Thursday, December 10, 2009

Popular Mechanics: "The Myth of Clean Coal"

I used to read Popular Mechanics as a kid, but I haven't paid much attention to it in a long time as more distractions creeped into my life.  I was intrigued the other day when I spotted an article called, "The Myth of Clean Coal: Analysis" on the PM web site.  It's a good read.

The article makes a bunch of good points (like "A recent study concluded that coal emissions contribute to 10,000 premature deaths in the United States each year.")  While "clean coal" makes little economic or scientific sense, it makes great political sense.  The author compares the "clean coal" boondoggle to enact corn-based methanol mandates, "legislation that employs appealing buzzwords to justify subsidies to a politically favored constituency—while actually worsening the problem it seeks to solve." 

But the core of the story is the discussion of the physical merits of "clean coal" and how it really doesn't work on a large scale.  It's hard to capture carbon from coal plant exhaust and converting the carbon to a disposable form would require huge amounts of power and storage capacity.  Ultimately "clean coal" would require burning (and mining) even more coal.  If I'm a coal company, I'm all over "clean coal."

Bottom line: "The focus on mythical clean coal is particularly frustrating because practical, cost-effective alternatives do exist."  He goes on to discuss natural gas, nuclear power and conservation. 

Ultimately, it's frustrating to me because "clean coal" is just a marketing trick that digs us deeper in the hole.  As I learned from a cagey lawyer early in my career, "the first rule of holes is that when you realize you're in one, stop digging."  We need to stop digging.

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