smokestacks

Smokestacks in Illinois. (Photo: Dori)

Alex Chadwick, BURN host

The cover story in the current Wired posits coal as dirty, dangerous and the inevitable future of clean energy.

The reporter, Charles C. Mann, is a serious magazine journalist who writes about science for Wired, The Atlantic and Science. But he appears to know this article will not be welcomed by his usual audience, and he leads with data and numbers that bolster his argument: the world is burning more coal than it used to, and in places that will likely see a lot more growth in the decades ahead — especially China and India — there is no real alternative to coal, which is abundant, relatively cheap, and with existing infrastructure already in place, and a lot more of it coming.

Mann also includes data that shows how disastrous this could be for climate — and all of us — due to the high output of carbon dioxide from burning coal. But…there is an escape: carbon capture and storage, or CCS. This is an industrial process that allows for the removal of almost all CO2 in the process of burning coal for energy. He quotes former Secretary of Energy and Nobel laureate Steven Chu as saying that it’s hard to imagine a future without CCS.

The trouble with this argument is that the idea of CCS has been around for decades, and a lot of time, money and engineering talent has gone into trying to make the system work. And so far, it doesn’t. Coal-fired power plants are huge, highly-complicated industrial complexes, and trying to retrofit them to operate significantly differently than they have is expensive and very difficult – even for energy companies.

Mann details his long, repeated efforts to visit a new coal plant in China that has just invested $1 billion on an experimental CCS process. He could not get access to the plant, and was turned away by guards. Mann doesn’t speculate on why, but here’s a guess: It doesn’t work. The DOE, private companies, and certainly the coal industry have spent decades and billions of dollars trying to build a CCS demonstration project, and they still don’t have one that works at anything like the necessary scale.

Secretary Chu is not wrong. We need energy, and we will need very consistent, reliable energy for at least a century before renewables will be significant help. Coal is the screamingly obvious source. Except that its use looks suicidal.