This is a short guide outlining the potential pros and cons of clean coal technology (especially compared to regular coal technology).
(Note – you can read more in this guide about a list of clean coal technologies)
Summary – Pros & Cons Of Clean Coal Technology
Some technologies do markedly decrease pollution and emissions
Some technologies are more cost effective than others
Some technologies increase efficiency of coal energy
Research and development, and funding/investment for building and operating new projects and retro fits can be costly
Can increase the price of clean coal electricity
Various clean coal projects have failed at different stages
Timeframe of deliverability for new projects can be unpredictable
New projects can have structural problems
CCS seems to be advancing slowly
There are few CCS coal plants in the world
Some clean coal technology lacks reliability
Can be eco friendly in some regards, but not others
Can be energy intensive
Potential safety problems
Can’t reduce the potential negative impact of mining on the environment
Coal and carbon industries represent themselves (not necessarily the public)
Coal waste by-products can’t be, or aren’t being commercialized everywhere
Still more emission intensive than other energy sources
Some types of expensive clean coal technology are pursued before installing more affordable technology first
Not all new HELE coal plants increase efficiency or capacity
HELE brown coal plants could be an issue in some countries
Clean coal can release black carbon/soot
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 can be more effective and feasible
But, other more advanced clean coal technology can be very costly and face a host of other problems that limit it’s advancement and wider 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 tend to increase prices for investors and consumers at least somewhat
Some sources 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
*Note – 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.
Pros Of Clean Coal
Some Technologies Do Markedly Decrease Pollution & Emissions
Some Technologies Are More Cost Effective Than Others
Such as some more simple filters and absorbers that catch or filter air contaminants, compared to say a high tech extensive and expensive CCS system.
Some Technologies Increase Efficiency Of Coal Energy
The higher efficiency [of ultra-supercritical (USC) HELE technology] reduces emissions and fuel costs to about 75% of subcritical plants.
In Japan and South Korea about 70% of coal-fired power comes from supercritical and ultra-supercritical plants (world-nuclear.org)
Cons Of Clean Coal
Research & Development, & Funding/Investment For Building & Operating New Projects & Retro Fits Can Be Costly
About $50 billion has been put towards the development and deployment of “traditional” clean coal technologies over the past 30 years (wikipedia.org).
Concerns exist regarding the economic viability of these technologies … and potentially high hidden economic costs in terms of social and environmental damage, and the costs and viability of disposing of removed carbon and other toxic matter (wikipedia.org).
The capital cost of ultra-supercritical (USC) HELE technology is 20-30% greater than a subcritical unit (world-nuclear.org).
The Carbonate Looping Process [when used] … costs amount to around 20 to 27 euro per tonne of CO2. [although, other processes are more expensive and less efficient] (phys.org).
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)
Can Increase The Price of Clean Coal Electricity
Increased capital and running costs for some clean coal technology means those costs are passed on in the electricity price to consumers.
This makes clean coal usually not as competitive with nuclear.
Whether coal by products are commercialised, and whether there are carbon taxes can also impact price. 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.
Installation of CCS technology incurs an energy penalty of 10-40 percent.
This means an electricity producer would have to increase inputs by 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
Various Clean Coal Projects Have Failed At Different Stages
At the design, pre construction, construction, and operation stages.
Many projects have been shut down or discontinued at a significant time, and financial loss, due to various complications and feasibility issues.
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
Timeframe Of Deliverability For New Projects Can Be Unpredictable
Concerns exist regarding the timeframe of delivery of some clean coal technology projects (wikipedia.org)
New Projects Can Have Structural Problems
The Kemper Project in the US had structural problems (ecowarriorprincess.net)
CCS Seems To Be Advancing Slowly
CCS is advancing slowly, due to cost and lack of support by politicians and investors (world-nuclear.org)
There Are Few CCS (Carbon Capture Storage) Coal Plants In The World
[The only CCS coal plant that is currently in operation in the United States right NOW 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]
Some Clean Coal Technology Lacks Reliability
In Australia, on a per gigawatt basis, high efficiency low emission plants break down more often than older coal plants (tai.org.au).
The Kemper Project in the US could only be run a certain amount of time in the first 3 to 5 years (ecowarriorprincess.net).
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)
Can Be Eco Friendly In Some Regards, But Not In Others
While CCS may have an overall positive effect on air pollution, emissions of some pollutants may increase (ecowarriorprincess.net).
A number of CCS projects have been constructed, although collectively their impact on CO2 emissions has been small (ourworldindata.org)
Can Be Energy Intensive
‘Clean coal’ technologies are both costly and energy-intensive (world-nuclear.org)
Potential Safety Problems
Large-scale storage of CO2 from power generation will require an extensive pipeline network in densely populated areas.
This has safety implications
Can’t Reduce The Potential Negative Impact Of Mining On The Environment
Coal washing, CCS, filters and absorbers to catch air pollutants … all of these technologies work AFTER the coal mining stage.
The use of coal, regardless of what coal plant technology is used, involves mining.
Compare that to solar or wind for example which only require mining for the equipment such as solar panels and wind towers.
Coal & Carbon Industries Represent Themselves (Not Necessarily The Public)
And, this may be a conflict of interest to introduce new profitable clean coal technology, which may not be in the best interest of the public.
Ultra-supercritical plants are usually more profitable than subcritical plants, since they have lower fuel and other operating costs
Coal Waste Products Can’t Be, Or Aren’t Being Commercialized Everywhere
In which case, they become an environmental hazard (because of heavy metals they may contain), or make up a large % of a country or state’s waste stream – like coal ash does in Australia.
Still 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.
It would be technically easy for the gas plant to go a lot lower but this is what current standards require.
[So, gas plants are 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]
Some Types Of Expensive Clean Coal Technology Are Pursued Before Installing More Affordable Technology First
Some countries push for new more expensive HELE plants without yet having more basic clean coal technology like flue gas desulphurisation.
It is worth noting that Australia, the main peddler of “High Efficiency Low Emissions” (HELE) coal plants along with Japan, hasn’t even required flue gas desulphurisation equipment on its own coal plants, making them some of the dirtiest in the world (reneweconomy.com.au)
Not All New HELE Coal Plants Increase Efficiency Or 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)
HELE Brown Coal Plants Could Be An Issue In Some Countries
Super critical brown coal plants would 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)
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)