America’s emissions have dropped remarkably. The cause? Our transitioning away from coal to natural gas. But coal is still the most widely available fossil fuel. Will clean coal bring coal back from the brink?
Clean coal emissions
Clean coal is a term referring to Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), a process that begins at the coal-fired plant. It involves capturing the carbon created by the plant, transporting it, and storing it away from the atmosphere. The National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) claims coal is now cleaner than ever. According to their research, coal-fired plants using CCS technology reduced nitrogen oxides by 83%, sulfur dioxide by 98% and particulate matter by 99.8%. This sounds great, but keep in mind these percentages are CCS coal plants compared to traditional coal plants. It would still be hard for them to compete with the non-existent emissions of a nuclear plant.
It’s about the cost
Clean coal is still not widely used in the U.S. Cost is a main deterrent. The Department of Energy (DOE) says that of the costs associated with carbon capture and storage, the carbon capture aspect takes up 75% of the cost. Depleted oil and gas fields would be used for storing the carbon. Saline aquifer formations may also be used for storage space. While it is easy to find information on the impact CCS would have on the atmosphere, it is quite another thing finding any environmental impact theories regarding the artificial storage of so much carbon underground.
DOE on the case
While CCS is here, there is room for improvement or even alternatives. The DOE, at the front of the pack as usual, is working to find ways to develop the coal plant of the future. In May of this year, it announced its intention to devote $81 million in federal funding for the Coal FIRST initiative. Coal FIRST stands for:
According to the DOE: “Coal FIRST plants will be capable of flexible operations to meet the emerging needs of the grid and transportation sector; use innovative and cutting-edge components that improve efficiency and reduce emissions; provide resilient energy to Americans; be small compared to today’s conventional utility-scale coal-fired plants; and transform how coal technologies are designed and manufactured. Some designs will also provide hydrogen to support transportation and industrial applications.”
More than one use
In addition to the Coal FIRST initiative, the DOE is also looking at ways to use coal’s carbon value rather than its heating value. Its high carbon value makes it a desirable feedstock material for things ranging from carbon fiber to graphene to building materials. It can also be used in hydrogen production. Hydrogen is a high efficiency, low emission energy source.
Coal is down here in the U.S, but its use is still increasing around the world. If we can find a way of reducing coal-fired emissions while reducing the cost, we will go a long way toward helping the world reach its environmental goals.