SHIFT: 'Clean' coal is a fraud

You've probably noticed the term "clean coal" bandied about a lot lately. It's a great-sounding phrase, evoking images of plentiful, cheap energy generated by squeaky-clean power plants emitting a thin wisp of smoke that smells like a cross between a field of daisies and freshly baked bread. If that's what you're thinking, here's some bad news for you: there's no such thing as clean coal.

You're being subtly manipulated by those who would like coal to remain the centerpiece of United States energy policy for centuries to come. They have plenty of good reasons for that. Coal is the most abundant fossil fuel, so it's cheap. There's enough of the stuff in the U.S. to last us 154 more years or longer. In the U.S., 49% of our electricity generation comes from burning coal. And new coal plants are more efficient than their predecessors, burning about a third less coal.

Fire up the Boiler, Full Speed Ahead
There are 29 coal-fired power plants under construction now, with another 110 on the way. Of course, none of these plants will be using "clean coal" technology, an untested and hyper-expensive process which pumps the resulting greenhouse gases deep into the ground. No, they're using "cleaner" coal features, using scrubbers and boilers that remove some of the sulfur, mercury and nitrogen from coal smoke. But "cleaner" coal is nowhere near "clean," and it still involves burning the dirtiest fuel on the planet. Those plants will still be creating acid rain, polluting water, and spewing tons of nitrogen dioxide, mercury, and sulfur dioxide into the air. What a mess.

How Clean Is Clean Coal?
The clean coal idea is to use those "cleaner" coal techniques, and then somehow pump the rest of the CO2-containing smoke deep underground. Sounds like a great idea, even though it does resemble putting our heads in the sand. The problem is, no one has ever been able to do it cost-effectively yet, and nobody's even sure the substances will stay underground once pumped there.

How expensive?
The California Public Utilities Commission says electricity from a clean coal plant would cost $0.1732 per kilowatt hour, compared with $0.1265 for solar power and nearly half that, $0.0891 for wind power. Utility companies are profit-motivated, and aren't going to buy into technology that costs them so much more. Consumers will balk at paying huge premiums for coal-fired plants that aren't even all that clean.

Not So Cheap After All
Coal seems cheap until you factor in the poisoning of our environment from mining the stuff, the pollutants belched from its smokestacks, and the warming of the planet from its greenhouse gases. Even if that so-called clean coal tech were ready for cost-effective deployment — which experts say won't happen for three years to a decade, if ever — the environment-poisoning coal mines to stoke those power plants would still be necessary.

Prevaricating Politicians
Don't be fooled by politicians touting clean coal. It's a lie. The term is an oxymoron, right up there with jumbo shrimp, criminal law and military intelligence. It's a marketing concept that's a short-term solution to a long-term problem. Instead, I'm rooting for solar and wind energy. They mean more jobs, more innovation, and more tech to export to other coal-belching countries such as China. Even Generation IV nuclear power plants are a better idea. If we keep kidding ourselves with fictional ideas like "clean coal," better solutions to our ongoing energy crisis will suffer, and ultimately, so will we.