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Clean coal is an umbrella term used primarily to describe technologies that reduce emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas that arise from the burning of coal for electrical power. Typically, "clean coal" has been used by the media in reference to carbon capture and storage, which pumps and stores CO2 emissions underground, and to plants using an Integrated gasification combined cycle which gasifies coal to reduce CO2 emissions.[1][2][3][4]

"Clean coal" technologies were developed primarily in response to regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency - most notably the Clean Air Act - and in anticipation of legislation that seeks to mitigate climate change. Currently, the electricity sector of the United States is responsible for about 41% of the nation's CO2 emissions, and half of the sector's production comes from coal-fired power plants. [5]


Clean coal technology

The US Department of Energy continues to work with private industry in developing advanced clean coal technologies.[6] One of the clean coal technologies being developed is carbon capture and sequestration, which is currently being tested at existing coal-based plants throughout the world. Perhaps the most popular example of a coal-based plant using carbon capture technology is Vattenfall’s Schwarze Pumpe plant [7] in Germany Another technology under development is Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle or IGCC. [8]

Other clean coal technologies include those that that dewater low rank coals. Low rank coals often contain a higher level of moisture content which contains a lower calorific content per tonne. This causes a reduced burning efficiency and an increased emissions output. Reduction of moisture from the coal prior to combustion can reduce emissions by up to 50 percent.[citation needed]

It has been estimated that commercial-scale clean-coal power stations (coal-burning power stations with carbon capture and sequestration) cannot be commercially viable and widely adopted before 2020 or 2025.[citation needed] This time frame is of concern to environmentalists because, according to the Stern report, there is an urgent need to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

Clean Coal and the environment

According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the burning of coal, a fossil fuel, is blamed for climate change and global warming. (See the UN IPCC Fourth Assessment Report). As 25.5% of the world's electrical generation in 2004 was from coal-fired generation (see World energy resources and consumption), reaching the carbon dioxide reduction targets of the Kyoto Protocol will require modifications to how coal is utilized.[9]

Sequestration technology has yet to be tested on a large scale and may not be safe or successful. Sequestered CO2 may eventually "leak" up through the ground, may lead to unexpected geological instability or may cause contamination of aquifers used for drinking water supplies.[10] There are also concerns that plans to pump some of the sequestered CO2 into certain oil and gas reserves, to help make the fuels easier to pump out of the ground, will lead to increased concentrations of CO2 in potential fuel supplies. This would have to be removed or released during the refining process.[11]

Technologies related to reducing the environmental impact of extracting energy from coal do not address environmental impacts of coal mining. Examples of environmental impacts of coal mining include the Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill.


The byproducts of coal combustion are considerably hazardous to the environment if not properly contained.

While it is possible to remove most of the sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM) emissions from the coal-burning process, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and radionuclides [12] will be more difficult to address.

Coal-fired power plants are the largest aggregate source of mercury: 50 tons per year come from coal power plants out of 150 tons emitted nationally in the USA and 5000 tons globally.[13] In the USA, neither the combustion products of oil[14], nor their associated solid or liquid waste streams[15], are considered to be major contributors to mercury pollution.[16]

Potential cost of clean coal

Whether clean coal technology is adopted world wide will …“depend less on science than on economics. Cleaning coal is very expensive.” [17]

Projected costs for carbon capture and storage (CCS) can be found in that article. Credit Suisse Group says $15 billion needs to be invested in CCS over the next 10 years for it to play an important role in climate change. The International Energy Agency says $20 billion is needed. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change says the number is as high as $30 billion. Those figures dwarf the actual investments to date.

In the US, the Bush administration spent about $2.5 billion on clean coal technology — a large amount, but far less than what will be needed[citation needed]. CCS proponents say both the government and the private sector need to step up their investments. [18]


FutureGen is a US government project, announced by President George W. Bush in 2003 to build a near zero-emissions coal-fueled power plant to produce hydrogen and electricity while using carbon capture and storage. Funding for the plant was withdrawn by the Department of Energy on 29 January 2008.[19]

Support and criticism



In the United States, clean coal was been mentioned by former President George W. Bush on several occasions, including his 2007 State of the Union Address. Bush's position was that clean coal technologies should be encouraged as one means to reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil.

