Ferguson: Energy Matters Cleaning Up Coal "Clean" coal is the quintessential oxymoron - nothing about coal is clean. Mining, shipping, and burning coal are a messy business. When you're done, you still have a pile of ashes to dispose of. The coal industry always touts the latest improvement in combustion technology as "clean," but now it is being hoisted on its own petard. Folks are beginning to insist that coal actually be clean. Last year, 1.13 billion tons of coal were burned in the U.S., 90 percent of which was for electric generation. In the process, 2.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide were emitted, about 9 percent of world totals. Since carbon dioxide is the major greenhouse gas responsible for global warming, U.S. coal is a big piece of the global warming problem. Clean coal isn't. In a conventional coal-fired power plant, air supplies the oxygen needed for combustion. However, nitrogen constitutes about 80 percent of the atmosphere, so it goes up the stack, too, along with carbon dioxide and the mercury, sulfur, and all the other elements found in coal. If coal is going to deserve the right to be called "clean," the carbon dioxide generated must be captured and kept out of the atmosphere for thousands of years. Conventional coal combustion technology is never going to be clean because the CO2 cannot be removed from the exhaust. Fortunately, a new technology is in the demonstration stage. It promises to provide a means of capturing and "sequestering" the carbon dioxide. In the process known as integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC) technology, pulverized coal is mixed with steam (H2O) to form CO2 and hydrogen (H2), plus assorted other pollutant gases. The carbon dioxide and other pollutants can be removed, leaving only hydrogen to be burned in a combined-cycle power plant instead of natural gas. The carbon dioxide can be pumped into old depleted gas fields and sealed up. The IGCC process is not new; it is being used in some facilities burning petroleum coke (petcoke) today. What is novel about the proposed clean coal technology is the separation and sequestration of the carbon dioxide. The Department of Energy is touting an IGCC\/sequestration demonstration project known as FutureGen. BP recently announced with some fanfare that it would sequester carbon dioxide from a new petcoke-fueled facility in Southern California using the IGCC technology. The IGCC hype seems to be infectious. A recent conference in Portland attended by several California Public Utilities Commission members gave the bandwagon more momentum in the West. Personally, I'm all for it - I hope it works. But an interesting phenomenon is occurring in the process. The more IGCC\/sequestration is hyped, the less the public and utility regulators are going to tolerate conventional coal technology. Why settle for second-best when IGCC is right around the corner, promising to help solve the global warming problem? What a concept - "clean" coal that really is clean. The IGCC\/sequestration process carries a big price tag, however; nobody knows now what the cost will be. It may well increase the price of coal-fired electricity enough to dull its competitive edge over natural gas and wind power. Coal currently supplies about 20 percent of California's electricity, virtually all of it burned out of state. California has vowed to reduce its contribution to global warming, and the California Public Utilities Commission has begun a process to figure out exactly what this means for utilities. If the process is not a sham, importing more coal-fired power in the future will not occur unless the electricity is generated by the IGCC process and the carbon dioxide is sequestered. The industry may have overreached a bit with its "clean" coal campaign, but California appears ready to call the coal industry's bluff, and others are sure to follow.