One of the terms floated about by coal companies is “clean coal.” While this term may sound as if the coal is free from soot or particulates, it’s really more of a public relations tool than an apt description of the product. If you are concerned with where your home energy comes from, explore different electricity suppliers in your area and choose a plan that offers green energy or offsets for your coal-generated power.
In reality, clean coal is actually just regular coal burned in a facility with technology in place to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide and soot. These clean coal power plants often have scrubbers contained within smoke stacks, helping to pull some quantity of pollutants from the byproduct.
However, despite the name, the coal is not clean. There are no standards for what constitutes clean coal within the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, has fought with industry insiders, lobbyists, and politicians in Congress to set standards for particulates and what constitutes clean coal. The EPA has been overruled at every turn.
Other nations have regulations in place, often setting the level between 25 percent less CO2 and 50 percent less. The EPA proposed a rule under the Bush administration to set the threshold at only a 10 percent reduction. It was struck down following a blitz campaign by coal-friendly politicians and lobbyists.
Despite all of this, clean coal plants are a step in the right direction for reducing CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. These technologies are improving, helping to pull more pollution out of the burnt coal, yet the costs continue to remain high. Industry is torn between the demand for cheap electricity and environmental protection. As regulations continue to be avoided, companies are able to maintain low prices for power, but the environment suffers.
Government support for clean coal projects has waned over the past decade. President Bush proposed building a near-zero emission coal power plant producing hydrogen and electricity. The program, dubbed FutureGen, was announced in 2003 with the support of the Department of Energy. By 2008, the project was scrapped siting the soaring costs and technological shortcomings.
The FutureGen project underscored the problem the coal industry has faced. They produce a product that produces soot and CO2 when used, but provides the highest energy per unit of any fossil fuel. The technology to produce clean coal remains years behind where it needs to be, while costs are too high to be implemented without impacting consumers. Even with Department of Energy grants, many electricity suppliers have opted to use tested and true scrubbers in stacks, where costs are understood and minimal.
Clean coal technology must improve before it becomes a reality in America. The investment must come from somewhere, but industry, the government, and consumers don’t want to foot the bill. Until then, clean coal remains in-name only.