During the 2008 US Presidential campaign, both candidates John McCain and Barack Obama expressed interest in the development of clean coal technologies as part of an overall comprehensive energy plan.[20] The development of clean coal also creates the possibility of international business for the United States and other world markets.[21]

The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, signed in 2009 by President Obama, allocated $3.4 billion for advanced clean coal technologies, including carbon capture and sequestration demonstration projects.[22]

Current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that “we should strive to have new electricity generation come from other sources, such as clean coal and renewables,” and current Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu has said that “It is absolutely worthwhile to invest in carbon capture and storage,” noting that even if the U.S. and Europe turned their backs on coal, developing nations like India and China would not.[23]

In Australia, clean coal is often referred to by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as a possible way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.[24] (The previous Prime Minister John Howard has stated that nuclear power is a better alternative, as clean coal technology may not prove to be economically favourable.[25])


Prominent environmentalists, including Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program, believe that the term clean coal is misleading: "There is no such thing as 'clean coal' and there never will be. It's an oxymoron"[26]. The Sierra Club's Coal Campaign has launched a site refuting the clean coal statements and advertising of the coal industry, [4].

I say this based on my experience as the former head of the TVA, which bought and burned more than 30 million tons of coal a year. I was deeply involved in the strip mining, underground mining, trucking, and most importantly, the burning of huge quantities of coal. No one who has been deeply involved with coal can rightfully say it is clean.
S. David Freeman"Winning Our Energy Independence: An Energy Insider Shows How"

Complaints focus on the environmental impacts of coal extraction, high costs to sequester carbon, and uncertainty of how to manage end result pollutants and radionuclides.

Critics of the planned power plants assert that there is no such thing as "clean coal" and that the plant will still release large amounts of pollutants compared to renewable energy sources such as wind power and solar power.

The 2007 Australian of the Year, paleontologist and influential environmental activist Tim Flannery made the assertion that the concept of clean coal might not be viable for all geographical locations.[27][28]

Critics also point out that the continuing construction of coal-powered plants (whether or not they use carbon sequestration techniques) encourages unsustainable mining practices for coal, which can strip away mountains, hillsides, and natural areas. They also point out that there can be a large amount of energy required and pollution emitted in transporting the coal to the power plants. Also, scrubbers will do nothing to reduce greenhouse gases:

Scrubbers remove some particulates, SO2 , Hg(2+) , and SO3 – pollution that causes smog – but they will do nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. In fact, scrubbers are energy intensive and could lead to more of these emissions, leaving us further unable to meet Kyoto targets.
Cherise Burda, The Pembina Institute

The Reality Coalition, a nonprofit organization composed of Alliance for Climate Protection, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the League of Conservation Voters, ran a series of television commercials in 2008 and 2009. The commercials were highly critical of clean coal, stating that there are no clean coal power plants in existence in the U.S and that without capturing CO2 emissions and storing it safely that it cannot be called clean coal.[29]

Greenpeace is a major opponent of the concept because they view emissions and wastes as not being avoided but instead transferred from one waste stream to another.[30]

Prior terminology

Clean coal was an umbrella term used to describe methods that have been developed to reduce the environmental impact of coal-based electricity, which accounts for nearly half of the United States’ electricity supply. These efforts include chemically washing minerals and impurities from the coal, gasification (see also IGCC), treating the flue gases with steam to remove sulfur dioxide, carbon capture and storage technologies to capture the carbon dioxide from the flue gas and coal de-watering technologies to improve the calorific quality and thus the efficiency of burning coal for energy. These methods and the technology used are described as clean coal technologies. Figures from the Environmental Protection Agency show that these technologies have made today’s coal-based generating fleet 77 percent cleaner on the basis of regulated emissions per unit of energy produced.[31]

While the term “clean coal” is today commonly used to describe carbon capture technologies, the earliest use of the term can be traced back to U.S. Senate Bill 911 in April, 1987[citation needed]:

“The term clean coal technology means any technology…deployed at a new or existing facility which will achieve significant reductions in air emissions of sulfur dioxide or oxides of nitrogen associated with the utilization of coal in the generation of electricity.”

It was in the late 1980s and early 1990s that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) conducted a joint program with the industry and State agencies to demonstrate these technologies large enough for commercial use. The program, called the Clean Coal Technology & Clean Coal Power Initiative [32], has had a number of successes that have reduced emissions and waste from coal-based electricity generation [5]. Moreover, the Program has met regulatory challenges by incorporating nitrogen oxide (NOx) control technologies “into a portfolio of cost-effective regulatory compliance options for the full range of boiler types.” This portfolio has positioned the U.S. as a top exporter of clean coal technologies such as those used for NOx. The DOE continues its programs and initiatives through regional sequestration partnerships, a carbon sequestration leadership forum and the Carbon Sequestration Core Program, a carbon capture and sequestration research and development program.[33]

