Is “clean coal” a worthy goal?

Can wind and solar energy, and other renewables power the world, in our lifetimes? I doubt it. So for at least the next few decades, say, environmentalists have to look to other sources of low-carbon baseload electricity.

Natural gas, while abundant and cheap for now, is not an good option.  Its greenhouse gas emissions are too high to meet climate goals. Nuclear power would be preferable, in my view, although the issues of safety, waste disposal, proliferation and costs are all serious. And then there’s coal.

Yes, coal. In a story published by the excellent website YaleEnvironment360, I write about plans for a Texas coal plant that would capture and store carbon dioxide. Perhaps surprisingly, the so-called Texas Clean Energy Project has the tacit support of some environmental groups – the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Clean Air Task Force. They realize that there’s a lot of coal in the world and it’s likely to get burned one way or another, especially in China. Better that it be burned in a low-carbon way, no? Well, that depends on how you feel acoal minim mining, which is itself an unavoidably dirty business.

The point is, all energy choices involve trade-offs.

Here’s how my story begins:

As mayor of Dallas from 2002 to 2007, Laura Miller helped lead the charge against a utility company called TXU that wanted to build 11 coal-fired power plants in Texas. Miller and her allies, including the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council, stopped the coal plants, and in 2007 TXU was sold to two private-equity firms that promised to steer the company onto a greener path. Their story inspired a documentary film produced and narrated by Robert Redford that showcased Miller, as one magazine writer put it, as a “tough, smart and camera-friendly environmental heroine.”

Today, Miller, 53, who was a newspaper reporter before entering politics, again finds herself in the thick of a big Texas story about coal. This time, she’s trying to get a coal plant built — one that she says would be “the cleanest coal plant in the world.” As director of Texas projects for Summit Power, a Seattle-based energy firm, Miller has spent three years working on behalf of the Texas Clean Energy Project, an unusual $3 billion power facility that would capture carbon dioxide emissions and produce oil as well as coal.

You can read the rest here.


  1. Sibley says

    “Can wind and solar energy, and other renewables power the world, in our lifetimes?”

    Absolutely. Don’t discount the exponential rate of change of some types of technology. As just one example, nano tech and genetic engineering will make biologically renewable hydro-carbon based fuels well within our lifetime – I believe at this point that a rigorous look at that area can’t escape that conclusion. Of course, that one example isn’t necessarily “clean” energy. But the carbon-cleaning you know much more about than I do will also benefit from a very rapid rate of improvement once certain other technologies reach the right level of miniaturization and expense level.

    I.e., in this as in many areas, people have the tendency to under-predic our ability to develop new technologies on the 20-40 year time frame, which is the “in our lifetime” timeframe you’re mentioning, and I think that’s the case with your first two sentences here.

    • Ed Reid says

      I hope we have the patience to wait until renewables have proven their capabilities to power our world before we begin rejecting the sources of energy which power it now.

  2. says

    I am with Sibley above. If we are funding research and development for renewables then we should continue to see growth in efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Looking at solar as an example, the first PV panel was developed in 1954, capable of 4% efficiency. By 1985 the record was 20% efficiency in a lab and now bleeding edge technology is above 40%. I would imagine that either solar energy could become 50% more efficient within the next 20-30 years or if it’s not it is because we have found a better renewable solution.

    The point is that we are not only looking for an endgame. We are looking for measures that can buy us time. Even with more competitive renewable energy sources we need an infrastructure of energy storage to make them reliable substitutes for fossil fuels–an industry still in its infancy on the utility scale. Natural gas could help us in slowing down the momentum while our options are fully developed.

    I think clean coal is a pipe dream, but I will welcome being proven wrong.

  3. Marc Gunther says

    Upon reflection, I think Sibley and T. Caine have a good point. One of our human tendencies is to project the present onto the future, and to underestimate the pace of change. It’s entirely possible that a solar breakthrough will make clean coal unnecessary. Geothermal energy is also promising. Today, I’ve been hearing about research into plant science that could drive the growth of sustainable biofuels.
    As someone once said, predictions are hard, especially about the future.

    • Ed Reid says


      That quote is from my favorite American philosopher, Yogi Berra. :-)

      It is far more prudent to underestimate the pace of change and be pleasantly surprised than to overestimate the pace of change and find yourself “freezing in the dark”.

  4. John Williams says

    Yogi Berra once also said, “when you come to a fork in the road, take it” and “no one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded…” But I digress… Omitted from this very fine article are two very important points. Before we go calling it “clean” shouldn’t we make some consideration for the CO2 used for Enhanced Oil Recovery, freeing up additional fossil fuels that will then be burned by automobiles? Shouldn’t there be some accounting there? Second, what about the incredible destruction of pristine mountaintops and the resulting environmental damage to streams (and human deaths) from mining the coal in the first place? I’m surprised the NGOs are giving this a hall pass.

    • Marc Gunther says

      I agree with your point on coal mining, John.

      On enhanced oil recovery, I would say that until the volumes get much bigger, the oil recovered through CO2 injections will displace other oil on the global market without having an impact on price. So I don’t think this oil will add to GHG emissions. In fact, as David Hawkins od NRDC told me, it could displace either imported oil or make it less necessary to drill for oil in sensitive places.

    • Ed Reid says


      Berra also provides two quotes which are germane to the energy and environment discussion.

      “You’ve got to be careful, if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might end up someplace else.”

      “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

      NOTE: After ~35 years since the transition from concern about global cooling through the concern about global warming to the concern about global climate change, the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars on climate research and the achievement of a “consensus”, there is no unique global goal and no unique global plan to achieve that goal. There are, however, a myriad of “wishes” in play. Of course, “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.”

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