What is (so-called) “clean coal”?

Coal is a highly polluting energy source.  It emits much more carbon per unit of energy than oil, and natural gas. CO2 represents the major portion of  greenhouse gases. It is, therefore, one of the leading contributors to climate change.  From mine to sky, from extraction to combustion -- coal pollutes every step of the way. The huge environmental and social costs associated with coal usage make it an expensive option for developing countries.  From acid drainage from coal mines, polluting rivers and streams, to the release of mercury and other toxins when it is burned, as well as climate-destroying gases and fine particulates that wreak havoc on human health, COAL is unquestionably, a DIRTY BUSINESS.  

It is a major contributor to climate change - the biggest environmental threat we face. It is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, emitting 29% more than oil, 80% more carbon dioxide (the main driver of climate change) per unit of energy than gas.

Mercury is a particular problem. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), mercury and its compounds are highly toxic and pose a 'global environmental threat to humans and wildlife.'  Coal-fired power and heat production are the largest single source of atmospheric mercury emissions.  There are no commercially available technologies to prevent mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

"Clean coal" is the industry's attempt to "clean up" its dirty image - the industry's greenwash buzzword. It is not a new type of coal.  

"Clean coal" technology (CCT) refers to technologies intended to reduce pollution.  But no coal-fired power plants are truly 'clean'.

"Clean coal" methods only move pollutants from one waste stream to another which are then still released into the environment.  Any time coal is burnt, contaminants are released and they have to go somewhere.  They can be released via the fly ash, the gaseous air emissions, water outflow or the ash left at the bottom after burning.  Ultimately, they still end up polluting the environment.

"Clean coal" methods only move pollutants from one waste stream to another.

Communities after communities have lamented the hosting of coal-fired plants. They are often ignored due to governments' preference for polluting power plants yet they often bear the burden of adversely altered lives.

Despite over 10 years of research and $5.2 billion of investment in the US alone , scientists are still unable to make coal clean. The Australian government spends A$0.5 million annually to promote Australia's 'clean coal' to the Asia Pacific region.  "Clean coal" technologies are expensive and do nothing to mitigate the environmental effects of coal mining or the devastating effects of global warming.  Furthermore, clean coal research risks diverting investment away from renewable energy, which is available to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now.

The first CCT programs were set up in the late 1980s in response to concerns over acid rain. The programs focused on reducing emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and oxides of nitrogen (NOX), the primary causes of acid rain.  Now the elusive promise of "clean coal" technology is being used to promote coal as an energy source.

A price worth paying?

Many of the 'clean coal' technologies being promoted by the coal industry are still in the development stage and will take hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars and many more years before they are commercially available.  "Clean coal" technologies are also extremely expensive in terms of day to day running costs.  The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates the capital costs of a typical IGCC plant (an experimental low-emission coal power station) to be US$1,383/kW, $2,088/kW with carbon sequestration.  This compares with US$1,015/kW for a typical wind farm.

Summary

"Clean coal" is an attempt by the coal industry to try and make itself relevant in the age of renewables. Existing CCTs do nothing to mitigate the environmental effects of coal mining or the devastating effects of global warming. Coal is the dirtiest fuel there is and belongs in the past. Much higher emission cuts can be made using currently available natural gas, wind and modern biomass that are already in widespread use. Clean, inexpensive.  This is where investment should be directed, rather than squandering valuable resources on a dirty dinosaur.

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