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Climate Change: Clean Coal, Nuclear Energy or Simply Energy Savings?

On November 6, 2009 The World Coal Institute released its new report "Securing the Future - Financing CCS in a Post-2012 World." One revealing sentence on the website says “significant investments are needed in Carbon Capture and Geological Storage (CCS) to allow the technology to play its critical role in global efforts to address climate change” further stressing that governments have a central role to play, notably to finance this new technology that cannot be borne alone by the private sector.

The report comes out at a time where the “clean coal” concept is the latest trend, like saving the ozone layer was a few years back, even more so as Global Warming is on the agenda at the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen on December 7-18, 2009.

The questions that come to mind are: Is there such a thing as clean coal? Why is there such a push for clean coal over nuclear energy? What about other sources of energy and energy savings?

Is Clean Coal a Reality?

The question to ask first is: why is coal so popular these days? The answer is simple: the countries that consume the most energy such as China and the United States happen to be blessed (some may say cursed) with the world’s largest reserves. As both countries are also acutely aware of their dependency on not always reliable foreign countries for their oil & gas supplies, coal is a welcomed and cheap safety net. In the United States, which gets half of its electricity thanks to coal, about 174,000 jobs are related to coal. The coal industry in the U.S. is an extremely powerful lobbying group, having spent over $40 million in 2008 on advertisement and lobbying efforts to sell the idea of clean coal to the public opinion and decision makers. Clean coal - which can be defined as capturing and storing the carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants to reduce CO2 emissions and to mitigate climate change - is an exciting but unproven concept, especially when dealing with the passage of time. The impact of leaks and seismic activities over time are issues that need to be studied. For now, carbon capture and sequestration is a very challenging and costly process that remains at an experimental stage.

No commercial scale coal-fired power plant that captures most of its emission exists. In fact, the Bush administration cancelled FutureGen, a $1.8 billion project to build a power plant with a sequestration facility, due to its high cost. The Obama Administration decided to put it back on the table with a lower price tag estimate and a $1 billion allotment coming from the economic stimulus package and related funding for carbon capture and storage. In the meantime, the only concrete project is the recently advertized Mountaineer plant project in West Virginia between plant owner American Electric Power and French company Alstom whereby both companies are spending more than $100 million to capture less than two percent of the plant’s carbon emissions. In December 2009, American Electric Power was notified by the U.S. Department of Energy it would receive $334 million in stimulus money over the next 10 years through the Clean Coal Power Initiative to expand its carbon capture and storage operation. That announcement follows the recommendations of the World Coal Institute for governments to get financially involved to support private initiatives.

Why Clean Coal Over Nuclear Energy?

In this context of high cost and unproven track record, one can only wonder why there such a push for a still nascent technology that may not be widely available until 2020 at the earliest when nuclear energy has been around for decades? Countries such as France, with almost 80% of its electricity coming from nuclear power plants, demonstrate the true and safe potential of nuclear power (when properly used), as well as the financial benefit when the price of energy, such as oil, skyrockets.

Accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and at Chernobyl in 1986 made a big imprint on the collective mind. Our dependency on foreign countries that supply us with uranium is a concern. When looking at the situation more closely, things are not what they seem and concerns are oftentimes based on irrational or manipulated fears. The largest producers of uranium are countries such as Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan and those countries are strong or stated allies of the U.S. and supply routes are not at risk, notably from Canada to the U.S.  As for the risk assessment of nuclear power, it is disproportionate compared to the risk associated with the use of fossil fuels. In fact, the World Heath Organization stresses that air pollution, mostly causes by the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal, is a major environmental risk to health and estimates it causes approximately 2 million premature deaths worldwide per year.

In comparison, major accidents at nuclear plants are relatively rare and deaths connected to the operations of nuclear plants are equally rare. Yes, the proper disposal of contaminated nuclear waste is a concern and so is the radioactivity that is here to last thousands of years. The frenzy of concerns over the disposal of nuclear waste should not be a distraction from looking at the global picture. Interestingly, an article published back in December 2007 by The Scientific American dispels traditional misconceptions stating “the waste produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than that generated by their nuclear counterparts. In fact, the fly ash emitted by a power plant—a by-product from burning coal for electricity—carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy.” The article concludes by a quote on the rivalry between coal and nuclear energy saying “those who have a vested interest in other forms of energy, may be tempted to raise these issues again.”

Other Sources of Energy and What About Energy Savings?

The need for immediate action to fight Global Warming is pushing for the adoption of a technology that is still not proven to be flawless.
The feel-good efforts to fight what appears to be bad, namely nuclear power, are counter-productive. Other clean energies have a lot of merits but are far from being catchall solutions.

Hydropower is a clean energy but with ecological consequences. For example, the disruption of the tradition floods along the Nile have led to a decrease in silt and sediment deposits with numerous related consequences. Dams also alter the free flow of water to downstream countries, increasing political tensions among neighboring countries such as in Central Asia. Wind and solar power are also clean energies but wind turbines can be noisy eyesores while solar panels need to cover huge superficies to generate a limited quantity of electricity. Even gas power emits just half the carbon dioxide of coal.

Each source of energy deserves to be considered but as the International Energy Agency mentioned it in Washington, D.C. - during the launch in December 2009 of its World Energy Outlook 2009 - boosting energy efficiency, if properly funded, would account for 57% of the World abatement energy-related CO2 emissions by 2030. Energy saving solutions increasing energy efficiency is maybe where the true solution to our today’s problems lays.

What Immediate Solution Do We Have?

In light of the growing concern over the consequences of Global Warming, notably the rise of ocean levels, leading to the disappearance of country shore lines and islands, immediate action is needed. To the chagrin of those who dislike nuclear power, it seems it will be easier, faster, and less costly to bring online new nuclear plants than to wait for clean coal technology to become a proven technology by 2020 or 2030. The ability to have clean coal power plants brought online soon is non-existent when the need is now. Of course, one could advocate for energy saving solutions: wasteful consumers could maximize their use of water heating and space heating and cooling when possible. They could also simply turn off the light during daytime or when they leave a room or their office: who needs a fully lit office building at 2:00 AM? Space and water heating with lighting of residential and commercial facilities are a major electricity and energy drain. But asking to change old habits and sacrifice one’s way of life may be asking for too much: after all the Maldives, Tuvalu and the shores of Bangladesh with the plight of its people remain such a distant reality.

by Philip H. de Leon for Oilprice.com

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