Why “Clean Coal” Matters

Back before things went pear-shaped this weekend, Jonathan Zasloff had a good post about why “clean coal” is important:

I think it’s terrific that the Coen Brothers are making funny, effective ads against relying on “clean coal” as part of the US energy program. But I worry that the clean energy community is really missing the boat here.

Clean coal research and development is absolutely crucial in fighting climate change not for us, but for India and China. India has the fourth largest reserves of coal in the world — most of it very dirty, with high ash content. It currently imports 70% of its oil, which will rise to 90% by 2020 (this according to Edward Luce’s fabulous book In Spite of the Gods.). China, meanwhile, is both the world’s largest producer and the largest consumer of coal power.

I want them to switch to solar and wind as much as anyone else. But I have yet to see any credible estimates that India or China can grow in the way that they want to — and justifiably expect to — purely through renewables. It’s going to be hard enough for the United States to do so, and we still rely heavily on oil.

Jonathan nails the reason why those ads irritate me, and have since I read Physics for Future Presidents, which puts it pretty plainly in terms of the energy content of various fuel sources. As Muller notes in the book, the US and China have enough coal reserves to last for several centuries at current rates of use, and at least a hundred years even if China and India ramp up their consumption to Western levels.

If you think that coal will remain in the ground and un-burnt when oil starts to run out, you’re kidding yourself. And if you think that China and India are going to restrict their energy demands by enough to not need that power, you’re either an idiot or a monster.

It’s wonderful to think that in the future we’ll derive all our energy needs from solar, wind, nuclear fusion, or some other carbon-free source, but at this point, that’s still speculation. We should absolutely put as much money as possible into developing those technologies, but we should do so with the understanding that it’s a gamble. They might not pan out, at least not in the way that we need, and especially not in the way that China and India need.

The one sure bet in the energy game at the moment is coal. We know that the coal is there, and we know how to turn it into electricity. And if the bets we put down on solar and wind don’t pay off in time, we know that coal will be burned.

Given that, the only sensible thing to do when projecting energy generation into the future is to assume that, sooner or later, that coal is going to get used. Which means we need to put some money and effort into finding the least harmful way to use it.

Money for “clean coal” shouldn’t take the place of money for cleaner technologies, but there needs to be some money spent on it. Failing to do so is a foolish gamble.