Coal: ‘Clean’ or Otherwise, Get Used to It


By William Brent

I know this POV will upset some folks, but here goes: coal isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s cheap, plentiful and easy to access, so we better start figuring out how to use it in a cleaner way. Of course there is no such thing as “clean coal” (as I’ve pointed out on my blog several times in the past). For that matter, there is no such thing as 100% clean solar or clean batteries (someone is out there right now extracting silicon, cadmium and lithium from the ground). But there is something as “cleaner” coal.
Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s important that people like Al Gore, Bill McKibben and the folks at Power Shift are out there demanding that the dirtiest coal-fired power generation facilities be dealt with. I agree that we need voices to be demanding an accelerated roadmap to coal alternatives in a loud and unequivocal way (including the tongue-in-cheek voice of the Coen brothers). And apparently, according to this map, Coal Power Death Watch, these voices appear to be gaining traction in the US.

But guess what – there’s an elephant in the room called China. Around 70% of China’s primary energy consumption comes from coal today, and that number, even with the most aggressive forecasts for replacing it with renewables, is going to remain around 35-40% by 2050. Coal replacement has no doubt been prolonged by the current economy, which is keeping alternatives at a higher price point relative to fossil fuels. And don’t blame China.
The US is just as much to blame on the coal front, if not more so (according to new analysis, one third of China’s GHGs come from export-oriented industries. Guess who’s to blame for that Wal-Mart shoppers?). Not to mention that China’s government is going gangbusters trying to replace fossil fuels. It’s in its interest to do so – from a public health, economic development, political stability and national security perspective.
But let’s face reality. Beijing is not going to create a domestic economic and political meltdown by shutting the country’s coal plants tomorrow. Nor will it risk that in 2020, or 2030. In fact, the government has already been aggressively shutting down dozens of smaller, dirtier coal-fired plants in recent years, but China’s need for more energy also means it continues to open new plants.
So a couple of things are needed: 1. a clear and aggressive mechanism for cooperation between the US and China on reducing the impact of burning coal and an immediate removal of all tech transfer restrictions for dual-use technologies that have the ability to abate coal emissions and 2. a willingness on the part of the replace-coal community, myself included, to work with what we’ve got and make sure that we do everything possible to promote cleaner coal as we transition to more renewable forms or energy.
If you want to go the civil disobedience route and get arrested for protesting in front of coal plants that’s all fine and good, but once you’re released from custody, start working to help coal plants in China figure out a way to deal with their emissions in as clean a way as possible. They need all the help they can get and time is precious. Whether its sequestering flue gas in building materials, air capture, underground coal gasification, IGCC or something else, it doesn’t matter. This is the reality.
William Brent spent 15 years in China as an entrepreneur and journalist, 2 of them in a traditional courtyard burning coal briquets to heat his home. He now runs the Cleantech Practice at marketing/communications firm Weber Shandwick, based on the West Coast and blogging at

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2 responses

  1. Mr. Brent-
    You are correct that there needs to be some pragmatic thinking included in with the idealism of renewable energy. Coal plants are engineered for a life of 50 years and often the investors amortize the initial cost of the plant over 20 or 30 years. Will they walk away from that investment?
    The other reason to have a slower transition is for the low income families. There are health and life style benefits to having electricity in the home and in many places; you can’t get a certificate of occupancy if you don’t have power. Getting cut by the power company is effectively a temporary eviction. I work at a utility and I see the lines in the drive through and in the lobby on “cut days.” If we kill coal and go to 100% renewable at a fast pace, we will send the price of energy skyrocketing and really put the wood to folks who are already battling tough economic times.
    We need to be on the track to renewable energy but we must be aware of the unintended consequences and also be pragmatic in how we implement the changes.
    Thanks for keeping us thinking!

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