In the guide below, we list the potential pros and cons of clean coal technology (which can be compared to regular coal technology).
This guide complements our separate guide about what clean coal technology is, including a list of the different clean coal technologies.
Summary – Pros & Cons Of Clean Coal Technology
Some technologies may significantly decrease pollution and emissions
Some technologies might be more cost effective than others
Some technologies may increase efficiency of coal energy
Overall economic viability of clean coal technology may be in question
Costs for clean coal plant and technology can be high
Might increase the price of clean coal electricity
Some clean coal projects have failed and had to be shut down, resulting in losses
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
Can be sustainable and eco friendly in some regards, but not others
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 pros and cons
Some of the simpler types of technology might be more effective and feasible
But, other more advanced clean coal technology might be very costly, and face a host of other problems, challenges and risks that might limit their use
For these reasons and others, some clean coal technology might have more of a future than others
Some clean coal technology, especially the more expensive and energy intensive technology (like some CCS technology), can have a large list of cons (and can make clean coal more expensive and unable to compete with nuclear energy in some instances).
But, all forms of emission and pollution regulation might increase prices for investors and consumers at least somewhat
Some reports say that the future of clean coal might include gasification at one stage of the coal-for-energy process, which can help make electricity from coal more efficiently compared to pulverised coal (so, emissions aren’t reduced per tonne of coal, but less coal might be used in total and there might be less emissions in total).
But, even gasification is not yet a proven technology from a clean coal perspective, and it’s uncertain to an extent how eco friendly it can help make coal energy in the long term
Because of factors like cost, ineffectiveness, investment risk, and so on … some sources say that a better long term plan might be to pursue and invest in natural gas, nuclear and renewable energy as a priority over clean coal (which are usually cleaner forms of energy in a number of ways).
So, these might be just some of the alternatives to consider
This guide is a generalisation of the pros and cons of clean coal.
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.
Read more about the different types of clean coal technology in this guide.
Potential Pros Of Clean Coal
Some Technologies May Significantly Decrease Pollution & Emissions
Some Technologies Might Be More Cost Effective Than Others
Simple filters and absorbers that catch or filter air contaminants may be more cost effective for example compared to a high tech extensive and expensive CCS system (which can be much more expensive)
Some Technologies May Increase The Efficiency Of Coal Energy
Some plants may be more efficient than others, and this may lead to emission reductions.
The higher efficiency [of ultra-supercritical (USC) HELE technology] reduces emissions and fuel costs to about 75% of subcritical plants (world-nuclear.org)
Potential Cons Of Clean Coal
Overall Economic Viability Of Clean Coal Technology May Be In Question
These questions may come from a range of factors such as the costs of plant and operation, performance of the technology, risks, and other factors. This may be especially true when compared to other energy sources.
Concerns exist regarding the economic viability of these technologies … (wikipedia.org).
Costs For Clean Coal Plant And Technology Can Be High
Costs can include:
– Research and development
Some reports indicate that 10’s of billions of dollars have been put towards clean coal technologies (both development and deployment) in the last few decades.
– The cost of clean coal plants themselves
The capital cost of ultra-supercritical (USC) HELE technology is 20-30% greater than a subcritical unit (world-nuclear.org).
– Operation costs
For example, processes and technology used during operation add to operation costs, such as the ‘Carbonate Looping Process’, and CCS technology
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, and hence not amenable to great improvement (world-nuclear.org)
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)
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.
In addition, CCS technology can be capital-intensive – it is typically one of the most expensive carbon mitigation options
– Disposing of removed carbon and other toxic matter
Concerns exist regarding the … the costs and viability of disposing of removed carbon and other toxic matter (wikipedia.org)
– Retrofitting existing plants
Which involves modifying, altering, updating and upgrading an existing plant
– Hidden social and economic costs
There’s the economic costs and risks for investors, but also for consumers paying for electricity from this energy source
Can Increase The Price of Clean Coal Electricity
Higher costs for things like research and development, coal plants, and operation, all have to be passed on into the final price of electricity that consumers pay, unless there’s subsidies to make up this cost difference.
