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Clean coal technology is any technology that aims to reduce the environmental impact of coal energy generation, including chemically washing impurities from the coal, gasification, and carbon capture and storage. When coal is burned in power plants and factories, the smoke released into the atmosphere is harmful to the environment. Since the Industrial Revolution, public outcry over acid raid, smog, and global climate change has forced coal producers to consider the cleanliness of the energy source. Since the American coal industry pumps 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year and contributes more than one-third of the nation's overall greenhouse gas emissions, clean coal has been developed to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.
New, clean energy sources, like wind energy and solar power, have recently stormed the market; none of them, however, are as cost-efficient as coal, but they are all friendlier to the environment. Coal companies have responded by beginning development of a new technology, clean coal technology, as a way of accessing coal's efficiency while removing the impurities that cause most environmental issues. Coal is a major source of power generation in the United States (50%) and China (80%). New sociopolitical trends, however, are threatening coal's position on top, and clean coal technology is the coal industry's answer to concerns about environmental damage caused by burning coal.
Alternative energy companies and their affiliates stand to lose the most from the advent of cleaner coal technologies.
all stand to lose from the increased popularity of coal as a method of electricity generation that would result from a drop in all coal emissions (including carbon).
Though coal is a nonrenewable resource, it is highly abundant in the U.S. and China, two places where energy is in great demand. It is believed that 25% of the world's coal supply is in the U.S., and though coal companies are forced to refrain from most highly damaging mining practices, the product is relatively cheap and easy to extract. In the short run, this makes coal a highly utile natural resource in terms of U.S. energy production, but in the long run, it is projected that the reserves will only last another 250 years at current consumption rates. While this may seem like a long time, one must consider how consumption is growing exponentially.
The world's economy is growing quickly, fueled by the extreme growth of hugely populated developing countries like India and China. As economies grow, due to the proliferation of industrial technology and manufacturing jobs, there is an increasing need for energy. 84% of U.S. coal is used to produce electricity, but coal around the world has many uses. The fuel is used to power factories and steel blast furnaces, manufacture synfuels, and, in developing countries, power steam engines and heat homes.
Coal is the most cost-efficient source of energy in the world; currently, coal is abundantly found, cheaply harvested, and burns with a relatively high efficiency of 33% energy converted to electricity (compared to a high 18% for solar panels). Because of this, many developing countries have and may turn to coal as an economically viable source of energy to power their expansion. China, for instance, has seen huge increases in its demand for natural resources, of which coal is a major one; over 80% of China's installed capacity is coal-powered, and capacity continues to grow.
The global demand for coal, however, as fallen due to the global financial crisis. Weak demand caused the average weekly coal commodity spot prices in Northern Appalachia to fall from $138 in August 2008 to $58 in March 2009.
While 25% of the world's reserves are in the U.S., 40% or more of the world's production is in China. China's abundance of coal and it's growing electricity use make it the world's largest coal producer, user, and polluter. For this reason, many environmental groups around the world are pressuring China to shift its energy production in line with the Kyoto Protocol; coal companies in China and around the world are attempting to meet this demand for environmental friendliness while maintaining coal's energy dominance by developing clean coal technology. China, however, plans to export coal next year. Falling domestic demand has lowered the importance of coal, and a slowing economy has lowered the importance of its environmental impact.
When burned, coal's simple impurities combine to create environmental problems like smog and acid rain. Furthermore, the burning of any carbon-based substance creates carbon gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, that act as greenhouse gases. While coal has an average efficiency of 33% energy output, its dirtiness makes it highly undesirable in and environmental and social context, which is the primary reason that clean coal technology (if developed) could be so important.
Traditional clean coal technology works by removing impurities from the coal, allowing more carbon and oxygen to react when the coal is burned. Such technologies also act after the burning, filtering ash and pollutant gases like NO2 out of the emissions. This is a highly useful technology in terms of ending localized environmental degradation such as acid rain and smog. For the most part, however, when coal producers claim such technologies "emissions-free", they are referring to traditional pollutant emissions - ash, NO2, etc. Now, with increased public interest in the challenge of global climate change, carbon-based gases are considered to be emissions; many environmentalists consider traditional, cheaper clean coal technology to be "greenwashing" because it is refered to as "zero-emissions" even though there are carbon emissions.
Truly clean coal technology, in which greenhouse emissions are significantly reduced, has not yet been developed in a way that makes it remotely cost effective. Though there are technologies that can sequester carbon emissions in compounds or geological reserves, these technologies are expensive enough that nuclear technology would be much more cost-effective. In the current environmental, political, and economic climate, however, there is huge demand for the refinement of carbon-free coal. Increasing fear of climate change, international accords like the Kyoto Protocol, and rapid economic expansion coupled with environmental degradation in countries like China and India may combine the three forces to push the development of cost-effective and truly clean coal technology. If not, then coal could be on its last legs as renewable, clean energy sources are also in the process of being refined.
Underground coal gasification is the process of burning coal directly in the ground and extracting methane (and other gases) as a source of fuel. Two holes are drilled in an area containing underground coal using equipment similar to that used in oil drilling. A burner is then inserted in the hole, and the resulting combustion releases methane and other gases that can be burned to produce energy. Traditional coal mining becomes prohibitively expensive and dangerous at depths greater than a few hundred meters, leaving nearly 85% of the world’s known coal resources inaccessible. However, UCG is possible at depths of up to 1000 meters, making 400% more coal partially recoverable. It is also cheaper to burn the coal in the ground than to extract it, wash it, and ship it. The current cost is about $2.00 per thousand cubic feet of methane gas, which is about 50% the cost for an equivalent amount of natural gas. UCG was invented in the 1930s, but recent advancements in technology and favorable energy economics have made UCG more attractive, especially in China. The Chinese government has heavily supported UCG programs, and China, the largest consumer of coal in the world, has the largest UCG development program.
On June 26, 2009, the House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act. The victory marks the first major action by the U.S. Congress to address climate change. However, the bill still needs to be approved by the Senate in order to be passed into law. Coal company executives have complained that targets and timetables set by the bill are in advance of the industry's abilities and have called for a lowering of the bill’s near-term emissions targets, which currently require a 17 percent cut below 2005 levels by 2020.
Because of the nature of coal power, as well as the nature of coal harvesting, government regulations could play a large part in pushing forward the development and implementation of truly clean coal technology. Examples of national and international legislation include
Because of coal's powerfully negative environmental image and the rise of climate change as a hot-button environmental issue, the future of coal power has major political implications. From mandatory emissions caps to carbon trading markets to subsidies of alternative, clean, and renewable energy sources, these legislative regulations are putting pressure on coal by forcing companies to limit coal power production or by making coal expensive relative to other power sources. Traditional clean coal technology is essentially an attempt to regain public support; the fact that burning coal will always release greenhouse gases keeps traditional clean coal from being a truly environmentally viable form of energy (at least until carbon sequestration techniques are perfected), but such technologies are being touted by coal companies as the answer to all their problems nonetheless. With major political support (a plank of Barack Obama's presidential platform is the support of clean coal), clean coal technology in any form has the potential to be driven forward by the government, restoring the coal industry's image in the process.
Carbon sequestration, or carbon capture and storage (CCS), is a process whereby carbon dioxide emitted from coal power plants is captured and stored underground. Nearly $3.4 billion were allocated to CCS in the U.S. stimulus package, and the European Union has established incentives for power plants to adopt CCS technology. Sequestration technology is already in use in the oil and chemical industries, though CCS would be prohibitively expensive for the private sector without government subsidy.
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