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What is Clean Coal, and Why Do We Need it?

Coal is dirty. Coal is bad. Right?


New technologies are making this statement less and less valid every day. Clean coal is opening a door for coal to overcome its dirty past and cement its clean future as an affordable, reliable, and environmentally safe source of energy. Here is everything you need to know about the past, the future, and necessity for clean coal.

The Past

Caked in grimy soot, workers would climb out of coal mine shafts in which they had labored all day. The scene reminds us of the industrial age where mining was one of the most profitable and most dangerous jobs a person could do. Along with potential cave-ins, workers faced inhalation of coal dust which caused numerous health problems, including lung cancer. Coal was profitable and reliable, but also toxic and dangerous.

The Present

Today, coal is the largest domestically produced energy source in the United States. In 2015, 67% of America’s electricity was powered by fossil fuels, and coal made up half of that alone (EIA). It is therefore the indisputable go-to energy source for the United States and many countries around the world. But with its 1800’s reputation and new concerns about health and the environment at the forefront of public debate, American’s need a new technology that can provide the benefits of coal while reducing its negative aspects.

The Future

Clean coal is the future of cheap energy that Americans need. This technology refers to the burning coal in such a way that the overall pollution emitted into the air is greatly minimized or even neutralized by capturing and storing pollutants from emissions or implementing practices that release less toxic gasses to begin with. Several preventative and reactive technologies that mitigate the negative effects of burning coal have been developed, including scrubbers, sorbent and carbon injections, low nitrogen oxide burners, filter systems, precipitators, and carbon capture and storage (CCS).

How does clean coal work?

Scrubbers use lime or limestone, water, and power plant flue gases to remove 90-98% of the sulfuric acid in coal. Combined with selective catalytic reduction, which involves ammonia, they can remove up to 80% of mercury emissions. Dry sorbent injections use minerals like Trona to remove sulfuric acid as well and are 40-75% effective. Low nitrogenous oxide burners work to burn the coal at a lower temperature so less nitrogen oxide is released. Filter systems collect particulate matter (PM) on vacuum cleaner like bags and are 99 to 99.9% efficient. Precipitators remove PM by using charged metal plates that create static electricity and attract the particles. Carbon capture and storage, on the other hand, is a different mode of technology that is primarily focused on the emissions from burning coal (America’s Power). The carbon is captured and stored underground in geological formations. While it captures 90% of the carbon dioxide emitted, it also greatly increases the cost of electricity.

So, what does all this mean? Burning coal with less health benefits and negative environmental impact. These technologies aim reduce the amount of sulfuric acid, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter that is released when coal is burned. The more effective these tools are, the less air pollution burning coal creates. While it does decrease air pollution, the impact of storing the waste from these processes is unclear. The carbon dioxide may not be released into the air, but it is still being stored in the ground, a more limited space than the atmosphere.

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Where is clean coal being used?

Clean coal power plants are still a novel idea; only 21 CCS projects are being implemented worldwide (Washington Times). The first clean coal power plant in America opened this year near Houston, Texas. The Petra Nova Plant captures carbon dioxide and ships it to a nearby oil field, where it is then used to help in the extraction process of oil from the ground. Over 90% of the carbon emissions are captured, which is the equivalent of 5,000 tons of carbon dioxide.

Why do we need clean coal?

Dirty coal’s reputation is making it harder for it to find customers, especially as clean coal is building its reputation of being able to improve the environment while providing the same reliable energy as dirty coal does. The world is investing in cleaner energy sources, and as one of the best provider of both cheap and clean energy, clean coal is here to stay. Investing in its technologies will minimize the impact of coal burning, provide economic development, and contribute to human progress.

Ande Troutman has been a blog writer for CID since March 2017 and specializes in energy policy and natural resource development. She has experience working on environmental policy in both state government and the private sector. Ande is currently working as an international consultant for CID in Scotland.

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