Saturday, July 21 , 2018, 7:31 pm | Fair 68º


Serendipity: Stripping Away the Carbon Myths

There's a role for coal, but as a transition source to alternative energy

One of my favorite recent TV ads is the one in which we viewers tour a “state-of-the-art clean-coal facility.” The sincere, hard hat-wearing guide leads us through the front door to the plant — revealing nothing but a dry desert. The clear message is that there’s nothing behind the claims: there’s no such thing as clean coal. Being a desert-lover who knows that there’s actually a lot happening in a desert, I thought I better check out the claims to see how clean coal — carbon capture and storage (CCS), sometimes known as scrubbing — is stacking up against my favorite alternative energies. Is CCS worth all the hype?

Karen Telleen-Lawton
Karen Telleen-Lawton

CCS is an amalgamation of simple and not particularly new technologies. It involves sorting carbon dioxide (a climate change nemesis) from the other discharges in smokestacks and other large pollution sources, then sequestering it deep in the ocean or in a stable geologic formation. According to the March 5 issue of The Economist, “There are several proven ways to isolate carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, using a variety of combustion techniques and an assortment of chemical ‘scrubbers’ to react with the gas.” Oil and chemical companies developed pieces of this technology while drilling for natural gas, for example. Indications are that carbon dioxide would remain as stable in formations as do oil, gas, and salt water.”

In 2008, the United States produced 1171.5 million short tons of coal. About half of the nation’s electricity output was generated by coal, and coal provides thousands of jobs. It’s not surprising that CCS features prominently in politicians’ environmental platforms. If we can just clean up the stuff, we can scrub our way to energy independence.

Duke Energy president Jim Rogers, whose company produces 100 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, appeared on 60 Minutes in mid-April announcing, “Global warming is a critical problem for our country that we need to work on now.”

He advocated a transition to wind, solar and nuclear power by 2050, with clean coal providing the transition. But in the opinion of NASA’s James E. Hansen, 2050 is “... way too late” and CCS is probably not the best interim technology. Converting the coal plants “... makes walking on the moon a piece of cake,” Hansen said, and would cost hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars, “And that might be optimistic.”

No clean coal production plants have been built anywhere in the world, both because the technology is prohibitively expensive and the pieces haven’t been shown to all work together. I sense a collective “not me” to the question of, “Who will develop CCS and offer it at a competitive price?” Most environmentalists don’t support the technology, supposing it will eventually leak. The Economist reports, “Greenpeace argues that CCS will never be competitive, since other low-carbon technologies, such as wind power, are already cheaper and becoming more so as time passes.” In essence, no one is really supporting the solution that world leaders hold out as the magic climate change fix.

If I were energy czar, I would keep a simple chart of continuing risks, research costs and advances in each of the alternative energies. (Maybe they’re doing that ...)  We’ll always need a potpourri of energy sources to reduce our dependence on any one course and because no single source can provide all our needs. CCS may not be the dog that is nuclear power, but its main advantage seems to be coal supply and a strong lobby. I still say the answer is “Blowin’ in the wind.”

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations supporting sustainability. Graze her writing and excerpts from Canyon Voices: The Nature of Rattlesnake Canyon at

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