Tuesday, January 06, 2009

"Coal is my worst nightmare"

The quote in the title of today's post is from Dr. Steven Chu - President-elect Barack Obama's choice to head the U.S. Department of Energy. The comment reflects his concern and sense of urgency about climate change.

Coal combustion -- a major source of greenhouse gas emissions -- accounts for 50% of the nation's electricity generation. Dr. Chu's confirmation hearing is scheduled for next week. He will undoubtedly be asked how he proposes we address climate change while keeping the lights on and our economy humming.

His responses to their questions may provide a fascination glimpse at how the Obama Administration plans to translate theory into practice. (GW)

Coal on Front Burner

By Ken Silverstein
EnergyBiz Insider
January 5, 2009

Running for office is one matter. Governing divergent interests is quite another. That's something in which the future Obama administration is now coming to grips.

The administration has painted itself green. But it is now trying to avoid doing so at the expense of the coal industry, which provides about 50 percent of the fuel to run this country's electric generation. And while the president-elect has said that he supports the advancement of modern, cleaner coal technologies, his nomination of Steven Chu as the secretary of the Department of Energy is controversial.

The Nobel Prize-winning physicist who is also the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a Stanford University professor said publicly before his appointment that "coal is my worst nightmare." In the same speech, delivered last April, Chu goes on to recognize coal's dominant role in the energy portfolio but cautions that existing carbon capture and sequestration pilot projects are unproven and far too small given the gravity of the situation.

"We won't run out of energy, but there's enough carbon in the ground to really cook us," Chu says. "It's sort of a research and development issue. I think we have to do this if we're going to go forward with coal, but it's not a guarantee that we have a solution with coal." In earlier talks, however, he is quoted as saying that such carbon capture and storage technologies "can play a central role" in the battle against climate change.

The energy secretary nominee will be in a position to influence the administration. But he will be part of a team that develops energy and environmental policies and one that will reflect the tenor and philosophy of Barack Obama. Therefore, the speech given during Chu's research and scholarly days is largely irrelevant.

Nevertheless, the comments are bound to get increasing attention during the confirmation process and will assuredly frame the debate on climate change. President-elect Obama has vowed to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 to 1990 levels. And by 2050, he has said the goal is to reduce them by 80 percent.

Toward that end, he has said he will invest hundred of millions in modern coal facilities that have the potential to drastically pollute less. Obama has also said he will tell the Energy Department to begin anew the development of commercial-scale coal facilities that have the potential to capture and store carbon dioxide -- something that Chu said earlier would be opposed by community organizations that fear those releases could bubble up to the surface and cause horrible repercussions.

"If you're concerned about radiation, coal might be worse than a nuclear reactor," Chu remarked in the speech. "It's worse in every other respect."

The Tightrope

Power companies contribute about a third of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, according to the Congressional Research Service. While older coal-fired facilities could be retrofitted so as to trap those emissions, those remedies are expensive and less efficient than building modern coal plants called integrated gasification combined cycle plants, commonly referred to as coal gasification.

Such plants scrub the mercury, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide before they would separate the remaining byproducts: carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which could be used to power everything from cars to power plants. The largest demonstration projects are in Norway, where Statoil is placing 1 million tons of carbon dioxide per year into a saline aquifer deep in the North Sea, and in Canada, where the carbon dioxide is going into the Weyburn Oil field.

In this country, American Electric Power says that it will follow a dual course of retrofitting its older coal-fired plants while also building modern facilities that have the potential to capture carbon emissions. Meantime, ConocoPhillips, General Electric and Shell Corp. are spending billions to develop not just coal gasification technologies but also the tools to bury carbon dioxide.

Some environmental groups say that clean coal and specifically carbon capture is a pipe dream fueled by the coal industry and utilities. Others are taking a wait-and-see approach. But the one common position that the environmentalists hold is that lawmakers must better respect science in the effort to craft energy laws and that the regulatory bodies must be more aggressive in their approach to enforcing those rules.

Those groups universally object to greater coal development unless the associated heat-trapping emissions can be sequestered. By nearly all accounts, such technologies are at least two decades off, prompting green organizations to say that private interests are not spending enough of its own resources to bring this about sooner. They generally applaud the nomination of Director Chu to energy secretary, noting that he will champion science over politics during cabinet meetings.

Coal industry reps say that they look forward to working with the new administration and laud the announcements that it will channel resources into "clean coal" projects. They, in turn, are critical of those environmental groups that say such projects are a "myth," noting that the nation's energy demands are growing and it therefore requires more base-load electric generation -- something coal is well-positioned to provide.

"By working to kill investment in clean coal technologies, they will prevent construction of new base-load power plants that experts say America needs in order to maintain the health of our electricity grid," says Roy Innis, chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality. "That increases the possibility of blackouts. And that puts families and lives at increased risk."

Pleasing all sides will be impossible. But the president-elect will try, pledging to make this nation as green as it can be while leveraging its existing natural resources and pushing utilities to use modern technologies.


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