In the guide below, we list and discuss the potential pros and cons of clean coal technology.
We also include some comparisons to regular coal energy where relevant.
Summary – Potential Pros & Cons Of Clean Coal Technology
Firstly, What Is Clean Coal?
Read more about what clean coal is, and the different types of clean coal technology in this guide.
Some technologies may decrease air pollution and emissions
Some technologies might be cost effective
Some technologies may increase efficiency of coal energy
Some new coal plants may have savings and benefits over other new coal plants
Overall economic viability of clean coal technology may be in question
Costs for clean coal plant and technology can be high, or may add to the cost of coal energy
Might increase the price of clean coal electricity
Some clean coal projects may have failed in the past, had to be shut down, and resulted losses
There may be debate over the number of clean coal plants currently in operation and actually providing electricity
Clean coal plants can have a range of potential issues in their delivery and performance
Not all new HELE coal plants increase efficiency or generating capacity
CCS technology may face several problems or challenges
Might not be ‘clean’ in some ways i.e. might not be sustainable or eco friendly in some ways
Potential safety issues and risks to consider
Coal and carbon industries may pursue their own best interests, which possibly comes at the expense of the public’s best interests
Coal waste by-products can’t be, or aren’t being commercialized everywhere
Brown coal can present specific issues for clean coal technology in some countries
Overall, there are different types of clean coal technology, each with their own list of potential benefits and drawbacks
Some of the simpler types of technology might be more effective and feasible for the performance they deliver compared to the cost to implement them
But, other types of technology like CCS or new clean coal plants, might be costly, and might present other problems related to reliability, performance, and more
Some types of clean coal technology may even increase the price of electricity
Because of these factors, some clean coal technology might be unproven and more speculative
Some reports indicate that the future of clean coal might include gasification
Although gasification might have some claimed potential benefits, it may also require more development and still be speculative and unproven at this stage too
Some groups may think that clean coal is an important part of the energy sector in the future
Other groups may suggest that it’s better to invest in other energy sources like natural gas, nuclear and renewable energy instead
These energy sources may be more sustainable in some ways, in addition to being more cost competitive, lowering the price of electricity, being more reliable, and having other potential benefits
The pros and cons of clean coal in this guide are generalisations.
In reality, each type of clean coal technology has to be assessed for it’s own social, economic and environmental pros and cons that it offers in each country or area.
Potential Pros Of Clean Coal
Some Technologies May Notably Decrease Pollution & Emissions
We discuss the potential pollution and emissions reduction from different types of clean coal technology in this guide.
Some Technologies Might Be Cost Effective
Although some technologies like CCS are question in terms of their cost vs performance, some simple devices like filters and absorbers that catch or filter air contaminants may be cheaper to implement, and may provide significant claimed sustainability benefits (such as reducing some air pollutants)
When assessing and comparing both the cost and performance of each of of these technologies – the simple filters and absorbers may be more cost effective, or deliver more value
Some Technologies May Increase The Efficiency Of Coal Energy
This increased efficiency may have environmental benefits, resource usage benefits, and cost saving benefits
For example, some more efficient plant technology may result in reduced emissions, and also reduced fuel costs
This may be the case with Ultra-supercritical HELE technology vs subcritical plants
[Ultra-supercritical (USC) HELE technology may have higher efficiency that other types of coal plants, and this may reduce] emissions and fuel costs to about 75% of subcritical plants (world-nuclear.org)
Some New Coal Plants May Reduce Emissions Compared To Old Coal Plants
… [‘clean coal’] supercritical coal-fired plants without CCS [may produce less CO2 emissions than] older plants …
Some New Coal Plants May Have Benefits Over Other New Coal Plants
For example, compared to subcritical plants, ultra-supercritical technology may have:
– Air pollution reduction benefits
– Financial savings
[Compared to subcritical plants] … ultra-supercritical technology [may result] in savings in investment and operating costs [as well as reductions in SO2 emissions, nitrogen oxide (NOx), particulate matter (PM), mercury and other heavy metals.]
Potential Cons Of Clean Coal
The Overall Economic Viability Of Clean Coal Technology May Be In Question
These questions may arise from a range of factors, such as:
– The costs of plant and operation
– Performance of the technology
– Risks associated with using the technology
– And other factors
This may be especially true when comparing clean coal technology to other energy sources.
Concerns exist regarding the economic viability of [clean coal] technologies … (wikipedia.org).
The Cost Of Clean Coal Plant And Technology May Be High, Or May Add To The Cost Of Coal Energy
Examples may include:
– Research and development, and deployment
Some reports indicate that tens of billions of dollars have been put towards the development and also the deployment of clean coal technologies in the last few decades.
– The capital cost of clean coal plants themselves
world-nuclear.org indicates that ‘[The] capital cost of ultra-supercritical (USC) HELE technology is 20-30% greater than a subcritical unit’
– The capital cost of technology or systems installed on clean coal plants
For example, the capital cost specifically for the installation of a CCS system may be expensive.
