Coal: Dirty Past, Hazy Future (Part 3)

  • Engineering Professor Rich Axelbaum studies his "oxy-coal combustor," a device he hopes could someday trap CO2 in coal-fired power plants. (Photo by Matt Sepic)

Coal has a reputation as a sooty, dirty fuel. More recently, environmentalists and the coal industry alike have become just as worried about the carbon dioxide released when coal is burned. In the third part of our series on the future of coal, Matt Sepic has this look at the science behind so-called “clean coal”:

Transcript

Coal has a reputation as a sooty, dirty fuel. More recently, environmentalists and the coal industry alike have become just as worried about the carbon dioxide released when coal is burned. In the third part of our series on the future of coal, Matt Sepic has this look at the science behind so-called “clean coal”:

As far as most leaders of the coal industry are concerned, the debate about global warming is over. It exists, carbon dioxide contributes to it, and it’s a crisis. But as they’re quick to point out, nearly half the nation’s electricity comes from coal. It’s domestic. It’s relatively cheap. And there’s a lot of it.

Steve Leer is the CEO of Arch Coal. Leer says unless Americans want that power to get really expensive, coal will have to remain part of the equation. But he says something has to be done about all that carbon dioxide.

If we don’t solve that CO2 question, the backlash of high cost electricity becomes an issue for all of us.

Arch Coal is the nation’s second largest coal producer. It’s paying for research into carbon capture and storage. The idea is to divert CO2 from smokestacks, compress it, and then pump it underground.

Engineering professor Rich Axelbaum is studying this with money from Steve Leer’s company. In his lab at Washington University in St. Louis, Axelbaum and two students are tweaking a device they call an oxy-coal combustor.

RA: “It’s a relatively small scale, quite a small scale for industrial, but it’s a relatively large scale for a university.”

MS: “It looks like a few beer kegs stacked end to end and welded together.”

RA: “Right, right.”

Axelbaum can burn coal inside this furnace along with a variety of combustion gases. He’s trying to figure out exactly how much oxygen to inject to yield pure carbon dioxide.

“We can capture the CO2 from a combustion process, by instead of the burning the coal in air, you’re burning it in oxygen, so the stream coming out of the exhaust is CO2.

Axelbaum says there’s no sense in filling valuable underground storage space with CO2 mixed with other gases if a power plant is built that can grab nearly pure carbon dioxide and store it.

He says energy companies already pump CO2 underground to extract crude oil, so some of the technology already exists. But environmentalists say the next step – which is crucial for any so-called clean coal power plant to work– is far from proven.

“No one knows in the industry whether in fact they can sequester carbon permanently.”

David Orr teaches Environmental Science at Oberlin College in Ohio. He says storing CO2 underground is easier said than done. And nobody knows if rock formations in different parts of the country can hold the huge amounts of carbon dioxide America’s power plants produce without it eventually leaking out.

Orr says because the goal is to reduce global warming, politicians would be better off funding research into other energy alternatives.

The metric here is how much carbon do we eliminate per dollar spent on research and deployment of technology?

Orr says the 3.4 billion dollars set aside for clean coal research in the federal stimulus bill would be better spent studying wind and solar power, modernizing the nation’s electrical grid, and finding ways to improve energy efficiency.

But the United States still has more than a century’s worth of coal reserves. And with plenty of money going into both research and advertising, talk of carbon capture and storage is certain to continue, even if it remains just that.

For The Environment Report, I’m Matt Sepic.

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Coal: Dirty Past, Hazy Future (Part 4)

  • Four Corners Power Plant is one of the dirtiest in the country, based on its emissions of nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide and mercury. Under a cap-and-trade system, plants like this would have to cut pollution or buy carbon permits. (Photo by Daniel Kraker)

President Obama wants the U.S. to reduce the greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that contribute to global warming. Congress is considering a carbon cap-and-trade program. Lester Graham reports on what that will mean to coal-burning industries and your power bill:

Transcript

President Obama wants the U.S. to reduce the greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that contribute to global warming. Congress is considering a carbon cap-and-trade program. Lester Graham reports on what that will mean to coal-burning industries and your power bill:

For all the talk about carbon cap-and-trade, few people really understand what it is. And no one really knows what it will end up costing you on your electric bill – at least not yet.

The President wants carbon dioxide polluters such as coal-burning power plants to cut how much carbon dioxide they spew from the smokestacks.

