The Science of Sustainability

A Difficult Path for Clean Coal

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Coal generates half of all the electricity in the U.S. It’s also the biggest source of global-warming emissions and other air pollution. The coal industry acknowledges this but says the answer is not to phase out coal, but instead to produce "clean coal." Among the strategies for doing this is building carbon sequestration plants, where the carbon generated from burning coal is pumped underground. But despite years of promises, no carbon sequestration plants are in operation in the U.S. Anne Glausser of QUEST Ohio reports on the difficult path for clean coal for our special radio series, Coal at the Crossroads.


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taking measurements during carbon storage project in Canton, Ohio. Courtesy ODNR.

Coal generates half of all the electricity in the U.S. It’s also the biggest source of global-warming emissions and other air pollution. The coal industry acknowledges this but says the answer is not to phase out coal, but instead to produce “clean coal.” Among the strategies for doing this is building carbon sequestration plants, where the carbon generated from burning coal is pumped underground. But despite years of promises, no carbon sequestration plants are in operation in the U.S. Anne Glausser reports on the difficult path for clean coal.

It’s noon on a humid Ohio summer day. About 10 miles southeast of the city of Canton, Chris Perry, a geologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, is standing in a patch of woods next to an oil well. Over the chatter of cicadas, Perry explains why this well is of particular interest to him: “We did what we call a ‘huff and puff,’ or a cyclic CO2 test—we injected 80 tons of CO2.”

Chris Perry, geologist with the Ohio Dept of Natural Resources

Chris Perry, geologist with the Ohio Dept of Natural Resources, stands next to an oil well in Canton, Ohio where his research team injected CO2 for permanent storage.

Perry’s part of a research team that’s looking into how we can store carbon dioxide, in places like this oil well. The researchers “injected” carbon into this well, to test its ability to trap—or sequester—the potent greenhouse gas.

And on this small scale project, Perry’s group was successful. “The volume of CO2 we put in the well entered into the rock matrix, entered into that porous sandstone, so the CO2 was stored,” says Perry.

The U.S. Department of Energy has spent more than 4 billion dollars on clean coal projects like this, but despite the investment, none of them have really taken off. Early this summer one of the nation’s largest generators of electricity—Ohio-based American Electric Power—decided to cancel a promising carbon storage project at its plant in West Virginia. “It was a huge blow,” says geologist Chris Perry, “because it was really perhaps the leading industrial funded Co2 sequestration study underway in the United States.”

So, why pull the plug? Nick Akins, president of American Electric Power, says that it just didn’t make economic sense, given the hefty price tag of carbon capture and storage, and waning political support for climate legislation. “The DOE had funded projects about 50%. And so it was left for us to look at that project and fund the other 50%. And this project was $664 million dollars. So not a small number,” says Akins.

AEP had already spent 140-million dollars of its own funds on a smaller-scale pilot study, and state regulators wouldn’t let the company pass along the cost of developing the technology onto rate paying customers. “And that’s why we put it on the shelf,” says Akins.

Carbon storage process

Carbon storage process. Courtesy ODNR

The company is also in the midst of trying to comply with a new federal rule that requires coal plants to reduce emissions of two main components of smog. Operators will either have to spend money to upgrade plants or shut older plants down. “I think clean coal is definitely fighting a war, at this point,” says Akins, “I think there definitely is a view that coal should be shut down, that it needs to be taken offline to reduce emissions, but keep in mind, these plants produce 45-48% of the energy mix of this country.”

Sandy Buchanan is Executive Director of Ohio Citizen Action, a non-profit organization that targets polluting industries and she is a “clean coal” skeptic. “The idea of clean coal has always been a way for the coal industry to try to prop itself up,” says Buchanan, “they’ve received in Ohio literally millions of dollars of tax-payer subsidies for research projects, all of which have turned out to be unproductive, extremely expensive, and have not worked.”

Buchanan says the money should be put instead toward renewable energy and efficiency research, and that coal needs to be phased out. “The thing to do with coal is leave it in the ground,” says Buchanan.

One thing Buchanan and American Electric Power President Nick Akins agree on: right now, “clean coal” isn’t delivering. The carbon storage process is just too expensive. But strict new regulations on burning coal could force the issue– the Obama administration is writing new EPA rules that would place mandatory national limits on greenhouse gas emissions. While environmentalists seek the end of coal, Akins says that’s just not feasible. “In order to continue feeding the insatiable desire of the electrification of this economy,” says Akins, “we need everything. And coal has to remain a part.”

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Anne Glausser

About the Author ()

Anne Glausser is the Coordinating Producer for QUEST Ohio. Before taking on this role, she was WCPN 90.3 FM & WVIZ/PBS ideastream’s health reporter and produced award-winning radio pieces. She’s spent time on both coasts (her college mascot was the banana slug!), but grew up in the Midwest and is happy to be back home. She got started in radio at PRI’s Living on Earth, and has also spent time as a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health. Anne got her SM from MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.