TCS Daily

Green Coal?

By Duane D. Freese - July 26, 2005 12:00 AM

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held its first hearing on what its chairman Pete Domenici, R-NM, promises will be several reviewing all aspects of the debate over climate change. With luck, subsequent hearings will provide more light than the first, otherwise this nation could face electricity brownouts and economic blackouts in the near decades ahead.

The witnesses consisted of four scientists who deem global warming to be a serious problem caused by human use of fossil fuels and their carbon emissions, particularly carbon dioxide. As a result, news reports following the event focused on senators "acknowledging" the climate problem and "struggling" with what to do about it.

Unfortunately, the scientists -- including Ralph J. Cicerone, the new president of the National Academy of Sciences, and Sir John Houghton of Great Britain, a former head of the United Nation's International Panel on Climate Change - had little to offer in practical answers.

Sir John, in fact, who is calling for zero-carbon emissions in a generation, was quite backward, essentially raising the fear of proliferation about the United States employing the one immediate zero-carbon emission energy producer, nuclear energy.

Senators chided him on that, and for his raising the totally impossible prospect of 25% of America's energy coming from biomass -- plants, garbage and other biological matter -- by 2025 as an alternative. Sen. Lamar Alexander R-TN noted, "this is a terrifically urgent problem" that won't be solved by "putting on a few solar panels and building some windmills." He saw no way for the United States to limit emissions "unless we do what France is doing," which is rely on nuclear power for more than 80% of our electricity needs.

"Now if that is true, why doesn't the scientific community say that?" he asked. "Nuclear power is the only way."

More astute scientists, steeped in actual energy technology and economics, might have provided a better answer than the nods from those present.

It's true that had the United States not succumbed to the environmental community's anti-nuke fears, we would have eliminated more carbon emissions than will ever be displaced by solar and wind power. Nonetheless, nuclear won't get the country and the world out of the economic-energy bind it finds itself. Nor will it even fully help with the climate problem in the near term, if this panel of scientists thinking proves correct.

Andrew D. Weissman of Energy Ventures Group has summed up the problem in a new study: "Where Will the Gas Come From?" As a result of the failure to fully utilize nuclear energy and the clamps on coal energy production, the U.S. has come to rely excessively upon natural gas for its least economically useful purpose -- producing electricity.

Natural gas is a key feed stock for plastics, American steel and pharmaceutical production as well as for heating homes and cooking. And domestic supplies are becoming scarce, while foreign demand in Canada, Mexico and other nations with large stocks are rising.

The result has been a threefold increase in natural gas prices at a cost of $125 billion to the economy and the loss of some industries here dependent on cheap prices. And the situation will only grow worse as the United States and other nations' needs for energy to spur economic growth continue over the next two decades.

Currently, the only strategy to deal with this shortfall involves building a gas pipeline to Alaska as well as importing liquefied natural gas (LNG). But the facilities for neither have been built, and in any event won't appreciably meet future supply needs. We'd end up importing as much natural gas as we now import oil from the Middle East. Besides which, natural gas is not a zero carbon emission technology.

So, let's go nuke? Well, building nuclear can help -- but nuclear facilities take a long time to site, plan and build. They are not going to help in the near term.

Indeed, the most near-term economically and, oddly enough, environmental friendly alternative could well rest on a fuel that the United States has in greatest abundance but also one with the dirtiest reputation -- coal.

And, in fact, that is what Weissman recommends exploiting by doing four things:

        1. A "highest priority effort possible" to construct coal gasification facilities to 
        provide fuel for existing gas fired plants so as to reduce natural gas consumption 
        for electricity.
        2. Construct such coal gasification facilities at industrial sites that currently burn 
        natural gas.
        3. Intensify exploration for new gas fields.
        4. Accelerate construction of pulverized coal facilities to further reduce use 
        of natural gas.

Now, you can expect environmentalists to scream about the prospects for going coal as much if not more than going nuclear. But their thinking will be neither strategic nor intelligent if they are really concerned about global warming.

While limiting emissions in developed countries may sound appealing as a way to reduce the threat of global warming, all it threatens really to do is shift manufacturing to developing countries, none of which face constraints on emissions under any international agreement and all of which have less clean technologies for manufacturing and electricity generation than the United States.

In short, we could cut industrial jobs here to reduce greenhouse gases and simply spur the production of more greenhouse gases elsewhere - potentially a lot, lot more. For those developing countries, meanwhile, aren't going to sacrifice economic growth, with its promise to improve their capacity to adapt to climate change, whatever its source.

Finally, coal need not be the backward polluting step many environmentalists might believe. Coal gasification facilities reduce dramatically particulate and sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions. They can produce hydrogen, which would fit with zero-carbon hydrogen fuel cell technology.

And, as the Energy Department notes, "if oxygen is used in a coal gasifier instead of air, carbon dioxide is emitted as a concentrated gas stream. In this form it can be captured more easily and at lower cost for sequestration."

Finally, coal gasification technology is ready and available. Cleco Corp., which has generated 70% of its electricity with natural gas, on July 12 announced its plans to build a $1 billion, 600-megawatt "clean coal" power-generating plant in northern Louisiana. The company noted that natural gas prices had risen from $2 per million British thermal units of energy production to $7 per million Btu. It figures that the clean coal plant will save its customers $4 billion over 30 years over high priced natural gas.

Meanwhile, the state of Texas with Eastman Chemical Co. is applying to the Department of Energy to build a $1 billion FutureGen coal facility that would make use of Texas' geology to provide storage for concentrated CO2 from facilities there.

To be sure, as Chairman Domenici noted at the hearing, there is no magic bullet that will slay climate change and meet the needs of a modern industrial and information economy for energy. But clean coal technology may provide a more powerful bit of armament in accomplishing both tasks than the renewable portfolios of solar, wind and biomass. One can only hope we hear a bit more about it at future Senate hearings.



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