This means clean coal may not be as price competitive as other energy sources like nuclear for example.
There can be a range of other factors that impact electricity prices too though (other than the type of clean coal technology used), such as:
– Whether coal by-products are commercialised
– Whether there are carbon taxes
Some Clean Coal Projects Have Failed & Had To Be Shut Down, Resulting In Losses
Failure can happen at a number of stages, such as the design, pre construction, construction, and operation stages.
Multiple projects have reportedly been shut down or discontinued (due to various complications and feasibility issues), resulting in significant time loss and financial loss for investors and planners.
One example is the Kemper Project in the US that had to be abandoned due to numerous issues … and went 4 billion dollars over budget (ecowarriorprincess.net)
Some Clean Coal Plants Can Have A Range Of Potential Issues In Their Delivery & Performance
Some examples might include:
– Unpredictable deliverability timeframes
Concerns exist regarding the timeframe of delivery of some clean coal technology projects (wikipedia.org)
– Structural problems
One example of a project that may have had structural issues may have been the Kemper Project in the US
– Some clean coal technology may lack reliability
In Australia …
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, shows that its breakdowns … occur often … are the biggest in the NEM … have contributed to price spikes … and, have 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
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 Problems Or Challenges
– There Are Few CCS (Carbon Capture Storage) Coal Plants In The World
ecowarriorprincess.net mentions 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 Seems To Be Advancing Slowly
CCS is advancing slowly, due to cost and lack of support by politicians and investors (world-nuclear.org)
Can Be Sustainable Or Eco Friendly In Some Regards, But Not In Others
– Some air pollutants may not be decreased in a significant way
While CCS may have an overall positive effect on air pollution, emissions of some pollutants may increase (ecowarriorprincess.net)
– CO2 emissions may sometimes not be decreased in a significant way
A number of CCS projects have been constructed, although collectively their impact on CO2 emissions has been small (ourworldindata.org)
– Energy use/energy inputs required can be significant
‘Clean coal’ technologies are both costly and energy-intensive (world-nuclear.org)
– Clean coal can still release black carbon/soot
Fossil fuel plants that capture most of their CO2 still release soot that’s both a public health menace and an agent of climate change (spectrum.ieee.org)
– There’s still a mining footprint to clean coal to consider
All technologies, devices and processes, such as coal washing, CCS technology, filters and absorbers to catch air pollutants … are used after coal has been already mined.
So, regardless of what happens at the coal plant stage, there’s still a mining footprint to consider.
Compare that to solar or wind for example which don’t require mining of fuel stock.
– Some new clean coal plants aren’t required to have some specific clean coal equipment installed, leading to environmental issues
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
– May be more emissions intensive than some other energy sources
[Some HELE coal plants] are more emissions-intensive than renewable energy and even gas (tai.org.au).
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)
So, gas plants might be more eco friendly than coal plants – but, we don’t know if these estimates include methane gas leaked at the natural gas mining/extraction stage.
Potential Safety Issues & Risks To Consider
This may relate to storage of CO2 in pipelines.
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)
Coal & Carbon Industries May Pursue Their Own Best Interests, Which Possibly Comes At The Expense Of The Public’s Best Interests
This is essentially a competition of best interests.
Clean coal technology may be profitable to introduce to energy systems for coal and carbon industries, but it may not be in the best interests of the public (from a cost, electricity price, energy performance, and other perspectives)
Ultra-supercritical plants are usually more profitable than subcritical plants, since they have lower fuel and other operating costs (reneweconomy.com.au)
Coal Waste Products Can Present Several Issues
When coal waste by products are commercialized or re-used in some way:
– They can become an environmental hazard because of heavy metals they may contain
– Or, they can make up a large % of a country or state’s waste stream – like coal ash does in Australia.
Brown Coal Can Present Specific Issues For Clean Coal Technology In Some Countries
These issues might relate to reliability, and also more intensive emissions.
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)