The Myth that is Clean Coal

Donald Trump, President of the United States of America, earlier this year at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC 2017), said ‘We’re going to have beautiful clean coal.’ This is a statement that was collaborated by his press secretary, Sean Spicer at a presser in the White House also this year.

This has brought a major discussion as to whether coal can actually be ‘clean’. Popular Mechanics, a well-respected science and technology magazine discussed this is an article by James B. Meigs as far back as 2011. I would be making many references to the article.

Now let’s be clear, it is possible to make coal ‘clean’. Over the years since the discovery of coal, scientists have been researching ways to make coal cleaner and it is much better than in the 70’s and 80’s. Making coal so clean it is environmentally safe on the other hand is a very different issue. Can it be done? Yes, in theory. It is done by a process called carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). CCS involves forcing the exhaust from a power plant through a liquid solvent that absorbs the carbon dioxide. Later, the solvent is heated to liberate the gas, much the way a bottle of soda releases its dissolved CO2 when opened. The CO2 is then compressed to about 100times normal atmospheric pressure and sent away for storage.

Before you get too confused, let’s take a few key pointers about coal:

1. One pound of coal produces about 2.5 pounds of CO2 after combustion.

2. CO2 is not the only harmful by-product of coal. Each lump can contain large amounts of sooty particulates, sulfur and nitrogen compounds (which cause acid rain), and traces of mercury and other toxic metals.

For clean coal to work, it would require a lot of power and electricity;  coal plants would have to consume approximately 25 percent more coal to handle carbon sequestration and still produce the same amount of electricity as now. This would mean more coal mining, transportation and processing which means more of those harmful by-products we talked about earlier, one of which has become a major problem in the Southern part of Nigeria in the past few months. And this is not even the hard part. The hard part is transporting and storing the high-pressure CO2. Recall, one pound of coal will produce 2.5 pounds of CO2. So question, where will they put it? It is estimated that coal-fired power plants produce about 5.7 billion tons of CO2 a year. That would mean that 114 million barrels of liquid CO2 would be produced daily!!
The physical and financial implication of trying to do this is ludicrous to think of.

Now this plan doesn’t say what will happen to the liquid CO2 after it is buried. If decades from when the CO2 is buried, it begins to leak. The effects of this leak would be far worse than just allowing the CO2 gas escape in the first place because not only would the ground now be poisoned, the release of the harmful gas into the atmosphere would still occur.

CCS and ‘clean’ coal are “possible” but there are so many unanswered questions about the process that it would be, at this stage at least, an irresponsible gamble to make. What makes it an even worse option is the fact so many alternatives are available, many of which already are clean and renewable.

With all these scientific and economic facts, why then is ‘clean coal’ still a topic especially in the US? Simple is makes enough political logic.

Coal makes up about 38% of the sources of power in the US and with the recent shift of the world towards renewables this sector is in line to be the hardest to get hit by this change. But America was built on coal and hence a sizeable political influence and as such the industry will not go down without a fight. Though it is a fight, in my opinion, it has already lost.

Adedayo Ayo-Vaughan
Towards a clean energy future.