Monday, December 15, 2008


As the economy worsens, there are signs that political leaders and Americans generally are taking a more positive attitude toward coal. Abundant and cheaper than other fuels, coal is America’s energy mainstay, a domestic resource providing 52% of the nation’s electricity and 45% of Virginia’s power.

Some prominent environmentalists see no future for coal in a clean energy economy. Since coal accounts for about one-third of the carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, they advocate halting the use of coal in this country within ten years and stopping the construction of new coal plants now. Abandoning coal would be folly, since we cannot expect to meet the massive and varied energy needs of American consumers without it.

The financial crisis makes action on clean coal more urgent than ever. If we want to strengthen the U.S. economic competitiveness, generating electricity from coal in an environmentally acceptable manner is one important way to do it.

There is one central reality underlying our nation’s energy situation and we must not lose sight of it; No amount of effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to an acceptable level will succeed unless we end up with a practical way to capture carbon dioxide at coal plants and store the emissions deep underground. That is true for the United States and it is true for other countries like China, Russia and India that rely upon coal to drive their economies.

Coal’s importance globally offers a unique opportunity. Given the success of clean-coal technology in reducing sulfur dioxide-down more than 35% since 1990- the obvious answer to the greenhouse problem is to demonstrate the feasibility of carbon capture-and-storage.

New technologies now on the horizon promise to make that possible. Pilot tests of carbon capture-and-storage are under way in Germany, Australia, and the United States. One approach currently being tested at a large coal plant in Indiana is drawing a lot of attention. Flue gas emitted from the plant’s boiler is cooled to 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Then it is sent to two towers that discharge ammonium bicarbonate slurry onto the gas, which absorbs the carbon dioxide. The solution is pumped to a regeneration system, where the liquid is heated and absorption process is reversed, leaving pure carbon dioxide emissions.

The goal is to capture 90% of the carbon dioxide, then pipe it to a suitable site for injection into a deep geological formation such as a saline cavern or a depleted oil well. Injecting carbon dioxide underground is already a common practice in the oil industry, where companies use carbon dioxide injection, in tertiary recovery, to increase the rate of oil and gas production and reservoir recovery.

The biggest hurdle is economic. Moving from small scale pilot projects to industrial scale will require coming up with ways to reduce the cost of carbon capture-and-storage. Currently 30% of a coal plant’s electricity goes for this process. This requires burning more coal, which drives up utility costs. It is likely that as utilities begin to adopt carbon capture-and-storage, the cost will drop.

Now is the time for large-scale demonstrations of carbon storage, which are expected to take a decade or more to implement. Underground storage promises to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions significantly. Moreover, the technology could be made available around the world; Thereby leveraging America’s ingenuity.

Simply put, the effort to shut down coal plants and prevent new plants from being built is shortsighted. The idea of imposing a ceiling on carbon emissions before the technology for carbon capture-and-storage becomes available makes no sense at all. A carbon cap-and-trade system would force utilities to switch from coal high-priced natural gas, not a good idea, especially at a time when the nation’s economy is in turmoil.

Carbon capture-and-storage is a logical and sensible approach to global warming. The technology would allow the United States to make use of coal, our most abundant and reliable energy source. We need to stay the course and not let our attention be diverted from what is important: the need for a stable and secure supply of clean energy to meet our nation’s economic needs.