Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Continuing Fog Around Coal


According to the International Energy Agency, as of March 2012 about 40 % of the world's electricity is generated by burning coal, and it is still the second fuel source globally behind oil. Coal is plentiful, relatively easy to mine and cheap to burn.  However, as we know from our own history in Pennsylvania and Appalachia, it also imposes very heavy long-term public health costs on  miners, plant operators, and on the general public.  This week's photos of the air quality in Beijing are a vivid reminder of what we have all known for generations. 

The first cry going out from the environmentalists is to make coal burning "cleaner." Significant academic research has been going on for decades trying to bring this dream to reality.  Unfortunately, an economically feasible solution is still in the labs. 

On coal gasification with pre-combustion carbon capture and storage, MIT's research is probably at the forefront. 

Similarly, pressurized coal combustion in an advanced oxy-fuel chamber has attractive properties for efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction, but the characterization of the process using computational fluid dynamics is still in its relative infancy.  

Finally, there is the dream of integrated carbon capture and storage. The demonstration project in Estevan, Saskatchewan is one of the largest of its kind. If environmentalists are agitated about fracking and the movement of underground gas near aquifers, they should predictably raise a hue and cry about deep well injections of gas.  Aside from these concerns, the real issue, as always, is the economics of these projects and their effects on electricity prices, which all consumers and businesses use.

China, if for no other reason than the health of its citizens, should be developing many such demonstration projects to burn its coal cleaner.  The same could be said for India, and India should also make a wholesale replacement of its urban diesel bus fleets, which choke the lungs of the Indian populace with soot and noxious gases. 

We really need to have a portfolio of energy sources with which to deal with the economic transitions among fuels and with a sensible path to reducing greenhouse gases.  Windmills and solar won't do the trick. Remember this favorite. "The Windmills of Your Mind?"  

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