Thursday, December 10, 2009

How Many Pollutants Come From Coal?

There's been so much talk about clean coal in the last year or two that I can only shake my head. There's no such thing, not even close. One could argue that there's such a thing as slightly cleaner coal but that's it.

I find it curious that Republicans use clean coal jargon quite often, but a website for the coal industry doesn't seem to use the phrase as much. What the World Coal Institute talks about is carbon capture and storage. Worldwide, despite all the hype, there appear to be only seven operational sites in the entire world with none in the U.S. (when you go to the site, click on the 'show operational projects' bar). There are several test sites in the U.S. and a number of projects that are planned but the numbers are still low, though the graph maker doesn't miss a trick to make it look like more.

Given that coal is used to generate about half the electricity in the U.S., how many sites are actually going to have carbon capture and storage? And how many of these sites are actually going to work?

Years ago my father was in chemical packaging and some of the finished products were sent to underground storage tanks that were installed in the 1950s. Those tanks were standard for the era and were supposed to last a hundred years. They lasted about 25-35 years before they began leaking into the soil. So who will be around a hundred years from now to make sure the captured carbon dioxide isn't escaping? It's far better to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the first place than to bank on permanent storage.

In a way, with all the focus on carbon dioxide, global warming is helping to create a myth about coal. Take a look at the following paragaph from the World Coal Institute:
The deployment of all energy generating technologies invariably leads to some degree of environmental impact.


The use of coal for power generation is not exempt from these impacts and has been associated with a number of environmental challenges, primarily associated with air emissions. Coal has demonstrated the ability to meet such challenges in the past and the expectation is that it will successfully meet future environmental challenges.

Isn't that wonderful? Actually, I've read worse propaganda. Good propaganda admits there's a little bit of a problem but, gee whiz, coal producers are just folks like you and me and they're doing their best.

And yes, I'm perfectly aware of the people who earn a living from coal. In fact, the coal problem is so huge it's not controversial to say coal will continue to be used for many years to come and most people will remain employed for all those years. But there are other jobs and other ways to make money that don't cause the damage that coal does.

Coal is the dirtiest fuel there is, period. "Some degree" of impact doesn't cut it in terms of the history of coal and the damage it does and the enormous damage it will continue to do if we do not develop clear plans to switch to alternative energy.

Let me quote another section from the Institute:
Mined coal is of variable quality and is frequently associated with mineral and chemical material including clay, sand, sulphur and trace elements. Coal cleaning by washing and beneficiation removes this associated material, prepares the coal to customer specifications and is an important step in reducing emissions from coal use.

Coal cleaning reduces the ash content of coal by over 50% resulting in less waste, lower sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions and improved thermal efficiencies, leading to lower CO2 emissions. While coal preparation is standard practice in many countries, greater uptake in developing countries is needed as a low-cost way to improve the environmental performance of coal.

Yes, developing countries should do a better job of using coal (or perhaps not using it if they can find better alternative energy sources), but those same countries use only a fraction of what the U.S. and China use. But let's focus on the sleight of hand encompassing 'coal cleaning'. What is used to clean the coal? Water. Where does that water go? Into our rivers, water tables and oceans. The pollution involved is not small.

Where I come from, trained physicians who are concerned about the impact of pollution have far more credibility than politicians in Washington, Beijing and Copenhagen who take money from Big Coal and Big Oil. Physicians for Social Responsibility is one group of doctors who have made an issue of coal. They have published a medical report, "Coal's Assault on Human Health." They point out that coal impacts health from mining to transporting it to power plants to the actual process of burning to the disposal of the ash. Not pretty. If you go to their site, you can download the full report report (pdf file). Here's a section from Chapter 2: Life Cycle of Coal:
It is dring the combustion phase of coal's lifecycle that our dependence on coal energy exacts the greatest toll on human health. Coal combustion releases over 70 harmful chemicals into the environment and contributes significantly to global warming (see Table 2.2). This section describes the pollutants emitted by coal combustion.

Coal combustion creates both solid and gaseous byproducts. Gas byproducts are emitted into the atmosphere through smokestacks. Some solids go into the atmosphere as well. Other solids are left behind at the plant as solid waste, also called coal ash. Some of the pollutants entering the air stay in the atmosphere for long periods; others fall to the earth and in turn pollute soil and water bodies. Some substances are not directly harmful but undergo chemical reactions in the atmosphere that create harmful secondary pollutants.


Notwithstanding local differences in pollutant composition, coal combustion causes pollution nationwide. Though coal supplies roughly 50% of the nation's electricity, it produces a disproportionate share of electric utility-related pollution. Coal plants emit approimately 87% of total utility-related nitrogen oxide pollution, 94% of utility-related nitrogen oxide pollution, and 98% of all utility-related mercury pollution. ... Coal combustion is also responsible for more than 30% of total U.S. carbon dioxide pollution, contributing significantly to global warming.

Uh, what was that again about "...all energy generating technologies invariably leads to some degree of environmental impact"? Coal clearly has far more impact than any other energy producing sector. It's dirty. And always will be. Even without considering global warming, burning coal for our electricity is dirty. Add in global warming and we should be closing down coal plants as alternative energy begins to grow. Not only do we need to get the government to help grow alternative energy faster than our population growth, we need to switch to natural gas as a transition fuel since it burns far cleaner than coal.

Some years ago I was shocked when I learned how much coal is being burned in the United States. An unnoticed irony over the last sixty years is that the use of coal was actually dropping during the 1950s despite the early years of the baby boom and our rising population. There was also a lot of talk in those days about new sources of energy. The United States—and China—need to start walking the talk.

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Anonymous Evan Lipstein said...

Donkey Path
I read your comments about "Clean Coal" and there being no such thing.

You are correct throughout your article and you properly point out that coal as fuel is here to stay in the US and Asia for the next 50 years.

Coal is dirty, the coal burning emissions are also highly polluting and many are toxic, killing fish in rivers and reducing crop out put to grow food for the world most populated and rapidly developing countries.

I am involved with a company that offers an inexpensive clean coal technology. Asia Coal Catalyst Company offers CC-88, a combustion catalyst.

What CC-88 does is very simple chemistry. CC-88 acts as a catalyst to accelerate the exothermic combustion reaction, in simple terms it allows more oxygen to burn more of the carbon contained in the coal. This reduce carbon waste, ie. the black smoke belching from a chimney. Instead of black smoke, you get white smoke or ideally just CO2 coming out.

What many people fail to recognize about greenhouse gases and pollution is that while everyone is focussed on reducing CO2 and or storing it, every fuel when burned emits CO2. CO2 is the purest by-product of combustion.

By-product of incomplete combustion are carbon monoxide a.k.a. CO, particulate matter a.k.a. PM and the more harmful SPM (suspended particulate matter). Respirable particulate matter get drawn deeply into peoples lungs and causes serious health risks.

Coal is not clean and the world needs to stop using it and eventually will. In the meantime we need to use coal sparingly, or as sparingly as we can be improving burning efficiency using modern burners and emissions scrubbers wherever possible.

The big challenge is in the developing countries that cannot afford to stop burning coal. China, India and most of asia will burn coal en masse and burn it however they need to to make money or heat their homes and cook their food.

Asia Coal Catalyst Company promotes our
technology as a simple, cost-effective approach to using coal more effectively and reducing carbon waste which can help cut down on the total amount of coal consumed.

7:02 AM  

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