June 24, 2008
Cleaning Up Coal
"Clean coal" is an oxymoron. There is no way to burn coal that doesn't produce hundreds of tons of pollution, including massive amounts of carbon dioxide, which is a major contributor to global warming.
Rep. Rick Boucher understands that, even if the coalfield representative and industry supporter may not like to admit it. But he also understands that there is no ready substitute for coal, an abundant, relatively cheap source of energy for the nation.
He thinks the answer is carbon capture and sequestration -- a method to extract carbon dioxide from the emissions stream and divert it to safe and permanent storage underground.
To that end, Boucher is sponsoring legislation that would create a multi-billion-dollar fund -- supported by small fees paid by electric customers of utilities fueled by coal, oil and natural gas.
The money would go to an independent corporation that would oversee the development and deployment of large-scale carbon capture and storage technologies.
Electric customers may be forgiven for groaning at the prospect of yet another increase in rates on top of fuel surcharges and requests by utilities to recover billions of dollars in pollution- control costs. Boucher insists the fees will be minimal, and will still leave customers of coal-fired utilities paying some of the lowest prices in the nation.
Utilities can't invest in this on their own because, as Virginia's State Corporation Commission recently proved, regulators don't like to let them recover investments in technology that's not yet proven commercially viable.
Many scientists believe that large-scale carbon capture and sequestration is not only feasible, but essential for stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions while still meeting current and future energy needs.
Frankly, the technology seems like a stretch. Massive amounts -- hundreds of millions of tons -- of carbon dioxide would have to be diverted from emissions stacks, using technology only recently implemented commercially. Then it would have to be transported to sites where it could be efficiently, safely and permanently stored underground.
Researchers are still trying to determine what sites will work best. Virginia Tech researchers, for instance, are looking into pumping the CO2 into unmineable coal seams.
One-tenth of 1 cent per kilowatt hour may be a reasonable price to pay to see if this could be what an MIT faculty group called the "critical enabling technology to help reduce CO2 emissions significantly while also allowing coal to meet the world's pressing energy needs."
In the meantime, though, the nation also must look at moving beyond coal to renewable and cleaner sources of energy that will eventually have to be developed.
Perhaps Boucher's plan can one day be used as a model for such development.
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