Clean Coal Systems

Carolyn Doyle (Animal Science), Collin Horgan (Environmental Science), and Rudy Lewis (BCT)

Modern day societies are entirely dependent on power and energy for survival. Without an energy source, even our most basic pillars of community will come crashing down. Gone are the days that human beings were able to thrive on their own without any electricity, heating, or any numerous other benefits that energy provides us with. Thankfully, we have developed a reliable system for harvesting and using energy, coal production. Unfortunately, coal production as it is currently produces excessive harmful environmental pollutants that are released into the atmosphere. These pollutants are not only bad for the environment, but are also linked to health problems in humans, the most common of which is asthma. Asthma is a debilitation condition in which a person’s airways will become constricted and coated with mucous. The immediate effects include the individual feeling out of breath, wheezing, or in severe cases, death. According to the NRDC, as many as 25 million Americans are affected with asthma, causing a total of 10 million lost school days for children and 14 million lost work days for adults (NRDC, 2014). Asthma is especially common in young children, with 8.3% of children in America suffering from documented cases of asthma (CDC, 2015). Asthma can be triggered by many different air pollutants, including particulate matter and sulfur dioxide (SO2) both of which are direct products of traditional coal burning plants (NRC, 2014). Clearly what America needs, and what the world needs, is a cleaner energy source that is capable of producing equivalent amounts of energy to our current sources. Clean coal systems would be an excellent alternative to traditional coal systems because not only are clean coal systems more environmentally “clean” as the name would imply, they are also capable of producing the same amount of energy as traditional coal systems. No other alternative energy source, including wind, solar, or hydro energy can claim the same production levels as clean coal, making them non-viable options. Although there has been a lot of progress over the last one hundred years with traditional energy production, it is time to consider an alternative that is much cleaner for both the planet’s health and our own.

Mankind has engineered many different methods for energy gathering, including gas, oil, and coal. Unfortunately, many of these efforts proved themselves to be extremely harmful to both the environment and human health. Around the world, countries suffer from terrible air conditions in areas that are struggling to provide energy to their growing populations. For example, China, a country whose population is expanding rapidly especially in recent decades, has a serious air pollution problem. One study conducting research into air quality found only 8 out of 74 cities studied meet the government mandated air quality standards. In some of these cities the average citizen has 2.5 PM (particulates in the air measured in parts per million) readings, more than 3 times the maximum healthy exposure level of 25 (Hunt, para. 3). Though these issues are not as prominent in other developed countries such as the United States, it does not mean that air quality is not an issue in this country. Changing from traditional coal processing methods to clean coal processing could have a drastic impact on air quality, and people’s health, around the world.

To change the way we process coal we must first change the perception that coal is an inherently dirty product. Ever since coal was first used as a form of energy, and the smoke stacks of coal processing plants thrust their first towers of billowing black, dirty, smoke into the air, the disadvantages were clear. Traditional coal is hugely taxing on the environment. From this, one might assume the elimination of emissions permanently from coal would be close to impossible. However, we can easily begin to reduce the impact coal emissions have on the ozone layer and overall air quality. One such method of reduction involves retrofitting many of the production sources including power plants and modes of transportation. Studies show using a process involving chilled ammonia, chemically NH3, emissions can potentially be reduced 8.7% from their previous numbers (Hanak. 2015.). The chilled ammonia causes the C02 molecules to separate because the CO2 molecules are heavier than the environment of chilled ammonia they are currently in. Also in China it has been shown retrofitting mines has caused a reduction of 12,313,339 metric tonnes from their yearly coal emissions (Uddin. 2015.). While these are only very select cases at the moment, the figures cannot be ignored. If we continue on this trend of attempting clean energy production, we can begin the process of burning and mining coal in the cleanest ways possible around the world, while also improving air quality and by extension, human health around the world.

Despite the obvious environmental and health benefits, some may continue to object to the idea of retrofitting existing coal mines into clean coal because of the expected extra cost. However, when long term cost and the citizens’ wants and needs are taken into consideration, the money becomes very much a non-issue. A study in 2013 took place in the United States that monetized the health effects from current fossil fuel energy sources. The researchers looked at premature mortality and lost workdays among other effects that were the direct result of exposure to harmful emissions. Rizk and Machol found that citizens would be willing to increase their rate they paid for energy from 41 cents per kilowatt an hour to $1.01, a 246% increase, on the condition that harmful plant emissions were removed. When the participants realized how pollution from energy sources is detrimental to their lives, they quickly realized the necessity to pay more for more environmentally friendly energy. Factors considered in this decision include general health, longevity, and work productivity (Gerdes, para 6).  Luckily, clean coal systems can effectively reduce and potentially remove future carbon emissions from the atmosphere. A study published by The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity in 2009 noted that the coal industry is becoming increasingly cleaner and that clean coal technology reduced the emissions by 70% compared to emissions produced in a 1970 study of traditional coal burning methods (Miller, 2009).

