Currently, power plants that use coal to generate electricity account for more than 30% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. The phrase “clean coal technology” fosters hope that scientists will find a way to take harmful elements, especially carbon, out of coal. We would like to believe that with clean coal technology we could provide the nation with much of the energy needed to power our nation into the future—and be environmentally responsible, as well.
The question is: Can coal be clean? Coal is a fossil fuel. All fossil fuels contain carbon which is released as CO2 into the air and adds to the warming of the earth thereby contributing to climate change. Scientists have worked for decades to make coal clean. Scrubbers have been put on electrical power plants, successfully preventing the release of much sulfur. They have also found ways to capture CO2, but not to store or sequester it safely on a large scale. Some coal plants are experimenting with saline aquifers deep in the ocean, and other companies are considering returning it to the mines from which coal has been removed. But, there are unanswered questions about safety including water contamination, harm to aquatic life and long-term stability.
And then there’s the problem of coal ash. Right now, this non-combustible by-product of coal processing is contained in surface ponds. Federally-mandated coal scrubbers have made our air cleaner but they have also led to higher concentrations of pollutants in coal ash, including arsenic, lead, mercury, thorium, and uranium, all of which are currently storied in these “wet dumps.” Last December’s coal ash sludge spill in Kingston, TN—when over 1 billion gallons of sludge surged over 400 acres of watershed—illustrates of the danger these surface ponds.
So how long will this research take? The best estimates of time are ten to twenty years. The coal industry wants to build more plants now, betting that all problems will be solved by the time the plants are constructed. But what if they’re not solved? Dominion Power is currently building a coal-fired power plant in Wise County that, according to an article in Time Magazine, “will emit 5.3 million tons of CO2 a year, roughly the equivalent of putting a million more cars on the road.” (Time/11-17-08).
Those of us representing the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley, a group of concerned citizens in the Shenandoah Valley, know that coal is not clean. The technology exists to harness wind and solar power but not produce enough alternative energy to meet our society’s needs. We in the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley believe money and resources would be better spent on this type of research, rather than on clean coal research. We are urging Congress to act swiftly to promote renewable energies that are truly clean. Jobs in the coal industry could be replaced by jobs in clean energy. Because we must sustain our planet, we must choose clean energy—and that’s not coal!
- ▼ October (5)