… CCS technology can be capital-intensive – it is typically one of the most expensive carbon mitigation options (ourworldindata.org)
[CCS technology is very expensive] (ecowarriorprincess.net)
– Operation costs
Separate to capital costs, processes and technology used during operation of clean coal power plants, such as the ‘Carbonate Looping Process’, and CCS technology, may both add to the operation costs of clean coal plants
With CCS in particular, some of this added operation cost may involve increased electricity production/generation requirements and costs
There are a number of economic barriers to CCS development [and …] Installation of CCS technology [requires electricity producers to increase energy input by around] 10-40 percent … just to achieve the same energy output as a conventional power plant
The cost of CCS as of 2017 still looks to be around two thirds more than plants without this technology. This was attributed largely to the extra energy required to extract, pump, and compress the CO2 …
– Costs compared to other energy sources
Clean coal may still cost more than other energy sources outside of coal
Achieving the same emissions as nuclear may be one example of this.
It’s costly to bring the eco friendliness of coal emissions down to match nuclear – this ‘clean’ penalty is usually around 20% (world-nuclear.org)
– Disposing of removed carbon and other toxic matter
Clean coal has waste and toxics management costs to consider.
Concerns exist regarding the … the costs and viability of disposing of removed carbon and other toxic matter (wikipedia.org)
– Retrofitting existing plants
Some existing coal plants are retrofitted to be more ‘clean’
This retrofitting can be costly, and can include modifying, altering, updating and upgrading an existing plant
– Hidden or indirect social and economic costs
Two examples of this are the increased prices that businesses and consumers may pay for electricity (as the cost of clean coal has to be passed on to the end consumer), and, the increased cost that investors may pay for clean coal plants
May Lead To An Increase In The Price Of Electricity
Relating to the above point, increased costs for clean coal vs regular coal may mean higher production side costs for electricity producers, which are passed on to the end consumer via higher electricity prices.
Some may argue that subsidies may help lower the price of electricity, but increased subsidies may be a result of higher or additional taxes to pay for it.
Ultimately, clean coal electricity may not be as cost competitive or affordable as electricity from regular coal or other energy sources if it costs more to produce.
One example of an electricity price increase from clean coal technology might have happened in Australia:
Australia’s newest supercritical coal plant [breaks down often] … [and has] … contributed to price spikes (apo.org.au)
science.howstuffworks.com indicates that ‘… cleaning coal and sequestering emissions [can raise] the price of coal produced energy.’
Coal station licenses and permits can also increase the emission control measures coal plants have to implement, and the resources they need to put into emissions reporting, which may lead to higher electricity prices.
There can be a range of other factors that impact electricity prices from coal energy too though (other than the type of clean coal technology used), such as:
– Whether coal by-products are commercialised
– Whether there are carbon taxes and other ‘polluter pays’ on regular coal
A carbon tax or ‘polluter pays’ tax or penalty may be passed on to consumers of electricity, increasing the price
A tax or penalty on coal power plants may offset the commercialisation of coal waste by products and coal waste in general
Read more in this guide about the general factors that may impact local electricity prices.
Some Clean Coal Projects May Have Failed Or Had To Be Shut Down, & Have Resulted In Losses In The Past
Some reports indicate that there’s been clean coal projects that have failed, or had to be discontinued or shut down at the design and pre construction, construction and operation stages
This was due to issues such as cost, complications and performance factors (amongst other factors)
Retro-fitting existing coal plants with clean coal technology may have experienced issues too in some instances
This can result in losses in the form of financial investment, time, and opportunity cost (especially resources that could have gone to towards investment in other energy projects)
Paraphrased from tai.org.au:
[Some new coal power plants get to pre construction, and are halted, cancelled or shelved]
[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] (ecowarriorprincess.net)
You can read further about how different clean coal technology projects around the world have fared at world-nuclear.org
There May Be Debate Over The Number Of Clean Coal Plants Currently In Operation & Actually Providing Electricity
The number may be lower than what some reports claim
tai.org.au goes into detail about this point. Our paraphrased summary of what they mention is:
[In their report, they list the number of plants that are at the different stages, such as pre-construction, starting construction, under construction
They mention that in 2017, only a small number of countries might have started constructing coal units , and an even smaller number might have started construction at more than one location
The number of new plants that are actually in operation providing electricity might be very small in total – most might be in the stages before operation (such as pre construction)
China might be an example of a country where many coal projects are listed as under ‘active development’ but it’s unclear how many of these projects will end up actually being built
There may also sometimes be misreporting about the number of HELE plants under construction in some countries – the actual amount can be lower than the reported amount
They also mention how there needs to be a delineation between completely new power plant projects, and simply expanding or modifying existing power plants
It also needs to be specified how many new power plants are HELE – not all of them are
The tai.org.au report is worth a read in full – they explain all the nuances and potential misunderstandings about what is being reported about new clean coal projects]
ecowarriorprincess.net mentions that (paraphrased) there may only be two existing CCS coal plants in operation in the world right now – one in the US, and one in Canada
Some Clean Coal Plants Can Have Deliverability, Performance Or Technical Issues
Some examples might include:
– The timeframe of delivery of clean coal technology projects
The timeframe can experience delays, or be unpredictable
– Structural issues
The Kemper Project may have been an example of a project that may have had structural issues
– Reliability issues, which can contribute to other issues too, such as frequency losses
Reliability might be measured by how often plants break down compared to traditional coal plants.
