This guide summarises whether clean coal might have a future as an energy source.
We look at various feasibility, practicality and other factors involved in it’s use.
Summary – Does Clean Coal Have A Future?
It depends on the clean coal technology or clean coal methods that we are talking about (read more in this guide about a list of all the different clean coal technologies and methods, and what they each do)
Each type of clean coal technology might do something different, and has different pros and cons across all aspects of it’s potential use.
As an example, a bag filter used to catch particulate matter might be far more cost efficient, effective and reliable, compared to a big expensive and unreliable new form of carbon capture and storage technology designed to deal with CO2.
Each piece of technology is designed to achieve something different too.
We’ve already established that clean coal technology can be more clean than regular coal technology (although it isn’t always), and it’s probably not as clean/eco friendly as natural gas, nuclear and renewables
In terms of cost, reliability and efficiency – clean coal technology such as large scale CCS doesn’t rate particularly well, at least not at this point in time with many of the projects already built
Clean coal can add 20-30% to the price of coal energy in some cases, and can be more energy intensive as well.
Some of this increased cost might be re-gathered via commercialisation of coal plant waste or captured carbon, but then might be added back again via carbon taxes
There has been a high fail rate of retro-fitting and building new coal plants with clean coal technology – and clean coal technology research, development, design, construction and operation has cost in the billions so far
Overall, clean coal probably can’t be considered a long term, or even short to medium term option for energy generation – based purely on the projects and data so far.
The exceptions to this are the cheaper and highly effective forms of clean clean coal technology that capture, reduce or re-use undesirable waste and pollutants from the coal-for-energy process.
Gasification of coal (as opposed to using pulverised coal) is seen by some as one of the promising technologies as it can create electricity more efficiently (so less coal in total might be used).
But, it is still in some ways in development to be used at scale, and provide effective and reliable results over the long term.
Additionally, it’s yet to be seen whether gasification of coal can produce similar or better results than other forms of energy like natural gas, nuclear and renewables.
Two sources that suggest clean coal energy, specifically gasification, and CCS, have a role to play in the future are world-nuclear.org and ourworldindata.org.
Each type of technology needs a cost benefit analysis of the eco, social and economic (for consumers, investors and suppliers) impact they have from coal mining all the way through to the coal waste management stage
One asterisk on the use of coal is that coal has to be mined – no amount of clean coal technology can reduce the potential negative impacts of mining.
Other sources of energy like wind and solar only need mining for things like solar panels, wind towers, and solar batteries (or whatever equipment is required).
The sun and the wind don’t require mining (but solar and wind equipment does)
Regular coal energy probably does still have a future as a cheap, accessible, well developed and reliable source of energy (even if it is highly polluting).
It provides a backup and supplemental source of energy to variable renewable energy where nuclear and natural gas aren’t feasible for whatever reason
*Note – that the above are general points related to clean coal technology.
In reality, individual clean coal technology has different sets of variables that impact how eco friendly, and also how effective, costly, efficient, and reliable they are.
Different countries, cities and towns may also have different variables at play for their energy supply.
An individual assessment of each situation is required for an accurate answer as to what energy mix and energy technologies are suitable long term.
Pros & Cons Of Clean Coal Technology
The Success & Failure Of Clean Coal Technology & Clean Coal Projects Up To Now
Some clean coal devices and technology are effective at what they are designed to do.
Examples are bag filters to catch particulate matter, and mercury absorbers – which both show noticeable positive results in reducing fine particle and mercury pollution
But, it would be fair to say that large scale and advanced clean coal technology like CCS (carbon capture storage) has been a failure to date because of factors like cost, unreliability and other problems.
