Cleaning Up Coal: Folly Or The Future?


Zach Frailey/Uprooted Photographer

A nighttime view of the Keystone Generating Facility, a coal-fired power plant in southwestern Pennsylvania.

President Donald Trump loves coal.  He has given dozens of speeches saying, “My administration is putting an end to the war on coal. We’re going to have clean coal, really clean coal.”

But what actually is clean coal? Depending who you ask, it could be a historical reference, a fantasy or an evolving technology. In Wyoming, a state that produces the most coal in the nation, clean coal is looked at as a possible economic savior. Without it, the industry faces a possible long, slow decline.

It’s a big deal for a lot of other people, too. Forty percent of the world still depends on coal for electricity, and it’s still one of the cheapest and most abundant fuels. Clean coal could be the holy grail both for coal producers and for the world. Without it, some believe the world could be headed for uncontrollable warming.

From The Beginning

The term “clean coal” has a lot of baggage — some of that baggage is acid rain.

Starting around the 80’s, acid rain was such a prevalent concern that it starting showing up in sitcoms and TV shows, like the Simpsons:  Willy the janitor sings, “I’m singing in the rain, just singing in the rain, what a glorious feeling…aaahhh! It burns like a Glascow bikini wax! Aaahhhh!!”

While those references were often in jest — you can’t actually feel acid rain burning your skin — people were legitimately afraid that Washington D.C.’s limestone buildings were going to crumble and ecosystems would die out.

Coal emissions were a major contributor to that acid rain. So, Congress came up with the term “clean coal” as something to shoot for: clean up the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides in coal emissions, so those didn’t get into the air we breath.

In 1980, half of the nation’s energy still came from the black carbon. We couldn’t abandon coal as a fuel source, but it needed to be cleaned up.

There was a known technology to clean up those emissions called “scrubbers.” They filtered out emissions at a power plant after the coal was burned — but they weren’t adopted immediately. People like John Thompson had to push for changes to coal emission regulations.

“I was a student at the University of Illinois getting my chemical engineering degree in the late 1970’s, early 80’s,” Thompson said. “The governor of the state of Illinois was proposing to convert our campus power plant from burning natural gas to high-sulfur Illinois coal, and he wasn’t going to put scrubbers on it.”

Along with a group of faculty and other students, Thompson convinced Governor James Thompson — no relation —  that this new coal plant had to have scrubbers.

“And so he helicoptered onto the campus in 1982, announced scrubbers on the plant and that there would be others following. And it became a national demonstration effort for the role of sulfur dioxide scrubbers on coal,” he said. 

 In 1990, Congress strengthened the Clean Air Act, limiting sulfur emissions to about half what they were in 1980, and scrubbers were the best, cheapest way to clean those emissions. As a result, power plants also started looking for coal with less sulfur – and they found it by moving much of their coal supply chain from Appalachia to Wyoming.  

These early clean coal efforts worked. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that between 1990 and 2010, sulfur dioxide emissions dropped 51 percent, even as coal use grew.

Looking for a Cleaner Clean

While scrubbers remove a lot of bad stuff out of coal emissions, they don’t scrub out carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas blamed for climate change.

Coal isn’t the only energy source sending CO2 to the atmosphere, but coal gives off the most per unit of energy produced. Natural gas is runner up, emitting only about half the carbon emissions.

Some just want us to stop using coal altogether — like Bill Nye The Science Guy. Talking on MSNBC, Nye called clean coal a “misnomer:”

“You’re making carbon dioxide, which is causing the world to warm faster than it ever has warmed in history,” he said. “This will have tremendous consequences for everyone in the world. Clean coal is a myth.”

Nye isn’t alone in this belief. The Sierra Club has a Beyond Coal campaign, and it isn’t backing down.

Connie Wilbert is director of the Sierra Club’s Wyoming chapter.  She believes that coal companies should have spent more money on finding clean coal while the companies were still profitable. Now, as some look to Congress for help, she says taxpayers shouldn’t be footing the bill to help keep coal around.

