Is 'Clean Coal' Barack Obama's first great energy challenge?

November 05 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy   Year: 2010   Rating: 4 Hot

Could coal emerge as the biggest energy story of 2009? We think so!

Coal is likely to become President elect Barack Obama’s first great energy policy challenge- as evidenced by the coal industry’s ‘Congratulations’ ad on

Why coal?
Big Story for 2009: Problems with ‘Big Grid’
As prices at the pump drop in response to the global economic slowdown, we can (sadly) anticipate less media and public attention to the long term challenges of oil. Fortunately we have a problem of equal magnitude- an aging, some say failing, electric utility grid run by large enterprises who are already rethinking their changing role in the next century.

There is a short list of big issues for ‘Big Grid’ – building a 21st Century ‘Smart Grid’ around software and storage, integrating utility scale renewables (solar, wind, biomass waste), addressing regulatory challenges of carbon emissions, and working with private sector entrepreneurs who are advancing technologies that could disrupt long-held pricing structures and operating principles of our antiquated grid.

Today, we cannot talk about the future of utility grid energy or global energy and climate issues without confronting the challenges of coal. ‘Clean Coal’ refers to various methods of capturing energy from coal while reducing the amount of pollutants. Critics argue that coal can never been ‘clean’, while supporters of ‘cleaner’ coal argue that we must develop cost effective strategies that can reduce the impact of coal being burned in the US, China and around the world.

3 ways to talk about clean coal

#1) Focus on the complexity of the situation
The story of coal as an energy resource is layered with nuanced issues that have an impact on communities, industries and environment. There are no easy, short term solutions that satisfy everyone. Simplifying the challenges or just saying ‘no’ to coal does nothing to change its role in the global economy as the world’s fastest growing energy source. An Obama administration could benefit greatly from a balanced and comprehensive awareness campaign about the implications of our policies and the brutal facts associated with coal-based power generation in the next 30 years. Coal is not going away anytime soon. If ‘clean’ coal is not possible, ‘cleaner’ coal might be a welcomed near term strategy until solar and wind resources can match coal’s output.

#2) Focus on science, not emotion
The conversation over coal is likely to be very emotional as both sides firm up their positions at opposite ends of the spectrum. It is not hard to imagine the familiar road of polarization around saving ‘jobs’ and ‘cost’ versus ‘environment’. Yet there is hope in new entrepreneurial solutions based on emerging science of carbon-hydrogen energy systems and algae based bioenergy. The challenge for an Obama Administration will be leading a science-oriented conversation among a general population that is, by most accounts, poorly suited in the area of energy science literacy. We might start by making sure everyone in America and the world understands what coal is and how we extract energy from its chemical bonds.

3) ‘Growing Energy’: Energy Entrepreneurs of algae biofuel startups
Can we ‘grow energy’ using carbon emissions from coal plants?

Coal is ancient biomass. There are a number of toxic byproducts involved in extracting energy from coal, but in principle, we break the bonds of carbon and hydrogen to generate heat to turn turbines for electricity. Then result of combustion is carbon atoms bonded with oxygen to form carbon dioxide.

There is another choice for binding carbon using hydrogen. If carbon bonds with hydrogen you can create fuels similar to – coal, diesel and gasoline. The higher the hydrogen content, the better the fuel. This schematic of closing the carbon loop with hydrogen is what drives investments in algae biofuel startups. Their approach is to tap the power of biological systems (not chemical engineering) to absorb carbon emissions and create usuable fuels as the byproduct. (Oil is after all, ancient algae that lived in shallow oceans.)

We have written several posts on the future role of ‘carbon eating’ algae, and the potential of US startups in changing the carbon emissions landscape in the US and China. Yet most people have no real way to talk about the potential of algae based biofuels and it remains a fringe energy concept. Obama could bring a refreshing point of view by looking at the problem of carbon from the perspective of biology, and focusing attention on entrepreneurial efforts to turn carbon into a resource, not a liability. [Comprehensive list of algae biofuel companies]

US Department of Energy Clean Coal program
How clean coal works
Sierra Club Campaign
World Coal Institute
Clean Coal Utilities Group

Related posts from The Energy
Could algae startups transform China’s coal industry in 20 years?
‘Growing Energy’ – TED Talk by Juan Enriquez
Steve Jurvetson: Biology and Energy are Converging & Accelerating

Comment Thread (1 Response)

  1. Excellent post Gary. Your point about focusing on science not emotion could not be more important. Rational scientific debate will be crucial when discussing clean(er) coal and nuclear. I look forward to learning more about coal algae biofuel—if I am even saying that correctly.

    Posted by: Mielle Sullivan   November 06, 2008
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