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Will the Real Clean Coal Please Stand Up?

By Boyd Cohen

Boyd Cohen, CO2 IMPACT

Do you believe what the coal industry has spent millions on to convince Americans that the industry is cleaning itself up?  They argue that carbon sequestration and storage is right around the corner and that soon enough coal will be almost as clean as renewables.

I suspect 99% of Triple Pundit’s readership saw the greenwashing within 5 seconds had they watched the commercials that have aired over the past 10 years or so. Here is one of their 30 second spots.

There are definitely opportunities to clean up the coal industry, and since coal is not disappearing any time soon, cleaning it up is a good thing. In fact, my company, CO2 IMPACT, is working on coal mine methane projects in Latin America seeking to reduce the methane emissions from the sector, while reducing the risk of coal mine explosions and also providing a source “cleaner energy.”  Even the U.S. EPA is a major player in promoting coal mine methane capture around the globe.  Perhaps I’ll save that for another column.

To me, the most interesting opportunity for clean coal is to replace it altogether over time with more renewable sources of energy.  Virtually no one, and definitely not me, would argue against the need to have a diverse renewable energy mix in the wedge.

There is no doubt that the time is near when renewable energy standards will begin to mandate a minimum amount of renewable energy in all energy plants in North America.  And in some cases, as is the case in Ontario, governmental regulations will require the phasing out of coal burning altogether.

However, when considering that 50% of U.S. energy comes from coal-fired power plants that cost billions to run and operate around the country there is a significant amount of inertia to keep the status quo. Thus, the clean coal campaign.

Coal-powered plants could invest in retrofits to allow them to burn biomass such as wood pellets, or a lot more in brand new renewable energy facilities (insert your regionally appropriate source such as solar, wind, hydro, etc.). And carbon capture and storage could some day help to reduce the emissions from the sector but it is still a long way away from becoming a reality.

What if there was a more renewable source of energy (close to zero emissions) that allowed coal-fired power plants to phase out coal and eventually eliminate it without any investment in plant and equipment?

With so much sunk costs in the existing coal-fired power plant infrastructure, if such a thing existed, there would be a whole lot of happy utility executives and shareholders.

What if I told you that there was a bio-based coal replacement, commonly referred to as bio-coal or green coal, that truly is a clean coal alternative?

What if that alternative had the following benefits:

1.)  High net calorific value similar to coal (i.e. packs a lot of energy in a small amount of product)
2.)  Very dense energy form making it easy to transport
3.)  Hydrophobic (i.e. doesn’t absorb water and therefore can be stored outside like coal can)
4.)  Virtually carbon neutral
5.)  Highly grindable into a dust like coal
6.)  Can be co-fired/blended with coal in existing coal-powered boilers

There are more but I feel if I listed all of the features and benefits, you wouldn’t believe me.  The solution I am referring to is called torrefied wood.  Torrefaction is a technology that roasts wood, similar to coffee roasting, although with torrefaction the process is completed anaerobic (i.e. without oxygen).  While this process does require some energy, the energy can actually be sourced from the torrefied wood itself in a closed loop solution. Of course, torrefying wood requires fibre, such as woody biomass and naturally, that should be sourced from wood waste or from sustainably harvested biomass.

I believe that torrefied wood has the potential to become a major climate capitalism opportunity this decade.  So much so that my company is building a business plan and meeting with investors to build one of the first small-scale commercial facilities in North America in British Columbia.

Stay tuned for more on the real clean coal solution for America.


Boyd Cohen is the CEO of CO2 IMPACT, a carbon origination company based in Vancouver, Canada and Bogota, Colombia. Boyd is also the co-author of the forthcoming book, Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change.

Twitter: boydcohen

This series will use the hashtag #climatcaptlsm

Boyd Cohen is the CEO of CO2 IMPACT, a carbon origination company based in Vancouver, Canada and Bogota, Colombia. Boyd is also the co-author of Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change.

Twitter: boydcohen

Read more stories by Boyd Cohen