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Potential of a ‘cleaner’ coal mulled

Opinions vary on spending billions to make coal environmentally friendly.

New coal technologies can rival alternative energy sources in cleanliness, the industry argues, but only if taxpayers foot the multibillion-dollar bill.

“On a life-cycle basis … it would be cleaner … than the petroleum fuel it replaces,” Luke Popovich said of one such technology, which would convert coal to a liquid fuel. “Cost, it’s very expensive. … That’s been the single biggest issue.”

Coal is abundant and affordable, which is why it accounts for about 41 percent of the world’s energy production, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. It also, however, accounts for about 40 percent of America’s carbon dioxide emissions, which Popovich acknowledged is linked to global warming.

Popovich’s employer, the National Mining Association, has a solution: The industry will clean itself up if its customers pay for it.

The NMA wants Congress to create a $24 billion fund over 12 years to pay much of the cost to build perhaps six demonstration plants. The plants would burn coal to create electricity, capture the carbon dioxide produced and bury it deep underground.

Though an alliance of companies in the industry has agreed to chip in, “the customers would obviously pay a big share of that,” Popovich explained. The money would come from taxes and a fee assessed on electricity bills.

A fair question might be to ask why electricity producers shouldn’t just switch to other energy sources instead.

Popovich has a response: Natural gas, which doubles as a home-heating fuel, is too expensive. Alternative sources, such as solar and wind, supply power intermittently and can’t increase capacity fast enough to offset coal use. And nuclear? Well, it’s costly and takes too long to bring online.

Jan Jarrett, vice president of the pro-environment organization Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, has a divided opinion on coal.

“We think this is a technological challenge that absolutely needs to be solved because coal has its problems, but it will remain a part of our fuel mix for the foreseeable future,” she said. “Right now, there’s no commercially viable technology that we could consider ‘clean’ coal.”

She concedes that tax dollars might play a role in developing ways to deal with carbon dioxide emissions, but isn’t sure what an acceptable amount would be.

“That ($24 billion) sounds like a big number to me, and I think that we would rather see significant support for energy going to non-fossil-fuel sources of energy.”

To get the money, the coal industry needs to accept continually decreasing caps on carbon emissions, she said, and eventually phase itself out, though likely many decades from now. Alternative technologies – along with considerable energy conservation – have the potential to fill the void, she said.

In fact, she said, “those technologies are on the cusp of major breakthroughs.”

Alternatives have slowly been gaining market share, she said, and advancements in battery storage could soon stabilize the supply.

“We may see a solar-based future come at us faster than we might anticipate,” she said.

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