Some notes on clean coal technologies and clean coal projects, and their relative success or failure up until now are:
[The Kemper project in the United States had structural problems, could only be run a certain amount of time in the first 3 to 5 years, and had to be abandoned due to numerous issues. It went 4 billion dollars over budget]
[The only CCS coal plant that is currently in operation in the United States right is the Petra Nova plant in Houston, Texas. … It is one of only two existing CSS plants in the world. The other one is the Boundary Dam plant in Saskatchewan, Canada]
[These plants appear to be uninvestable in general]
[CCS technology is very expensive]
[It doesn’t seem like feasible technology in the long term]
[… while CCS may have an overall positive effect on air pollution, emissions of some pollutants may increase]
[Clean coal also can’t do anything about the impact of mining on the environment]
[A conflict of interest with clean coal is that coal and carbon industries represent themselves, not the people]
[It might be smarter long term to move to renewables and natural gas over clean coal]
[Many new coal power plants get to pre construction, and are halted, cancelled or shelved]
[There’s a difference between new projects, and expansions of existing stations in the form of new generation units and do not result in new power stations]
[Only 35 countries have coal-fired capacity under construction]
[25 countries have coal-fired capacity at the “pre-construction” phase]
[In 2017 only 12 countries started constructing coal units — and only seven started construction at more than one location]
[The total number of new stations under construction as of July 2017 was 154]
[Many new coal projects are adding or replacing units in existing stations rather than building new power stations]
[There is in fact one dedicated, “high efficiency, low emissions” coal power station under construction in Japan, not 40.]
[The term “HELE” is misleading because supercritical coal is only higher-efficiency and lower-emissions relative to other coal generation, and even then the difference is sometimes only marginal. They have much higher emissions than gas generation, let alone renewable energy generation.]
[There has to be a distinction between additional units being added to existing power stations, compared to new coal power stations being built altogether]
[HELE doesn’t include sub critical plants]
China has hundreds of coal projects under “active development”, but most are not currently being built — and may never be built … Only some of these projects represent new power stations — others will be expansions of existing power stations or separate units of a single new station … Of the new power stations, not all will necessarily qualify as high efficiency, low emissions (supercritical) generation
[Australia has] misunderstood key distinctions in coal projects, such as “pre-construction” vs. “under construction” projects and power station expansions vs. new power stations.
It is also not accurate to suggest that all new generation is “high efficiency, low emissions”, a term that is itself very misleading
[So overall, we need to be careful about what is reported about HELE plants and clean coal technology]
You can read further about how different clean coal technology projects around the world have fared at https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/energy-and-the-environment/clean-coal-technologies.aspx
Always Understand What Type Of Coal Technology We Are Talking About When Discussing Feasibility
It’s important to outline the difference in different types of coal power plants, retrofits and new projects – each of which may or may not include clean coal technology, and may or may not actually be built.
This helps us confirm that results and feasibility assessments from coal energy isn’t confused.
Know if coal energy results and stats are coming from:
Existing old style coal plants
Retrofits of clean coal technology on existing plants
New plant projects without CSS – subcritical, super critical, and ultra supercritical plants (HELE plants)
New plants with CSS – subcritical, super critical, and ultra supercritical plants (HELE plants)
Plants in design, pre construction, construction, and operation stages
It should also be specified what type of coal technology is being talked when presenting results, costs and feasibility assessments.
Some sources might say there are X amount of clean coal plants globally, when in reality these plants may not have CSS and may still be in pre construction stage and not actually providing electricity consistently yet.
This is explained well by http://www.tai.org.au/content/deconstructing-case-coal
The Use Of Clean Coal Or Efficient Coal Technology In The Future
Despite the current data and past projects showing that especially carbon capture technology has been costly and unreliable up to date, here’s what other sources say about some types of clean coal:
… it’s important to note that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and International Energy Agency (IEA) still regard CCS to be a crucial element in meeting our global carbon targets.
The clean coal technology field is moving in the direction of coal gasification with a second stage so as to produce a concentrated and pressurised carbon dioxide stream followed by its separation and geological storage.
This technology has the potential to provide what may be called “zero emissions” – in reality, extremely low emissions of the conventional coal pollutants, and as low-as-engineered carbon dioxide emissions.
This has come about as a result of the realisation that efficiency improvements, together with the use of natural gas and renewables such as wind will not provide the deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions necessary to meet future national targets.
There are many advocates for the use of natural gas as an alternative to coal for electricity generation, on the grounds that it emits much less CO2 per kWh generated.
This is true on almost any basis of comparison, but it ignores the global warming potential of leaked natural gas, and the CO2 emissions in transporting it as LNG (up to one third of the energy is consumed in transport).
Leakage of 3% of the natural gas will bring it into approximate parity with coal-fired electricity in terms of global warming effect.