So, the government is now designing a plan to cap the total amount of carbon dioxide pollution nation-wide. Once that amount is set, each polluter is allotted a limited amount of allowances to release carbon dioxide. Go over that allowance and the polluter has to pay per ton of CO2 released. Don’t use all of the allowances, and a company is free to trade them -–for a price—to others who need the allowances.

Over time that nation-wide cap will keep get lower, making carbon pollution more and more expensive.

How much of that cost ends up on your electricity bill is the big question.

There are some wildly different predictions. Some lobby groups indicate cap-and-trade could nearly double electric rates. But politics really plays into many of those predictions.

We went to analysts at Point Carbon. It’s a respected world-wide carbon market consultant. Veronique Bugnion says Point Carbon made some estimates based on President Obama’s carbon cap-and-trade plan in his proposed budget.

“Now, in terms of the U.S. average, what we calculated is that it would represent a roughly seven% increase over current electricity rates.”

That’s the average.

But, if your power company uses mostly coal instead of hydro-power or nuclear or wind or solar, Bugnion says it could cost more.

“At the extreme, in the regions that are essentially entirely coal dependent, the impact would be closer to anywhere between ten and 15-percent.”

President Obama says says a carbon cap-and-trade scheme can be designed so that it smooths out the effect on consumers who live in a coal-dependent area.

“The way it’s structured has to take into account regional differences. It has to protect consumers from huge spikes in electricity prices. So, there are a lot of technical issues that are going to have to be sorted through.”

And Congress is just beginning to sort through them. But coal and power companies as well as big oil and industries that use a lot of energy are lobbying hard to kill carbon cap-and-trade or make sure doesn’t cost them, or their shareholders, more than they want.

That leaves most of us wondering what reducing the greenhouse gases will end up costing us after Congress gets finished.

Sandy Kline runs a small house-cleaning business called “More Grime than Time” out of her home in suburban Detroit. Because of the economy she’s lost some business lately. Times are a little tighter.

She says she’s concerned about climate change, but she’s worried what the President’s carbon cap-and-trade plan might do to her power bill and her family budget.

“What he’s proposing sounds like a good idea –big picture– as far as the greenhouse emissions and that, but, you know, on an individual basis it can really hurt people like me.”

She wonders if consumer pressure isn’t enough to get those power companies using coal-burning plants to change. But, that could take decades. Climate scientists say we don’t have that kind of time. We have to do something to reduce greenhouse gases now.

So, experts say you should get ready. Since we don’t know exactly what cap-and-trade will do to electricity rates, it might be a good idea to reduce your power usage. Take advantage of the current tax incentives to get more energy efficient appliances and tighten up your home.

They say, even if rates do go up because of carbon cap-and-trade, if you’re using less power, it could be you won’t see a much of a difference when you get your electric bill.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

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Coal: Dirty Past, Hazy Future (Part 5)

  • Protestors are lobbying for aging coal plants to be shut down--they are some of the nation's dirtiest plants (Photo by Arnold Paul, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming are driving power companies to a decision. They can move away from burning coal altogether or they can work on technology to eliminate their CO2 emissions someday. While they’re making that decision, some of the nation’s oldest, dirtiest coal-burning power plants still run. In the final part of our series on the future of coal, Shawn Allee looks at why they billow dangerous air pollution– stuff most people think we cleaned up long ago:

Transcript

Carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming are driving power companies to a decision. They can move away from burning coal altogether or they can work on technology to eliminate their CO2 emissions someday. While they’re making that decision, some of the nation’s oldest, dirtiest coal-burning power plants still run. In the final part of our series on the future of coal, Shawn Allee looks at why they billow dangerous air pollution– stuff most people think we cleaned up long ago:

I’ve seen plenty of environmental protests.

“Clean up the coal power plants. Save lives, save our city. Show your support – sign the petition!”

But this one has me intrigued.

It’s not because of what the protestors want. They want to shut down two coal-burning power plants in Chicago. I’d heard that before, and I’d heard their statistics too – like how each year, air pollution from these kinds of power plants causes 17,000 Americans to die early from smog and other hazards.

Now, what strikes me is that these teenagers are singing Bob Dylan.

“Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand. For the time’s they are a changing.”

Their parents – or maybe grandparents – could have sung this.

But, however old the song is, the power plants they’re trying to shut down? They’re even older and they’re still allowed to create more pollution than newer plants.

Brian Urbaszewski has one answer to why so little’s changed. He’s with the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago.