[Clean coal] is still basically expensive, unproven, potential technology, and it’s just not a good use of our money or our resources right now,” she said. “We think that there are other, much more viable, truly clean energy sources like wind and solar that are ready to go.”

Ready to go, but not ready to replace coal. 

While the U.S. is using less coal, largely because of low natural gas prices, it’s still operating nearly 700 large coal plants. And coal still makes up nearly a third of the country’s energy.

Coal also makes up 40 percent of the world’s energy.

In countries like India, coal is bringing them into the industrial world. In Germany, a mass movement away from nuclear energy left them needing more coal. As of July, there were 530 coal plants under construction around the world with several hundred more in the wings.

So it’ll take decades to phase it out entirely, if that happens.

Because of that, other environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Clean Air Task Force think, realistically, coal is going to continue to be burnt for a long time. In this instance, they’re standing alongside groups in the fossil fuel industries and in the U.S. government, by promoting something called “carbon capture.”

Carbon Capture: Getting CO2 Out of Emissions

John Thompson once pushed to get sulfur out of coal emissions back at the University of Illinois. Now, he works for the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit that aims to mitigate the effects of climate change. There, Thompson is pushing to clean up carbon from coal emissions — but he’s not just focusing on coal.

“It certainly has its place on coal, but it also works on new gas plants, it works on industrial facilities, too,” he said.

As of 2010, more than a fifth of world-wide carbon emissions were from industries outside electricity generation, like cement and steel making.

But right now, coal is a main focus because that industry has the most to gain from carbon capture and the most to lose if carbon capture fails.

Wyoming, a state that produces the most coal in the U.S., is the primary funder for a big carbon capture project, costing more than $20 million, going up on the backside of a coal plant.

That coal plant is the Dry Fork Station. Around back of the massive plant, there’s a metal box on scaffolding jutting off a huge pipe-looking structure. Both that box and a few new gravel pads beyond it symbolize one of Wyoming’s biggest bets on clean coal: the Integrated Test Center (or ITC).

The ITC will funnel coal emissions from the power plant down through piping to gravel pads. Later, researchers from a few groups are going to set up their own trailers or pop-up buildings on these gravel pads, using the freshly-produced emissions to find the best way to capture carbon and turn it into a marketable product.

I use the word and I don’t use it terribly lightly but…but this is kind of the holy grail of coal,” said Curt Pearson, spokesman for Basin Electric, an energy cooperative that owns Dry Fork Station.  

Jason Beggar, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority, is overseeing the ITC. He said the center is a big deal because Wyoming has depended so much on fossil fuel industry, and has seen how devastating a slump in that industry can be to state budgets.  If coal plants can make and sell products using CO2, and become more economically viable in a carbon-constrained world, it could make environmentalists happy while maintaining Wyoming’s way of life.

“You know, climate change itself, that whole conversation has almost become religious in a sense, on both sides. Not pointing fingers,” he said. “So it’s like, you guys are kicking around a political football. Let’s just really focus on the technology engineering sort of things and depoliticize this.”

We’ve known how to capture carbon for decades, but it’s still uneconomical without outside help.

Take one high-profile example: the Kemper County Energy Facility in Mississippi. It was supposed to cost less than $3 billion and finish up in 2014. Cost skyrocketed, and three years after the expected finish, the price tag was at $7.5 billion. Developers gave up. And now the facility will only burn gas.

So, at this Wyoming test center, they’re hoping turn the clean coal story from a costly failure to that win-win scenario.

Other Types of Clean Coal

There are a few other types of clean coal to recognize, too. Wyomingites are working to store it underground, permanently, something called carbon sequestration. They’re also injecting CO2 into old oldfields, which is called enhanced oil recovery.

Thompson from the Clean Air Task Force said that’s a big draw in a state that also depends on oil and gas revenue.

It produces more oil and it also at the same time traps the CO2 and locks it into those oil formations so that it doesn’t reach the atmosphere,” he said.

