‘Clean Coal’ for Energy? Not So Fast DOE.


The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) along with the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) is looking to fund $2 million dollars in coal research as part of the University Coal Research (UCR) Program. The research projects will be an attempt to improve the “fundamental understanding of the chemical and physical processes that govern coal conservation and utilization, by product utilization, and technological development.”

From an Administration that is attempting to reduce America’s dependence on oil through greenhouse gas emissions reductions, this is one of the—excuse me—stupidest ideas our country has had… at least for today. Look people, coal is NOT clean, even though the coal industry wants you to believe it is. As a matter of fact, Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, a front group for the coal and utility industries, is currently running a ‘clean coal” campaign in excess of $35 million according to a Washington Post article from last year.

One of the biggest criticisms of electric vehicles (EVs) other than concerns about battery production and recycling, is the fact that a large majority of the EVs that are currently (and in the future) being charged are using electricity created from dirty coal. In many regards, cite pundits of coal use, this negates some of the positive the benefits derived from electric vehicles.

For example, several authors in Plug-in Electric Vehicles, “If Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) are operated on coal electricity through integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) without carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), compact and SUV PHEVs reduce GHG emissions by 4 percent and 19 percent, respectively, relative to their conventional vehicle (CV) counterparts.”

The authors continue, “But these GHG reductions are actually less than those achieved by hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) running on gasoline (23 percent and 34 percent, respectively). Thus, when the marginal plant is such a coal plant, it is better from a GHG perspective to drive either an HEV or (almost equivalently) a PHEV in gasoline-fueled hybrid electric mode rather than a PHEV in grid-supplied all-electric mode. In comparison with CVs running on gasoline, however, PHEVs charging from coal are the better option (though more so in the case of SUVs than compacts).”

But is it really ever a better option to charge our cars using coal? The Sierra Club, as part of its ‘Beyond Coal Campaign,’ writes, “From the mine to the plant, coal is our dirtiest energy source. It causes asthma and other health problems, destroys our mountains, and releases toxic mercury into our communities. Continuing our dependence on coal chains us to dirty energy and prevents us from making the changes we need to bring about a clean, secure energy future.”

How dirty is coal? Richard Heinberg, author of “Blackout, Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis,” writes, “But as bad as all of these mostly longstanding environmental, health, and safety problems are, they pale in comparison to what many regard as the greatest crisis of our time—global climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. While coal produces a little over a quarter of the world’s energy, it is responsible for nearly 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Okay, let’s go back to the US DOE grants for a moment. It focuses on three key areas:

  • Computational Energy Sciences: Multiphase Flow Research – in other words, this area focuses on carbon capture and sequestration.
  • Material Science Computer – Aided Development of Novel New Materials for Energy Conversion from Coal – basically this is the search for materials that can withstand high temperatures and extreme environments to improve energy system efficiency.
  • Sensors and Controls: Nano-derived Materials for the Formation of Multi-Dimensional Sensing Structures for the Selective Detection of Fossil Energy Gases at High Temperatures – or for us less than techie people, the sensors will contribute to efficient near zero emission power generation technologies such as carbon capture technologies.

In terms of coal carbon sequestration technologies (or lack thereof): in the “Future of Coal,” a 2007 analysis from MIT, the authors write, “If 60 percent of the CO2 produced from U.S. coal based power generation were to be captured and compressed to a liquid for geologic sequestration, its volume would about equal the total U.S. oil consumption of 20 million barrels per day.”

In other words, we’d need to inject into the ground more CO2 than the amount of oil that is drilled and extracted for U.S. consumption each year.


Now let me end my diatribe with these last thoughts. More coal power: Stupid. Plugging EVs into a coal centric grid: Stupid, but better than conventional vehicles. Plugging EVs into an alternative energy centric grid such as wind and solar: Smart.

Joanna Schroeder

Joanna is a writer and consultant specializing in renewable energy and sustainable agriculture issues.