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The Price Tag for Clean Coal

I wanted to get the low down on clean coal to see how clean it really is, so I visited some friends at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The modern day descendent of the Atomic Energy Commission, where I had a student job in the seventies, the leading researcher on laser induced nuclear fission, and the administrator of our atomic weapons stockpile, I figured they’d know.

Dirty coal currently supplies us with 50% of our electricity, and total electricity demand is expected to go up 30% by 2030. The industry is spewing out 32 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year and the great majority of independent scientists out there believe that the global warming it is causing will lead us to an environmental disaster within decades.

Carbon Capture and Storage technology (CCS) locks up these emissions deep underground forever. The problem is that there is only one of these plants in operation in North Dakota, a legacy of the Carter administration, and new ones would cost $4 billion each. The low estimate to replace the 250 existing coal plants in the US is $1 trillion, and this will produce electricity that costs 50% more than we now pay. In a budget constrained congress, this is a bi ticket that is unlikely to get picked up.

While we can build a wall to keep out illegal immigrants from Latin America, it won’t keep out CO2. This is a big problem as China is currently completing one new coal fired plant a week. In fact, the Middle Kingdom is rushing to perfect cheaper CCS technologies, not only for their own use, but also to sell to us. The bottom line is coal can be cleaned, but at a frightful price.

By. Mad Hedge Fund Trader




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  • Anonymous on October 05 2011 said:
    CO2 is not dirty. You want to see dirty coal, look at China. Soot, sulfur, particulates, mercury, and more. That's dirty coal, maddie.Once, coal was really dirty everywhere, and Londoners choked, and pilots found that the skies around the northern hemisphere were hazy and opaque. Now, only China and the third world burns coal in those old dirty ways.Soot from China is melting glaciers and icecaps, nonetheless. But if you feel better blaming that on CO2 rather than soot, soot yourself. :-*
  • Anonymous on October 06 2011 said:
    Alfonso: Thanks for mentioning mercury. We get worked up about radioactive nuclides like Cesium 137, Plutonium 239, et cetera having half lives of 30 years or 24000 years or whatever. But mercury, because its toxicity is not tied to radioactivity, has a "half life" of .... FOREVER. If China pollutes itself with too much mercury before finally deciding to halt discharge of said element from burning coal, it will be at least as hard to clean up the environment as it will be to clean up the area surrounding Chernobyl or the Fukushima reactor complex. If we are to continue using coal, we must trap mercury and other toxic metals (including, by the way, uranium and thorium) and permanently keep them out of the environment. For nuclear power: We must design nuclear plants such that if there is a total meltdown, it will be possible to clean up the site and keep radioactive elements out of the environment.

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