Friday, March 27, 2009

There Is No Such Thing as Clean Coal

I saw an ad on the television the other day, using a clip of President Barack Obama (presidential candidate at the time) on the campaign trail saying to the crowd that clean coal (scrubbing sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other particulate emissions from the coal-burning process) could be a reality some day soon. I've also seen and heard Barry Schweitzer, governor of Montana, speak to the benefits of carbon sequestration (burying carbon dioxide underground) from coal-fired power plants. The latter is unproven on a large-sale and is cost prohibitive. The former is to me an oxymoron. Even if you capture all of the particulate matter and toxic chemicals from the coal-burning process where do you put it? We've seen what happened in Tennessee when we put another by-product of the coal burning process, fly-ash (aka "slurry"), into large storage ponds or landfills. There's a chance that it will spill, flood, or completely leach into the water supply as we saw in Tennessee in December 2008.

If you hadn't already noticed from the masthead above, I am a proponent of renewable energy. The reasons are simple. For one, the current rate at which the U.S. and other emerging economies (China and India) burn coal for their electricity and/or use oil in the combustion engine is unsustainable. These fossil fuels are both finite and hazardous to humans, animals and the planet itself. Second, I am a much happier person (and I think it's safe to say for all Earthly people) with clean air, water, and land. Burning coal or oil doesn't contribute to clean air, water, or land. Using renewable energy sources does. Third, finding renewable resources to assist with our energy needs is the right thing to do for the living and future generations.

I am not an environmentalist or a moral crusader. I am realist. That having been said, I am going to go out on a limb here and say that there is no such thing as clean coal and burying carbon dioxide underground is a fool's errand. Utilizing renewable, clean energy technologies to offset some of our coal-burning is a step in the right direction. And let it be known that I completely understand that the road ahead involves a partnership with coal, because the base electricity load cannot be supported by solar or wind technologies alone. Coal still needs to be used for the foreseeable future. But we can't continue to use coal as our primary means to electricity because it is the cheapest source out there. When our skies are polluted and our coastal cities are flooded and our droughts get worse, and the forest fires become more intense and prevalent, and the food supply dwindles, and people begin to starve, I dare say that we aren't going to care whether things are "cheaper."

So let's lose the myopia, and the feeble attempts at placating the coal and oil lobbies who scream that the sky will fall and jobs will be lost if we take away the lush subsidies that they receive today. We need to roll up our sleeves and figure out a way to transfer most of our energy production to renewable sources as soon as possible. This isn't a time for politics as usual or business as usual. This isn't time for outta sight outta mind and back to our SUVs and driving 10 miles to the grocery store just because gas prices are low. This is time to plan for the future with innovation and research and investment into renewable energy, alternative public transportation sources, localization (food, energy, and commerce), smart grids, and urban renewal. What do you think?


Unknown said...

When I hear or read "clean coal" I think. "Yeah. Right. Like 'safe cancer'!"

Justin A. Rickard said...

I like that, "safe cancer." Ohhh the oxymoron. I can't come up with one to top that, but here is a web site that has an extensive list of oxymorons.


Wishful Thinking

*Before adding PV, wind, or solar thermal to your residential or commercial structure, the first step is to analyze this structure's energy consumption through a professional energy audit. I'd like to see some public education on the importance of an energy audit for any structure. Remember Smokey the Bear's forest fire shtick drilled into our heads over the last few decades? How about something like, "Henry the House" desperately wanting to know how much energy he consumes and wastes throughout the day?

*With over 300 sunny days a year on the Front Range is it too much to ask for solar PV and thermal modules on every residential and commercial unit (after an energy audit of course)?

*How about affordable plug-in electric cars that go more than 100 miles on a charge with PV and wind powered recharging stations?

*Dreaming of companies large and small adopting business sustainability practices to maximize profits, reduce their carbon footprint, and enhance the lives of their employees and the communities that surround them.


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