According to a report by the assistant secretary for fossil energy at the U.S. Department of Energy, clean coal technology has paid measurable dividends. Technological innovation introduced through the CCT Program now provides consumers cost-effective, clean, coal-based energy.[34]

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) control technologies emerging from clean coal technology have moved into the utility and industrial marketplace and now provide cost-effective regulatory compliance. A new generation of advanced coal-based power systems has been placed in commercial service that represents a quantum leap forward in terms of efficiency and environmental performance. These advanced power systems projects will provide a springboard for widespread, global deployment. This in turn will contribute greatly to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

The government and industry officials continue to use the term "clean coal" to describe technologies designed to enhance both the efficiency and the environmental acceptability of coal extraction, preparation and use,[35] however today the term “clean coal technology” is usually used in reference to carbon capture and storage, an advanced process that eliminates carbon dioxide emissions from coal-based plants and permanently sequesters them.

In the early 20th century, prior to World War II, "clean coal" (also called "smokeless coal") referred to anthracite and high-grade bituminous coal, used for cooking and home heating.[36]

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ CNN International "Countries betting tech can clean up coal - IB89005: Global Climate Change". CNN International. July 13, 2009. CNN International. Retrieved 2009-07-20. 
  2. ^ "Daily Wrap Up for July 16 – Energy". International Business Times. July 16, 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-17. 
  3. ^ "Divided views over 'clean coal' pilot project". The Age. July 9, 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-17. 
  4. ^ "Make-or-break summit as G8 gamble on climate and economy". The Australian. July 6, 2009.,25197,25738096-11949,00.html. Retrieved 2009-07-17. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ "Vattenfall's Project on CSS". Vattenfall. 
  8. ^
  9. ^ "CRS Issue Brief for Congress - IB89005: Global Climate Change". National Council for Science and the Environment. August 13, 2001. Retrieved 2008-09-13. 
  10. ^ "AWWA warns Congress about CO2 injection concerns". American Water Works Association. July 29, 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-27. 
  11. ^ "‘Clean coal’ push concerns environmental activists". Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. October 16, 2005. Retrieved 2008-08-09. 
  12. ^ Alex Gabbard. "Coal Combustion: Nuclear Resource or Danger?". Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Retrieved 2008-08-09. 
  13. ^ "Mercury Emissions - A Global Problem". US Gov, EPA News. 2004. Retrieved 2008-09-24. 
  14. ^ "Mercury in Crude Oil". American Chemical Society. 10 October 2007. Retrieved 2008-09-24. 
  15. ^ "Mercury in petroleum and natural gas". US Gov, EPA News. 1 September 2001. Retrieved 2008-09-24. 
  16. ^ "BP dumps mercury in lake". Chicago Tribune. 27 July 2007.,0,660106.story. Retrieved 2008-09-24. 
  17. ^ Wall Street Journal, Cool hard facts: cleaning it won’t be dirt cheap
  18. ^ US News, Why clean coal is years away
  19. ^ Department of Energy Office of Fossil Energy FutureGen page.
  20. ^ [2]
  21. ^ [3]
  22. ^ "Obama Signs Stimulus Packed With Clean Energy Provisions". Green Inc. Blog, The New York Times. February 17, 2009. 
  23. ^ "Energy Secretary Backs Clean-Coal Investments". The Wall Street Journal. April 7, 2009. 
  24. ^ "Rudd's clean coal pledge". The Daily Telegraph, Australia. February 26, 2007.,,21284871-5006009,00.html. Retrieved 2008-08-09. 
  25. ^ "Interview: John Howard". NineMSN. February 11, 2007. Retrieved 2008-08-09. 
  26. ^ "Coal Position". Grist - Environmental News and Commentary. December 3, 2004. Retrieved 2008-08-09. 
  27. ^ "Coal can't be clean". Herald Sun, Melbourne Australia. February 14, 2007.,21985,21225432-661,00.html. Retrieved 2008-08-09. 
  28. ^ "Coal Can't Be Clean - Flannery", Melbourne Herald Sun, February 14, 2007.
  29. ^ This Is
  30. ^ "Clean Coal Myths and Facts". Retrieved 2008-08-09. 
  31. ^ "Air Trends". Environmental Protection Agency. 
  32. ^ "Clean Coal Technology & The Clean Coal Power Initiative". U.S. Department of Energy. 
  33. ^ "Carbon Sequestration". U.S. Department of Energy. 
  34. ^ "Clean Coal Technology: The Investment Pays Off". U.S. Department of Energy. 
  35. ^ "Clean Coal Technologies - Overview". Australian Coal Association. Retrieved 2008-08-09. 
  36. ^ "Smokeless Coal,", accessed May 2008.

External links


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