Clean Coal — All You Need to Know

Crucially, there is none.

Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

That's the first key fact that needs comprehending. Coal just is, as such, dirty. It is demonstrably damaging the environment. It's inveterately bad for the planet and its inhabitants.

It releases C02, sulphur oxides (SOx), nitrogen compounds (NOx), trace amounts of mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium. Coal emissions cause 22,300 premature deaths per annum in Europe (more than recorded intentional homicides in any one EU country) and 10,000 in the US.

That said, could it be burned more cleanly becomes the question. It can. To be fair.

There are two ways of going about it. Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) and High Efficiency, Low Emissions (HELE). That's burying it (CCS) and burn it hotter (HELE) respectively. Let's look at both.

CCS captures C02 in a liquid solvent, burns that later to liberate the gases and stores them somewhere underground. Could do. "Devilishly difficult in practice," according to former editor of Popular Mechanics James B. Meigs.

You would have to burn a full additional quarter more of coal to power the CCS process for the same amount of generation at any facility. The setup involved is massive. Possibly the same size of the powerplant itself.

It cannot, moreover, be implemented in the needed timeframe to head off damage done already by coal pollution.

"The International Energy Agency (IEA) has found that the world would need to capture and store almost 4 billion tonnes per annum of CO2 in 2040 to keep global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Far more would be needed to limit it to 1.5C, the target agreed to by 195 nations at the Paris climate conference in 2015. Yet current carbon capture capacity for projects in operation or under construction sits at approximately 40 million tonnes per annum."

Then there are the doubts about whether it would stay safely beneath the earth at all events. We could throw billions at burying it only to see it seep out again in a decades time.

Finally, finanicially it is exorbitantly expensive today and for the foreseeable future. That hasn't stopped successive Federal governments going at it headfirst. Australia has already thrown money at CCS, since 2009, without achieving anything to date. According to a report by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO):

“None of the CCS Flagships projects met the original timeframe or reached the stage of deployable technology as originally envisaged in the program design. It is therefore unclear whether the program is capable of delivering on its strategic policy objective as the program is due to close in 2020 and all funding is currently committed. . .None of the projects have met the original timeframe of the program. Reasons for this include: technical feasibility; absence of suitable storage options; and financial feasibility.”

$450,000,000+ spent — and nothing to show for it. Project after project has fallen through, like so many houses of cards.

HELE? Elegantly simple in principle: burn it hotter, less carbon.

Still, it's not really clean. It is much dirtier than gas, for contrast. How much more so than renewables then!

The tech is far from there either. Best so far is 46% efficiency according to the IEA. All Australian attempts at it emit only 9.95% less than standard stations. Is it inexpensive then? Not at all.

Cost remains prohibitive — to the order of 20–30% more expensive than ordinary coal plants. And all upgrades on existing powerstations probably to fall on taxpayers or be factored into rising rates for purchase prices of electricity. There is no way to do it without touching the average Australian's pocket.

All the while costs go down and quality goes up for renewables.

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