acid rain), small airborne particles (asthma and other respiratory diseases, heart disease), nitrogen oxide (respiratory diseases), carbon monoxide (just plain poisonous), mercury (extremely toxic, even in tiny amounts causes developmental problems in children, cognitive problems in everyone, and is just plain toxic), arsenic (powerful carcinogen), and any number of other toxic heavy metals.
A proposed solution to at least the CO2 part of all this is carbon capture and storage (CCS). The idea of CCS is, during coal burning and/or gasification, to route CO2 (and maybe some other undesirable byproducts) into massive underground limestone deposits, depleted natural gas fields or other formations. Here, the unwanted results of coal power are said to be sequestered indefinitely, in theory allowing us to keep using coal electricity without concern for its environmental effects. Currently, the U.S. is developing a US $3.5 billion facility called FutureGen to act as a laboratory for the technology. Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu has said that "The FutureGen project holds great promise as a flagship facility to demonstrate carbon capture and storage at commercial scale. Developing this technology is critically important for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and around the world." I assume he's saying that to get his boss's back, because a Nobel laureate physicist must surely be aware of the limitations, and CCS has serious limitations.
So, in short, CCS can never be profitable because it is far too complicated and expensive, and because the geology probably won't work for long, if at all.
There's a final economic point to all this, regarding on alternative to coal. Even if all of CCS coal's myriad problems could somehow be overcome, solar, at scale, will still be less expensive for one simple reason: the cost of a plant's source material. Why would we submit to the huge expenses (and dangers!) of locating, mining, transporting, and burning coal, and then either have to pay for CCS or to remediate all the problems it causes (and likely both!)? The source material to make electricity at solar plants literally falls from the sky for free. We'd rather bet on electricity that's converted from free sunlight than from burned, expensive coal. Especially in a carbon-constrained world. Now I understand that there are emerging technologies that may be able to convert carbon into fuel; okay, we’ll circle back to those if and when they reach anything like commercial viability.
We don't invest in the Next Economy to be activists. We do it because, almost by definition, clean tech has to and will grow much more rapidly than the old, legacy, business-as-usual economy, and is therefore likely to return superior investment results. The point of all this is that 'clean coal' is still legacy economy and has almost no prospect of generating competitive investment returns. That's why you’ll never see it in our portfolios.
Garvin Jabusch is the cofounder of Green Alpha Advisors, LLC and manages The Sierra Club Green Alpha Portfolio -- a unique blend of Green Alpha Advisors' Next Economy universe and the Sierra Club's proprietary green-investment guidelines.