Carbon Capture, but Clean Coal?

The skeptic’s view of cleaner coal is summed up nicely by one of our commenters when he writes: “clean coal isn’t.” Still, power companies aren’t stopping building new coal plants and some are looking at the latest methods to make coal cleaner by capturing and storing carbon from power plants.

Tampa, Florida-based Seminole Electric Cooperative recently announced plans asking for proposals for carbon capture technology for its proposed 750 megawatt “clean coal” power plant. The company will test the capture technologies and then plans to implement a chosen system in its plant.

The announcement follows similar initiatives across the globe, including a carbon capture test project in Esbjerg, Denmark.

The Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) is researching capture and storage technology and explains that there are three basic options for the captured CO2:

  • “Use the carbon dioxide as a value-added commodity”
  • “Store the carbon dioxide, such as in underground formations”
  • “Convert the carbon dioxide to methane, biomass, mineral carbonates, or other substances”

The Seminole Generating Station (SGS) Unit 3 facility is expected to go into service in 2012 and claims the plant will be the first electric generating unit in Florida to propose to install this type of demonstration project. Seminole will solicit bids for the project in September 2007.

Seminole’s take on the ‘clean coal isn’t clean tech’ debate?:

Coal is what keeps American energy affordable and available. It’s predominantly the energy available – the goal is to be able to use domestic coal, 250 years worth of coal, to be able to use America’s coal for energy security, while making it as clean as possible — Michelle Collet-Kriz, spokesperson for Seminole

There are a lot of unresolved issues surrounding carbon capture and storage. Storing the CO2 is expensive, with systems costing new coal-fired plants 20 to 25 percent more than a new plant built without the technology, and increase electricity costs to run the plant by 25 to 40 percent, according to the Center for American Progress’s May report “Global Warming and the Future of Coal.”

Even its cleaner incarnations, coal has a bad rap as a ‘dirty’ source of power. (For additional reading, check out this interesting article by Red Herring.)

Regardless of the criticisms, coal isn’t going anywhere.

Although coal currently is the second-largest fuel source of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions (behind oil), accounting for 39 percent of the world total in 2004, it is projected to become the largest source by 2010. In 2030, coal’s share of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions is projected to be 43 percent, compared with 36 percent for oil and 21 percent for natural gas.” — U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Association (EIA) International Energy Outlook for 2007

If we’re stuck with coal power plants, capture and storage technology makes the electricity generator a bit less harmful to the environment. But we wouldn’t go as far as calling it a clean technology. It is a choice between evil and a lesser evil.


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