“People ask, ‘well, why is it taking so long to clean up the power plants?’ Well, it’s expensive to clean up an old power plant and the people who own them don’t particularly want to spend the money to do that.”

This isn’t the way it was supposed to work. Urbasewski says when Congress enacted the Clean Air Act in 1970, it gave old power plants a pass.

“The basics are that old power plants were not expected to have to meet the same standards as new power plants.”

But there was a catch. The old power plants wouldn’t have to clean up – if they kept the same equipment and didn’t pollute any more than before.

Urbaszewksi says the industry treated this like a loophole.

“A lot of these plants had major parts replaced and they were restored almost to original working order. The companies didn’t add those pollution controls.”

The federal government, industry, and environmentalists are stuck in court over which improvements at old, coal-burning power plants should trigger new pollution controls.

President George W. Bush sided with industry on this so-called new source review issue.

But now, President Obama might reverse that and the industry’s worried.

In terms of new source review, we remain in limbo.

Dan Riedinger handles public relations for the Edison Electric Institute. It represents private power companies.

“Still, you know, decades later, we still don’t have the type of written guidance we need, about what types of changes we can make at power plants.”

An overhaul of “new source review” is coming at a bad time for Riedinger’s industry. The government’s clamping down even harder on soot and the pollutants that cause smog. And they’re new rules to protect fish and other animals from mercury emissions.

But future carbon caps are a wild card. Congress might make power plants slash carbon dioxide emissions.

Riedinger says burning coal could become expensive – and the smallest, oldest power plants might not make the cut.

“We may be required to retire some coal plants prematurely and to replace them with natural gas. A natural gas produces half as much CO2 as does a coal plant.”

If the power industry shifts away from coal and toward other fuels for the sake of carbon, we might also get some of the quickest cutbacks in air pollution in decades at the same time – a kind of clean-air two-fer.

The times, maybe they are a-changin’.

For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

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Coal: Dirty Past, Hazy Future (Part 1)

  • (Photo courtesy of This Is Reality campaign)

You are being targeted by lobbyists. The coal industry and environmentalists are both trying to influence what you think. In the first part of our series on the future of coal, Lester Graham looks at the campaigns for-and-against coal:

Transcript

You are being targeted by lobbyists. The coal industry and environmentalists are both trying to influence what you think. In the first part of our series on the future of coal, Lester Graham looks at the campaigns for-and-against coal:

You probably don’t buy coal directly. But you do0 pay for it when you pay your power bill. 50% of the nation’s electricity comes from coal-burning power plants.

The problem with that is, coal pollutes.

Not as much as it used to. Some traditional pollutants have been reduced by 77% since the 1970 Clean Air Act.

Although the government forced it to reduce some some of the pollution, the coal industry brags about the progress and encouarges you to believe in the future of “clean coal.”

American Coalition for Clean Coal advertisement:

“I believe. I believe. We can be energy independent. We can continue to use our most abundant fuel cleanly and responsibly. We can and we will. Clean coal: America’s power”

Joe Lucas is the man behind that ad. He’s with the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. Lucas says the meaning of the phrase “clean coal” is always evolving.

“Ah, the use of the term ‘clean coal,’ it is a term of art. Up until now it has been technology that has reduced traditional pollution emissions and increased the efficiency of power plants and going forward we’re rapidly approaching the point to where it will be technologies for capture and storage of carbon.”

But right now, no power plant captures carbon dioxide. And carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas contributing to climate change.

That’s why environmentalists scoff at the coal industry’s use of ‘clean coal.’

Cohen brothers advertisement:

“Clean coal harnesses the awesome power of the word ‘clean’ to make it sound like the cleanest clean there is!” (coughing)

The guy behind that ad is Brian Hardwick. He’s the spokesman for the “This is Reality” campaign.

“In reality today there is no such thing as ‘clean coal.’ There is no commercial coal plant that captures its carbon pollution not to mention the other environmental impacts that the coal industry has – from burning coal and the runoff and the extraction of coal. So, we launched an effort to try to bring out the truth about coal in response to the marketing campaign that the coal industry had so that people could come to their own conclusions about whether or not they thought coal was indeed clean.”

Clean or not, we have a lot of coal here in the U.S. It’s relatively cheap. And when pushed, a lot of environmentalists concede we’ll need to rely on coal for electricity generation for some time to come.

During last year’s Presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama aknowledged that to people at a rally in Virginia, but indicated we need to find a way to really get to ‘clean coal.’