Despite this, a lot of people continue to believe that there are better alternative environmentally friendly energy sources such as solar and wind. Some believe that these are the future and will surpass all other energy sources, but that is simply not possible. These sources rely solely on the weather conditions to produce their energy. If the wind doesn’t blow, the turbines do not spin and thus energy is not produced. Also, there is a small window of wind speeds where the turbines are able to operate. The wind must be blowing at least 4-5 meters per second, but cannot exceed speeds of 25 meters per second, as they are too strong. Thus wind turbines are actually only producing power 50-80 percent of the time (EWEA, para. 9). Likewise, with the solar industry, solar panels are able to bring in only 10% of the energy that would be produced on a cloudless day (Llorens, para. 1). This is where clean coal production surpasses these renewable energy sources, in its reliability and consistency. With known coal reserves at this time alone, we have over 979.8 billion tons (Gerdes, para. 4) that can be removed from the earth in a timely fashion and delivered to clean coal facilities to maintain a constant and steady output of energy to the surrounding area. Along with constant transfer of coal from mining site to plants, methods of methane capture at the site itself has also proven to provide an immediate energy source that could be used for local areas. Researchers in China studied this technique of methane capture, and found that this technique not only reduced the amount of emissions from mining site, but also was able to provide energy to power all onsite equipment as well as heat the homes of the surrounding areas (Boyd, & Camanho, 2011). Wind and solar powers could never hope to do this.

Even when assuming the wind turbines or solar panels could work at full capacity all the time, coal energy systems are still overall more efficient than the other sources (Barns, 2015) when defining efficiency as a measure of cost compared to kW produced. When looking at energy options to sustain as enormous a population as the human race has, one cannot overlook the necessity of having a mass producing energy source. Alternative sources such as wind, solar, or hydro power simply cannot compete with clean coal’s massive production rate, making them the poorer option for the human race as a whole. Additionally, clean coal production is also one of the cheapest forms of alternative energy available to us today. Taking into account both the massive amounts of energy needed and the total cost to produce that energy it has been shown definitively that clean coal production is significantly cheaper per kilowatt (kW) produced than most other energy sources.


The table above clearly shows that coal averages 10-14 cents per Kilowat (kW) produced whereas wind is nearly double that at 8 to 20 cents per kW (Rosemblat, n.d.).

Another talking point many opponents of clean coal use is the initial amount of capital necessary to retrofit many older plants or construct new plants can seem like an astronomical amount of money. However, retrofitting power plants can reduce the amount of total energy consumed by the plant, while creating energy for the public, as well as reducing the amount of energy lost during the processing of the coal. On average the efficiency of current coal-burning plants is between 32% and 42% efficient, whereas a plant with a clean coal retrofit involving carbon capture and storage can increase plant efficiency by 14%-26% (Xu, pg. 223). This means the plant saves money it would be otherwise spending on operational and maintenance needs. As with most new technology the current price will begin to fall as more research continues and new ideas begin to come forward. The investment to retrofit now will also make those companies more steadfast in finding a solution that can continue to reduce the amount of money they spend, while producing energy at a higher and more efficient level. The cost of retrofitting coal plants in comparison with other forms of alternative energy is very competitive. For example, the cost of a singular solar panel is approximately $2,500 and with an average size of over 4 acres equating to about 10,000 solar panels in a commercial solar system. This means you would be spending $25,000,000 on just the solar panels alone. Additional costs to be factored in would be the cost of creating a new grid to utilize this solar power and the man hours required to complete such a project. Additionally, while there are maintenance and repair costs associated with clean coal production, there is comparable maintenance associated with wind and solar as well. Solar panels have a lifetime of approximately 20-25 years. Every 20 years or so it is necessary to replace these panels, with very high costs (Black, para. 2). Also, amount of energy gathered by the panels slowly decreases during the panel’s lifetime, adding to the energy sources unreliability (Black, para. 3). Wind turbines, similar to solar panels, have a lifetime of around 20-25 years. The costs of wind turbines vary depends on the size and prospective energy production. Small wind turbines can be installed on a resident property costing from $50,000-$80,000, making it a very unlikely choice for the average American family. Larger wind turbines such as utility scale turbines produce significantly more energy, but also cost considerable more ranging from $3-4 million dollars (Windustry, para. 3).

Clearly, throughout history, energy sources developed by the human race have been anything but beneficial to our environment and to our own health. Since coal has been the main source of electrical energy for years with our demand increasing yearly, improving the way we create this energy is vital. When confronted with the above statistics, it is clear that it is in the world’s best interest to put more effort into research and funding of the new and upcoming technology. Instead of focusing on gathering and stockpiling energy sources we must learn how to consume these products in a way that not only lets us continue our way of life but allows us to be as close to environmentally neutral as possible. China has taken this idea very seriously and has seen a certification of 1,534,387 metric tonnes of emissions reduced in the 30 mines chosen to do a retrofit (Uddin et al. 2015). Though this may seem like a small step in the direction in making clean coal a viable source, there is no step too small when human and environmental health is concerned. With an increase in research and funding, techniques can be developed, allowing for a decrease in cost and for emissions to be reduced and potentially eliminated entirely. Though the United States may not be leading in research, there are plans for roughly $145 billion in Clean Coal production to deployed by 2016 from US power industry (Mann, 2014). It is important that this information be made available to the public, and the successes of this research become well known. With more understanding of these methods by society, comes more acceptance, and thus, funding will come more easily. Clean coal production is the future this world needs in order to improve our environment and our health while maintaining our current lifestyle and budget.




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