Sorry Wired, Coal Isn’t the “Future of Clean Energy”
Ouch! Here comes the April Wired poking its finger in environmentalists’ eyes with its provocative headline, “Coal: It’s Dangerous, It’s Dirty, and It’s the Future of Clean Energy.” (Last time it was James Fallows in the Atlantic with “Dirty Coal, Clean Future,” which I discussed here.) Both features are well written, compelling, but absolutely wrong--and for the same reason.
To be fair to Wired contributing editor Charles C. Mann, his article is far more nuanced than its contrarian cover line might suggest. In fact, much of it details the environmental evils of coal, particularly in China, which gets three quarters of its energy by burning nearly as much coal as the entire rest of the world:
According to one major research project involving almost 500 scientists in 50 nations, outdoor air pollution annually contributes to about 1.2 million premature deaths in China. Another study argued that eliminating coal pollution in northern China would raise average life expectancy there by nearly five years.
That’s in addition to the horrific climate effects:
China already emits one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases, more than any other country. The International Energy Agency (IEA), a Paris-based think tank sponsored by 28 developed nations, estimates that Beijing will double its ranks of coal-fired power plants by 2040. If that happens, China’s carbon dioxide figures could double or even triple.
Like Fallows before him, Mann goes on to note that China is making tremendous efforts to harness clean energy, deploying solar and wind faster than any other country. But, he argues, as much as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace may scoff, renewables can’t do the trick.
No one has ever powered a nation solely, or even mostly, with sun and wind over the long term . . . . [T]he process of replacing the present coal-and-gas grid with a new, sun-and-wind grid—all the while keeping the old grid running—will be long, expensive, and risky.
So to recap: Coal is awful. Renewables would be better, but scaling them up would be hard and cost a lot of money. Therefore, conclude both Fallows and Mann, the solution must be “carbon capture and storage” (CCS)--stripping out the carbon dioxide from the burning coal and pumping it away for storage in deep underground caverns. China has a number of such facilities (although it turns out that GreenGen’s billion-dollar CCS plant in Tianjin just sells its CO2 to soft drink companies).
Mann acknowledges that there are some major problems with CCS, though--it uses a tremendous amount of energy (“20 to 30 percent of a power plant’s output”), costs a fortune (“as much as $100 per ton of stored CO2”), and is still largely experimental.
[T]he world has just 12 fully operational large-scale carbon-capture projects, most in the United States. Not one of them is what is most needed: a facility that traps and stores emissions from a big coal-fired power plant.
And yet, he argues, CCS is the future of clean energy. Unexplained is why China would apply this fantastically expensive fix to its coal plants when it doesn't even provide simple scrubbers that would prevent the horrendous particle pollution Mann previously cited. China burns coal because it's as cheap as dirt, but if it’s suddenly going to cost $2 trillion a year to bury that carbon in the ground (Mann’s figure), the entire rationale for coal disappears. And even if CCS did become widespread, it would do nothing to lessen the environmental horrors of coal extraction, transportation, and coal-ash pollution.
If you’re going to spend billions--or trillions!--to prevent climate disaster, why spend it on an experimental scheme to clean up coal instead of proven, zero-carbon, renewable technology? The only reason to keep talking about “clean coal” and CCS is what it has always been--to maintain the pretense that someday, somehow, the coal industry will clean up after itself, and to delay the inevitable switch to truly clean energy.
PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and dad. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber