The false promises of ’clean coal’

The false promises of 'clean coal'

Mississippi Power’s Kemper County energy facility in central Mississippi near DeKalb, under construction on 21 October 2013. Initially hailed as one of the cleanest coal-fired power plants on the planet, the company recently announced it was switching to gas due to rising construction costs.

(AP/Rogelio V. Solis)

According to a recently announced deal between the ASEAN Center for Energy (ACE) and the World Coal Association (WCA), clean coal is coming to Asia.

However, the details are murky. Many environmental advocates believe this is by design. As the situation in the United States shows, clean coal has, so far, seen no success, leading many to fear that it is little more than a marketing ploy for regular, dirty coal plants.

"The phrase ’clean coal’ is a made-up branding slogan. It is not real. Nothing can make a coal plant clean," says Nicole Ghio, of the environmental organisation Sierra Club.

Coal has long been derided as the dirtiest fossil fuel energy source, both in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. Clean coal technology was developed by the coal industry in the 1990s to limit air pollutants such as particulates, nitrous oxides and sulfur dioxide. Since 2000, the coal industry has been pushing for investment in and the development of coal plants that, due to carbon capture and storage technologies, could also be greenhouse gas neutral.

However, despite billions of dollars in investment, no large-scale coal plant has so far been able to demonstrate zero-emissions coal.

In June of 2017, Mississippi’s Kemper County Energy Facility, which was meant to be the first large-scale clean coal plant in the United States, announced that it was switching to natural gas. The project was five years behind schedule and US$4 billion dollars over budget, and Mississippi taxpayers would have to cover more than US$2 billion.

Despite the failure of Kemper, and the lack of any functioning large-scale facilities in the decade-plus since the idea of clean coal emerged, the coal industry wants to promote clean coal technology in energy-hungry south-east Asia, a region of more than 600 million inhabitants.

One reason why the coal industry may be looking at south-east Asia is to make up for the decline of coal as the power of choice in the United States. Even the election of a pro-coal US President has not had an impact. According to the Sierra Club, coal plants were retiring in 2017 at the same pace as during the Obama administration.

"The coal industry can no longer compete, and nothing can change this economic reality," says Ghio.

Globally, coal prices remain on a downward trajectory, and jobs are, so far, not returning to economically depressed coal mining regions such as Wyoming or Appalachia. In fact, a report from the International Renewable Energy Agency shows that there are now more jobs globally in the renewable energy sector - most notably in the fast-growing wind and solar power industries - than in coal mining or the oil and gas industries, a trend that is unlikely to reverse itself anytime soon.

This is true in the US as well, as the Sierra Club found in their own analysis.

"Right now, clean energy jobs already overwhelm dirty fuels in nearly every state across America, and that growth is only going to continue as clean energy keeps getting more affordable and accessible by the day," said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune in a press statement.

Eyes on Asia

Asia has been a leading target of the coal industry for a long time, and for years it was deemed inevitable that this fast-growing region would choose coal to power its economy. This was the impetus behind the push in the mid-2000s to build several massive coal export terminals on the West Coast - all of which were defeated due to grassroots opposition.

While the trend for coal in the US is falling, in Asia - where energy demand is rising due to growing economic development - the question about what energy source will power the region’s future remains uncertain.

The World Coal Association still believes clean coal, despite its limited use anywhere, is part of Asia’s future. According to a statement provided to Equal Times from WCA chief executive Benjamin Sporton, there are benefits from switching to coal as compared to "old inefficient technologies and the burning of wood and animal dung indoors."

He adds: "For countries that have decided to use coal, high-efficiency low-emission (HELE) technologies are essential to achieving economic growth and energy access while reducing carbon emissions and other pollutants that affect health and air quality."

Many advocates are concerned that, besides the fact that clean coal does not exist, what Asia will get won’t be even the latest pollution-control technology. Countries like Indonesia - where over 40 coal plants are being planned with foreign support - have low standards for pollution controls. So projects like the massive, 2000 megawatt Batang Coal Plant on the island of Java, funded primarily by Japan, will be built without even be the best, most recent coal burning technology, much less "clean coal."

"If Japanese companies say ’clean coal’ technologies, they are really talking about efficiency, or emissions for CO2. But for other pollutants, like sulfur oxide, nitrous oxide, or PM 2.5, the Indonesian standards are really quite low," Hozue Hatae, of Friends of the Earth (FOE) Japan, tells Equal Times.

"Even though Japanese companies are saying that they have good technology, they never use the same technology for controlling pollution abroad as they do in Japan." In fact, according to FOE, some plants will have up to ten times higher pollutant emission levels than is allowed in Japan or the United States.

According to a study led by researchers from Harvard University, 70,000 more people a year would die from the detrimental effects of pollution from coal burning and waste disposal. Greenpeace estimates 10,600 premature deaths per year in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta alone.

"[In Asia], ultra-supercritical coal plants, and even supercritical coal plants, are often given the ’clean coal’ misnomer," Ghio explains. "Neither of these efficiency technologies are remotely cutting edge, and they do not cover critical pollution-control technologies or operations, such as coal transport and storage practices, or waste storage."

Green revolution

What many believe is a better alternative to coal, both for alleviating energy poverty and eliminating all pollutants, is renewable energy. Several countries in Asia are already making the choice to use genuine clean energy.

China, which, back in the 2000s was famously opening a new coal plant every two weeks, has recently announced plans to freeze or shut dozens of existing or planned coal plants and is adding wind power at a record pace.

India’s energy shift is taking place years faster than expected, particularly in the field of solar energy. That’s why both countries are expected to exceed the commitments they made as part of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

This is also why the global outlook for coal is still gloomy. The International Energy Agency dramatically cut back its projections for future coal demand by more than 50 per cent last year. China’s coal use may have peaked in 2013, and India is looking likely to peak decades ahead of projections. Even if plans go through for all the plants proposed in south-east Asia, it won’t be enough.

"The idea that south-east Asian markets will make up for the worldwide decline in coal is nothing more than the false hope of a dying industry," concludes Ghio.

For the region, the choice is either to invest in local, clean energy and reap the economic benefits, or let hundreds of thousands perish chasing the false dream of clean coal that has proved costly and wasteful.

As Mississippi taxpayers found out the hard way, cheap, affordable clean coal does not exist, and never will.