This may lead to frequency losses.
Where cities or towns are relying on unreliable energy sources for electricity, their electricity supply may be more interrupted or unstable, and the price of electricity may be higher too.
Below are potential examples of reliability issues in both Australia and the US
In Australia, on a per gigawatt basis, high efficiency low emission plants break down more often than older coal plants (tai.org.au)
Australia’s newest supercritical coal plant [breaks down often, is the biggest in the NEM, and has] … caused frequency losses outside of the safe operating band (apo.org.au)
[In the US] The Kemper Project in the US could only be run a certain amount of time in the first 3 to 5 years (ecowarriorprincess.net)
Not All New HELE Coal Plants Increase Efficiency Or Generating Capacity
There is one potential example of this in Australia with supercritical plants vs subcritical plants
Australia’s black coal plants, the supercritical plants, have performed just as badly as subcritical plants relative to generating capacity, despite being newer (apo.org.au)
CCS Technology May Have Several Of It’s Own Problems Or Challenges
Two examples might include:
– There Are Only A Few CCS (Carbon Capture Storage) Coal Plants In The World
ecowarriorprincess.net mentions that (paraphrased) there’s only two existing CSS coal plants in the world right now – one in the US and one in Canada
– CCS As A Technology Might Be Advancing Slowly
world-nuclear.org indicates that CCS is advancing slowly ‘… due to cost and lack of support by politicians and investors’
Might Not Actually Be ‘Clean’ In Some Ways I.e May Not Be Sustainable Or Eco Friendly In Some Ways
Examples might include:
– CCS May Lead To Some Specific Air Pollutants Actually Increasing
ecowarriorprincess.net mentions that (paraphrased) although air pollution overall might decreases in some instances when CCS is used, some specific air pollutants may actually decrease
– Clean Coal May Not Actually Reduce Some Air Contaminants
For example, spectrum.ieee.org mentions that (paraphrased) some clean coal plants that capture CO2 may still release black carbon/soot
SO2 and particle emissions from gas are a tiny fraction of those from coal, while NOx emissions are similar [and] It would be technically easy for the gas plant to go a lot lower but this is what current standards require (reneweconomy.com.au)
– CCS May Have A Reasonably Small Total Impact On CO2 Emissions
ourworldindata.org mentions that (paraphrased) the collective impact of CCS projects on CO2 emissions might be reasonably small, even though a number of them have been constructed
– Some Clean Coal Plants May Still Be More Emissions Intensive Than Other Energy Sources
Compared to renewable energy, nuclear, and natural gas
[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.]
… [‘clean coal’] supercritical coal-fired plants without CCS [may produce less CO2 emissions than] older plants, but [produce more CO2 emissions] than for nuclear or renewables
… not only do [new supercritical HELE plants break down more often and they are] less reliable, but they are more emissions-intensive than renewable energy and even gas
– May Be Energy Intensive
world-nuclear.org indicates that clean coal technologies can be ‘… both costly and energy-intensive’
– There’s Still A Mining Footprint For Coal To Consider
All coal energy, including clean coal, still uses coal.
This means there’s always a coal mining footprint to consider.
Compare that to solar or wind for example that don’t require the mining of coal (but, may require the mining of other materials to make solar panels, wind turbines, etc.)
– Some Countries May Not Have A Requirement For New Power Plants To Have Basic Clean Coal Technology
Ironically, this may make some new coal power plants reasonably polluting in some ways.
From reneweconomy.com.au: ‘Some countries [like Australia and Japan] push for new more expensive HELE plants without [requiring] more basic clean coal technology like flue gas desulphurisation [equipment, and this makes them] some of the dirtiest in the world …
There May Be Safety Issues & Risks To Consider
Particularly in relation to storage of CO2 in pipelines near highly populated areas like cities and towns.
Large-scale storage of CO2 from power generation will require an extensive pipeline network in densely populated areas [and this …] has safety implications (world-nuclear.org)
The Best Interests Of The Coal & Carbon Industries May Not Be Aligned With The Public’s Best Interests
Clean coal investors might prioritise profits of new plants.
But, the public might prioritise cost of electricity, a reliable/stable power supply, and so on.
There may be a difference in the best interests of the two parties here.
Ultra-supercritical plants are usually more profitable than subcritical plants, since they have lower fuel and other operating costs (reneweconomy.com.au)
[A conflict of interest with clean coal is that coal and carbon industries represent themselves, not the people] (ecowarriorprincess.net)
Brown Coal Can Present Specific Issues For Clean Coal Technology In Some Countries
These issues might relate to reliability, and also the emissions intensity of some brown coal plants in some countries like Australia
Super critical brown coal plants [can] be problematic for two reasons – Australia’s brown coal plants are more unreliable than its black coal plants and, secondly, supercritical brown plants would still be more emissions intensive than the majority of Australia’s existing coal plants (apo.org.au)