And then there’s a another type of carbon capture that Thompson and others think has a lot of promise: the Allam Cycle: using carbon emissions to make energy, with carbon dioxide turning turbines.

Bill Brown is the CEO of NetPower, a company working on this process.

He spoke at a press conference in North Dakota about the Allam Cycle. There, a reporter brought up the failed Kemper facility in Mississippi.

Brown said, “There are a lot of lessons learned. First of all, I don’t blame Kemper at all. I think that Kemper is the brick phone. Remember brick phones? They were the size of bricks and you held them to your face and you talked on em’? Well today, we have these [holds up a smart phone]. We’re the this version of carbon capture.”

He said Kemper was the initial movement that started the ball rolling.

“And so it takes people building something, going through the expense and helping us find out how to miniaturize it, make it more economical, and that’s what we’re doing,” he said.

There’s even another form of clean coal that hasn’t gotten that initial movement yet: LFTRs.

David Earnshaw and David Copeland are two Laramie men in their 80’s who make up the Wyoming LFTR Energy Alliance. In that alliance, they promote LFTRs, or Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors. It’s a “clean coal” that doesn’t involve burning coal for energy, but instead making CO2-free energy while transforming coal into something useful.

LFTRs are a type of molten salt reactor that use an element called thorium as fuel and produce high operating temperatures.  Because of that heat, a LFTR could be used to break coal down into products, which could be sold to keep the coal industry and coal communities afloat. In theory.

This represents the saving of the coal mining industry and it is clean coal because no CO2, or emissions are produced in the process. So that is the only clean coal there is,” Copeland said.

The two men in this LFTR Energy Alliance have been reaching out to state bodies and news organizations to promote LFTRs — and they aren’t alone: There are Ted Talks on LFTRs from Beirut, Copenhagen, Cern, and even Colorado, touting LFTR’s zero carbon emissions and far fewer risks and less radioactive waste than the reactors we have now.

But no commercial-grade LFTR has gotten off the ground, and Ernshaw said it would cost about $2 billion to LFTRs “up and running to the point where you’d start making them in a factory.”

They’ve made little progress on LFTRs after years of work, so I ask them how much longer they can keep working on this. Ernshaw said, “Well, I guess, until I die, or until I don’t have the energy or the wit to continue any further.”

The Stakes

People and governments around the world having been working on clean coal, too, spending about $10 billion on carbon capture through capital investments.

But according to the Global CCS Institute, which promotes the use of carbon capture to mitigate climate change, the world needs 2,000 carbon capture and storage facilities around the world by 2040 to keep the world under two degrees of warming and avoiding some of the worst consequences of climate change.

Currently, the world has 17 large-scale CCS facilities, with four more expected in 2018.

Beyond that, there’s a swath of failed clean coal projects, and projects too expensive to recreate without a lot of outside money. It’s difficult to see how carbon capture on the large-scale is going to work.

But Thompson of the Clean Air Task Force has an idea: incentivize carbon capture like we’ve incentivized renewables.

“My hope is that these incentives that mirror a lot what renewables have received and currently receive in the United States will drive carbon capture over the next 15 years to about the same levels that renewables are enjoying today in the energy system,” he said. “And I think that’s something that people on all sides of the ideological spectrum can find attractive.”

There is some movement in Congress to further incentivize carbon capture through tax breaks. One such bill is the Future Act, which is sponsored by Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and co-sponsored by 24 senators including Wyoming’s John Barrasso.

Thompson pointed out that Republicans want to help fossil fuel industries thrive in their states and Democrats want to mitigate climate change. So Congress could build momentum around this, theoretically. But, it has failed in the past because each side has other favorite ways of moving forward. And still, Thompson is optimistic.

“Even if it isn’t sort of, at the moment, the favorite among environmentalists and industry. I think its day is coming and it’s coming much sooner that people expect,” he said.

He added that, with immediate help, carbon capture facilities could start going up nationwide in 3 to 5 years — but he also acknowledged that solutions to climate change could take decades. Still, he said he’ll keep working toward it through carbon capture because: “I feel we have the inherent advantage of being right.”

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