“Why aren’t we figuring how to sequester the carbons from coal? Clean coal technology is something that can make America energy independent.” (applause)

And President Obama has followed up on that. In the stimulus plan, 3.4 billion dollars was set aside to find ways to make coal clean.

There’s more to clean up. Sulfur dioxide, or SOx, contributes to acid rain. Nitrogen Oxides, or NOx, helps cause smog. Those have been reduced, but not eliminated. And then there’s toxic mercury and particulate matter – or soot. All of it harms the environment and public health.

President Obama’s Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, is a big proponent of cleaner energy sources such as wind and solar. But he says we do need to find a way to use coal.

“Right now as we’re using coal it’s not clean. But, I firmly believe that we should invest very heavily on strategies that can take a large fraction of the carbon dioxide out of coal as well as the SOx the NOx, the mercury, particulate matter.”

But until that technology is in place, ‘clean coal’ is no more than what the coal industry calls an “evolving term of art.”

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

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Coal: Dirty Past, Hazy Future (Part 2)

  • The coal industry hopes the federal government will help them find a way to catch and store the carbon coming from smokestacks.

The coal industry got hit with expensive
pollution restrictions almost two decades ago. Now, the government’s considering putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming. Coal companies think they have a technological solution in a test project called FutureGen. In the
second part of our series on the future of coal, Shawn Allee looks at why they
have such high hopes for it:

Transcript

The coal industry got hit with expensive
pollution restrictions almost two decades ago. Now, the government’s considering putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming. Coal companies think they have a technological solution in a test project called FutureGen. In the
second part of our series on the future of coal, Shawn Allee looks at why they
have such high hopes for it:

The last time the federal government put a price on coal pollution was in 1990.

Power plants had to start paying for sulphur dioxide that came out of smoke stacks and caused acid rain.

To clean up, many burned cleaner coal.

That was bad news for Illinois miner Chris Nielsen.

He happened to mine some of the dirtiest coal.

“A good portion of the economy around here was built on coal industry. And coal mining jobs not only paid a good wage, they had terrific benefits. And as the industry went soft, people lost the best jobs they ever had.”

Cleanup technology improved, but it took nearly two decades to make burning the highest-sulpher coal economical again.

Nielsen says today, coal executives worry they’ll lose profits if the government prices carbon dioxide.

And coal miners worry they’ll lose jobs again.

The industry wants new plants that do two things: first, they capture carbon dioxide while burning coal, and then bury, or sequester this carbon dioxide – so it stays out of the atmosphere.

Nielsen says there’s a plant like that in the works, it’s called FutureGen.

“We can burn the coal in a clean, environmentally friendly manner. The FutureGen project where they were going to sequester the carbon dioxide was a terrific opportunity to show that.”

Well, Nielsen’s jumping the gun.

FutureGen hasn’t proved anything; it’s not even built.

The coal industry and the government were supposed to design and fund FutureGen, then build it in Central Illinois.

The government and coal companies fought over how much the plant would cost but now, it’s likely to move forward.

Even with a sketchy history though, the industry’s got almost no choice but to be hopeful for FutureGen.

The industry wants carbon dioxide capture and sequestration to work – otherwise, it’s gonna pay big for carbon pollution.

Not everyone’s so confident in the technology.

“We can not depend on carbon capture and sequestration to achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions because we don’t know whether it’s going to work.”

That’s Ron Burke, with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

He says FutureGen is worth testing but it shouldn’t distract us from technology we know is low-carbon.

“There are ways to meet the greenhouse gas reductions targets that we need to meet without carbon capture and sequestration. We can do it, it’s primarily through in investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency in the near term.”

There’re energy researchers who aren’t so sure enough renewable energy like wind and solar will be available soon enough.

One is of them is Ernest Moniz at MIT.

“We have a ways to go for let’s say, solar, to scale up. Right now, it’s less than point 1% of our electricity.”

Coal generates nearly half our electricity.

Moniz says it won’t be easy to replace, but it might be possible to improve it.

He says its likely carbon dioxide capture and sequestration can work technically.

But he says we need to build FutureGen to answer whether it works efficiently and economically.

“Well, if we are going to establish a new technology, like sequestration, and be able to have it not only demonstrated but then deployed and implemented, that means we would need to start, preferably yesterday, but at worst, today.”

For Moniz, FutureGen could be clean coal’s first major test – not just of whether it works – but whether it’s too expensive.

For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

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