TOPICS > Science

Energy Experts Debate Future Use of Coal

May 1, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Coal is a major and relatively cheap source of energy in this country, and its use worldwide is expected to grow. It powers everything, from steel production, kitchen appliances, and brings light to city skylines.

Nearly half our electricity comes from coal, and that figure is increasing, fueled by the roughly 150 new or proposed power plants on top of the more than 1,500 coal-fired plants already in operation.

But when coal is burned, it creates carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps heat and is a major contributor to global warming. These power plants produce about 40 percent of the nation’s total carbon emissions.

Other major economic powers, including China and India, are also harnessing the power of coal and relying on burning more in the future. More than half the electricity consumed in those countries comes from coal.

To meet future demand here and abroad, President Bush and others have touted the idea of finding ways of making coal cleaner.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Well, we’ve got a lot of coal. We’ve got 250 years of coal. That’s a lot. And yet coal presents us with an environmental challenge, and so we’re spending quite a bit of money here at the federal level to come up with clean coal technologies.

RAY SUAREZ: There are different ideas on how to make coal clean, but they include one key idea at the heart of most proposals, known as carbon sequestration. Carbon dioxide would be trapped or captured before it escapes power plants and then pumped into fields deep underground.

So what future does coal present, great promise, or an even greater peril for causing global warming? It’s a question that’s heavily debated. And to debate for us, Steve Miller, president of Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, a trade group funded primarily by the coal-based electricity industry, and Jeff Goodell, the author of “Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future.”

And, Steve Miller, given the state of the environment and given the state of the technology, do you think coal can be a viable part of fueling America’s future energy needs?

STEVE MILLER, Americans for Balanced Energy Choices: Not only can it be, it has to be. Coal produces half of our electricity today, and it’s going to for decades to come. And the reason is that coal technology is being transformed.

Coal is not being used in the same kinds of ways that it has been historically. We’re finding new ways to generate electricity through coal. The gasification process has great promise, and technology has provided the answers to the environmental concerns over the last decades.

We have an incredible environmental performance record improvement. We’re going to have even more, if our country makes the right investments in clean coal technology, and if we are prepared to exercise international leadership in the research, development and deployment of those kinds of technologies that other countries, like China and India, who are going to use coal, are going to need but won’t develop on their own.

The challenges for coal

RAY SUAREZ: Jeff Goodell, same question. Can coal be a viable part of America's and the world's future energy needs?

JEFF GOODELL, Author, "Big Coal": Well, I think there's no question that coal -- we're going to be continuing to use coal into the future. I think the real question is, is how we're going to use it, and how much damage it will do, and whether coal is really compatible with a world that takes global warming seriously.

I think that the challenges for coal in the global warming world are immense. And it's easy to say that we have new technology to deal with this, but, in fact, we're not deploying any of it now or very little of it. There's much work to do. And it's not at all clear that this is going to be a cost- effective way of generating electricity into the future.

There's a tremendous amount of innovation going on in places like Silicon Valley for cleaner, newer forms of electricity, and they are radically and quickly becoming a challenge to coal's dominance.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Jeff Goodell, a lot of the attention, a lot of the research has gone into basically capturing the CO-2 and burying it. Are we anywhere near ready to do that in America's 1,500 or so coal-fired electricity plants?

JEFF GOODELL: Well, we're certainly not ready to do it on the plants that exist. There are a couple of model projects around the world that inject a small amount of carbon dioxide underground, mostly into depleted oil and gas reservoirs. The technology to squirt it underground is not complex.

The problem is, is that it's expensive, and to do it on a scale that is meaningful, that really helps us to get a handle on CO-2 emissions, is an enormous engineering project that it is not at all clear will work or will go forward.

RAY SUAREZ: Steve Miller, talk about those two items that Jeff Goodell brought up, the expense and the technological challenge of literally being able to do it.

STEVE MILLER: The expense factor, we have an advantage, and that coal is our most abundant natural resource, so the cost of the fuel is much lower than other alternatives, so there's some room there for us to absorb cost and still be able to use coal.

We have enough, according to the recent analysis, to store more than 600 years worth of CO-2 in geological reservoirs in the United States and even use that to be able to recover some of the oil that we can't get out economically.

