Is clean coal really an option?

Posted by Laura Grant on March 5, 2009
Posted in Green News

Clean coal is a term that’s bandied about in South Africa as much as it is in the United States. But it’s hard to determine whether it’s real or just wishful thinking.

If you watch the clip from CNN above, it seems clean coal means different things to different people. Bruce Nilles of the Sierra Club, says that the coal industry uses the term clean coal to mean “anything that is built post-1970 regardless of the fact that it’s spewing out large amounts of carbon dioxide”.

Technology is the key to clean coal, it would appear. But does the technology that will prevent the world’s coal power plants from belching out greenhouses gases exist yet – and on a big enough scale? The CNN clip says that not one power station in the US is fitted with carbon capture technology yet. So how far away are we from actually seeing it being installed on the coal-to-liquid fuel plants and power stations here in South Africa? Then there’s also the matter of finding somewhere to store the carbon dioxide in perpetuity.

As a developing country, South Africa doesn’t have caps on its greenhouse gas emissions like the developed countries do under the Kyoto Protocol. Huge new coal power plants are being built here and some old ones are being brought out of mothballs and recommissioned to meet the growing demand for electricity. The reason we’re continuing down the coal path is that at present it appears to be the cheapest option. And the government has carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) down on its list of climate change mitigation options.

We already have a high per capita carbon footprint in this country (about 10 tons a year) because of our reliance on coal for energy and this is despite the fact that 30 percent of South Africans don’t have access to electricity. The country needs to be able to generate clean and affordable electricity to help raise these millions of people out of poverty.

So my question is: Will “clean coal” technology ever be able to do this – and even it it can, will it be too expensive for us people of the South to afford?

[CNN link from Adam of Twilight Earth on Twitter]


Leave a Reply