“Clean coal” has once again become a hot topic.
Yet most people don’t seem to know what it actually is or if it is even a real solution rather than just a marketing gimmick. Therefore, I want to talk about what it is, whether it delivers on its promises, and whether it is economically viable.
This is often a politically charged topic, so let me make it clear upfront that I am not going to be discussing politics. I will not talk about policies, specific politicians, etc.
I am just going to talk about the facts regarding coal power plants and the concept of “clean coal.” You can use facts to make a political argument, but the facts themselves are not political. They are just statements of reality.
The problems with coal
Before I can talk about what “clean coal” is it is important to understand the problems with our current use of coal.
Otherwise, you don’t have the context or frame of reference to evaluate “clean coal.”Probably the most well-known problem with burning coal for energy is that it releases carbon dioxide (CO2), which is a major contributor to anthropogenic climate change (a.k.a. global warming).
For the sake of this post, I am not going to debate climate change, but I will briefly state that is in fact occurring, it has not paused. We are very confident that we are causing it, because we have tested all of the natural drivers of climate change and they cannot explain the current warming by themselves. Yet when we include our greenhouse gas emissions in the analyses it does explain the warming (more details and sources here).
Additionally, it is a myth that volcanoes produce more CO2 than us, and although it is technically true that all natural sources combined produce more CO2 than us, prior to us nature was in balance, with equal amounts of CO2 being produced and removed; whereas, now we produce excess CO2 that accumulates rather than being removed (more details and sources here).
Nevertheless, many people reading this probably don’t accept anthropogenic climate change, but even if you don’t there are plenty of other issues with coal that you should be concerned about.
For example, burning coal also releases mercury, nitrous oxides, sulfur oxides, and various other potentially harmful gases. These pollutants cause smog, acid rain, respiratory problems, and a host of other issues. Indeed, several studies have found that living close to coal power plants greatly increases your risk for asthma, lung cancer, laryngeal cancer, etc. (Garcia-Perez et al. 2008; Liu et al. 2012).
Further, in countries with really dense populations, coal power plants cause a significant number of mortalities annually. For example, in India, it is estimated that between 2010–2011 there were 80,000–115,000 deaths as well as 20 million cases of asthma because of the pollution from coal power plants (Guttikunda and Jawahar. 2014).
To be fair, that is an extreme example, but it nevertheless illustrates just how much of a problem this can be, and mortalities do occur in first-world countries as well (Garcia-Perez et al. 2008).
I should point out that in the USA this situation has gotten better. Several pieces of legislation forced many power plants to install things like scrubbers to help curb their emissions (specifically emissions of nitrogen and sulfur). Nevertheless, these technologies have not been implemented in all coal power plants, and even in the ones that use them, they only remove up to 90% of the nitrous and sulfur oxides.
To be clear, removing 90% of those emissions is certainly better than allowing them all to enter the environment, but that 10% that still gets released adds up to a lot of emissions when you multiply it across all of the coal power plants in the USA.
Additionally, burning the coal is only half the story. You see, the process of getting the coal is also fraught with problems. Many reviews and books have been written on this topic, so I will just briefly hit the highlights.
First, all mining practices result in some level of deforestation and habitat loss. This is particularly pronounced for the practice of “mountain top removal” where very large sections of land are clear-cut and dug up (thus literally removing the tops of mountains).
Anytime that you have deforestation, you have a loss of habitat for plants and animals, increased soil erosion, an increase in pollutants entering water ways, and often flash floods (trees slow water, hold the soil in place, and help to filter potentially harmful chemicals).
However, mining processes exacerbate that, because mining can make the land itself unstable, resulting in landslides (Younger. 2004). In a particularly devastating example known as the Aberfan disaster, 144 people were killed by a landslide that resulted from coal mining (Younger. 2004).
Once again, that is admittedly an extreme case, and, fortunately, modern legislation has greatly improved conditions in most first-world countries, but fatal accidents still happen occasionally, and are still common in third-world countries.
In addition to landslides, coal mines discharge large amounts of sulfuric acid, copper, lead, and mercury, which often enter the water supply (Mishra et al. 2008; Zhengfu et al. 2010). Indeed, in the USA, it is estimated that 9,000 miles of our waterways have been polluted by coal mining.
That is a huge problem for the plants and animals that live in those streams or get their water from them, but it is also a problem economically. Ecotourism and fishing are both huge industries, and they both benefit from clean water. Further, even if you don’t care about wildlife, fishing, or the economy, you still need to drink clean water, so it is a topic that affects everyone.
In addition to all of that, it is not uncommon for fires to occur at coal mines. This causes all of the aforementioned problems with burning coal, but there obviously aren’t any sulfur or nitrogen scrubbers controlling the emissions, so large amounts of those gases get pumped into the atmosphere (Zhengfu et al. 2010).
Even without fires, coal mines release a number of air pollutants, and lung and cardiovascular diseases are disproportionately high among people living near coal mines (Hendry and Ahern 2008).
When you sum all of this up, there is a high cost to mining and burning coal, even if you don’t care about the environment. Indeed, one study estimated that when you combine all of these problems, using coal costs America around 345.3 billion dollars annually (the range for that estimate is 175–523.3 billion; Epstein et al. 2011).
So even if all that you care about is money, there are serious problems associated with coal.
Next week, in part 2, I will deal with the environmental impacts and economics of “clean coal”.