Continuing to use coal

RAY SUAREZ: Now, that 600-year figure, that intrigues me, because it doesn't sound then like the industry uses that sequestration to buy time to figure out what our next fuel is going to be, but says, "No, no, this is the fix. This is the response. We can still burn coal for a long time to come."

STEVE MILLER: We can use coal for a long time to come. Some day down the road, my great-great-grandchildren will not be using coal to generate electricity. We'll find some other forms 50, 100 years from now.

We need more use of renewables and other fuels right now. But in the near term, the next two, three, four, five decades, we can still use coal to generate electricity more cleanly than we do today in our continued effort to get to ultra-low emotions. And we have the ability and the natural resource of the ability to be able to sequester a lot of that carbon here in the United States, and other countries around the world have that, as well.

It won't be easy, and Jeff is correct. It is a technological challenge to do this. It will not be cheap. But it can be done, and it needs to be done, because we need, in the United States, to develop those technologies that then we can drive the cost down and deploy around the world in countries that will use coal, but won't sequester the carbon, won't separate it in the generation process, unless America shows that kind of leadership.

RAY SUAREZ: Jeff Goodell, what about China and India? If we continue to burn coal, can we ask them not to continue becoming rich by burning the coal they have?

JEFF GOODELL: Well, no, I don't think you can at all. I mean, you know, with the idea that we are the richest nation in the world, we need to take the leadership on doing something about our carbon dioxide emissions.

This is a very simple idea. You know, when I go into my 9-year-old daughter's bedroom and tell her that she made a mess and it's her job to clean it up, she understands that logic. And it's precisely the same thing with the atmosphere.

It is the emissions from the West, from the United States and the Industrial Revolution in Europe, that have essentially caused these high levels of carbon dioxide that we're concerned about. It's our job to be the leaders in beginning to clean it up.

But let me say something about this idea of clean coal being something that's going to be taken up by China and others. This notion that we can bury this carbon dioxide is a very, very technologically sophisticated idea that can work on small scales but requires very serious monitoring and regulation to make sure that it doesn't percolate up through the ground and cause all kinds of other problems.

The notion that a country like China, where we don't even believe their GDP numbers, is going to have the sort of regulatory apparatus and enforcement actions to bury carbon dioxide is just something that, frankly, very few people believe.

The role of China

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me get a quick response on that point from Steve Miller.

STEVE MILLER: Well, Ray, if you don't believe the Chinese have the sophistication to do it and the monitoring systems, and they might not do it honorably, then how do you believe that they'll be part of an international treaty to control in a cap-and-trade kind of way?

We have to have some basis of trust here that countries will employ these kinds of technologies, if the costs can be driven down in a way to make it affordable.

There are more than two billion people around the planet who don't have an affordable, reliable supply of electricity. And those countries are going to provide that kind of electricity. It's the only way to lift their people out of poverty. And so, as they meet that challenge, and as they have coal and other fossil fuels, they're going to use them. We can do this.

RAY SUAREZ: Jeff Goodell, can we?

JEFF GOODELL: Well, I mean, I think that we're at an inflection point here in the development of energy. I mean, for the last 50 years, the answer to electricity problems has been simple: We need more power. We build more power plants.

Now we know that that is not sustainable, and we are thinking differently about power. We're thinking about how to be more efficient, how to create forms of green energy, green power generation.

The idea that we're just going to throw up more power plants is something that is a very 1950s' vision. And that includes China. It's not at all clear that they're going to continue down this road of burning a lot of coal and that burying carbon is the path they're going to take.

One of the richest men in China today is an entrepreneur who started a solar power company and who's selling solar panels to Japan, and to Germany, and other places. And so they understand, as many people in Silicon Valley do, that there is a big opportunity in cleaner forms of energy. And they may very well move in that direction.

And the notion that civilized life is dependent upon building more coal plants is just something that is a 50-year-old idea.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, this is a long-term debate. And, gentlemen, we're going to have to leave it there for today. Jeff Goodell and Steve Miller, thank you both.

STEVE MILLER: Thank you.

JEFF GOODELL: Thank you.