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Clean Coal: The Fallows Fallacy

Monday, February 7, 2011

The United States has done little to develop clean coal technology—because there are few reasons for doing so.

Longtime correspondent James Fallows recently penned a cover story in the Atlantic entitled “Dirty Coal, Clean Future” on the promise of so-called “clean coal” technology in China. While Fallows highlights certain promising and important developments in the energy field, his analysis ultimately sputters.

The piece examines the long strides China has taken in the relatively new field of carbon capture and sequestration (CC&S), whereby coal’s noxious carbon byproducts are neutralized either before or after its energy is extracted. The most promising such technology involves gasifying coal underground, which would eliminate the dangers of both mining and the escape of carbon, as mining would become unnecessary and carbon would remain trapped underground.

Fallows reports only the promise of carbon capture and sequestration, and none of its challenges or alternatives.

Fallows explores the techno-political landscape of clean coal both here and abroad, noting that while American entrepreneurs and scientists, including at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Northern California, have been consulting with their Chinese counterparts, only the Chinese have evinced a firm commitment to developing the technology.

Yet Fallows reports only CC&S’s promise, and none of its challenges or alternatives. Reading the article, one gets the impression he is enamored of clean coal mainly because he has had the opportunity to see it close-up, not because he has performed a thorough comparison of alternatives and concluded coal is the most viable or important.

While Fallows laments the United States’ relatively minor role in developing clean coal technology, America has little reason for doing so. The United States is currently awash in low-cost gas, making new gas-fired generation far cheaper than coal. Fallows cites a utility executive’s claim that “the lowest-price coal plant might generate electricity for 2 cents per kilowatt-hour.” Yet this figure reflects the marginal cost for an existing plant, not the all-in cost.

A fairly strong consensus in the energy sector holds that economics alone will reduce coal’s role in the United States over the next two decades.

While it is true Americans still get the plurality of our electricity from coal—it is now below 50 percent due to all that cheap gas—we are not building any new coal-fired power plants because they are not economic, even without a carbon tax. A fairly strong consensus in the energy sector holds that economics alone will reduce coal’s role in the United States over the next two decades. The resulting economically driven de-carbonization of our generation fleet sharply diminishes the urgency to develop CC&S in the United States.

Fallows also fails to address the technical and safety challenges involved in transporting sequestered carbon dioxide. This would entail the new construction of the equivalent of the entire U.S. natural gas pipeline grid to capture all the carbon dioxide from coal combustion (existing lines cannot simply be repurposed for carbon dioxide, due to its higher pressure). Furthermore, carbon dioxide is heavier than air, so it pools when it leaks, posing significant safety risks, such as asphyxiation. Construction may be prohibited in certain areas as a result.

Fallows also fails to address the technical and safety challenges involved in transporting sequestered carbon dioxide.

But Fallows does not just exaggerate coal’s upside and downplay its deficiencies. He also underestimates the potential of other technologies. For example, wind today, without subsidies, costs 10 to 15 cents per kilowatt-hour, not 20 cents, as Fallows asserts.

And while solar is more expensive—about 25 cents per kWh without subsidy—its modularity and portability present interesting opportunities, such as its ability to serve two purposes in some applications (e.g., windows, roofs). As thin-film technology improves, solar panels will approach the cost of the glass itself—consider the plummeting cost of flat-panel televisions—and the market will begin to see more dual-use panels. In these applications, the cost of power is reduced by the avoided cost of the displaced window or roofing material.

Similarly, in some remote applications, solar can avoid other costs, making it economically competitive. Here in San Diego, commercial parking lots, highway call-boxes, and other lighting applications are increasingly powered by photovoltaic panels, presumably because they are cheaper than laying wire.

Finally, Fallows is unjustifiably dismissive of emission-free nuclear power, a much more mature technology with the potential to be economically competitive. On balance, we would be better served investing in ways to make nuclear power cheaper or converting carbon dioxide into useful materials than in the costly and unproven processes of clean coal and sequestration.

Mark E. Ellis is an energy economist in San Diego, California. Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and writer in San Diego.

FURTHER READING: Rosen also discusses “Thwarting Cyber ‘Predicaments'” and whether music file-sharers are making us “Ripped Off.” Kenneth Green suggests ways of “Empowering the Free Energy Markets,” Mark Perry says “EPA's Costly Rules Will Cost Jobs and Set Back Nation's Economic Recovery,” and Marc Weidenmier explains “Hedging against Peak Oil Shocks.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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