Coal powered the Industrial Revolution and gave us our modern lives.
The core concept of factories was embraced by the mid-1800s but throughout the 20th century the revolution spread through steel, chemicals, petroleum, automobiles, and beyond. Oil rose in importance but coal remained a vital source of power.
Unfortunately, coal is dangerous to life and health. While its benefits are shared across the nation, impacts are local. Mining districts are permanently blighted and scarred, and miners are sickened and injured. We’ve made a deal with the devil in some ways, but who wants to return to a feudal agrarian world? Not me.
Natural gas is replacing coal to fuel power plants because it’s cheaper. While there are also issues around gas production, it’s better than coal. Renewable energy is also surging. There may always be some coal used as a chemical – in certain steel production for example – but bringing back coal is like bringing back film or horseshoes.
Mining towns bore the brunt of coal’s problems and they bear the brunt of coal’s demise. And not just lost wages. Working hard as part of a team, developing skills, admiring and being admired by your friends – all good for the soul despite the hazards, and lost to many coal miners. Due to the nature of mining, these displaced miners often live in remote rural areas where finding new jobs, new homes, and new communities is hard.
Can technology save coal? Can it burn “clean,” can workers be protected, and can landscapes be reclaimed? Probably, but no one wants to pay for it.
President Trump recently touted a ‘brand-new coal mine, where they’re going to take out clean coal — meaning, they’re taking out coal, [and] they’re going to clean it,’ referring to a Corsa Coal Corporation mine that is projected to open in 2018.
What does that mean? Rock and soil are washed out of coal at the mine, but “clean coal” usually means contaminants and carbon are captured at the power plant stack and sequestered somehow, locked safely away from you and me.
Politicians get away with fuzzy words because “clean coal” has no universal definition. But there are a handful of technologies under development that generally fit the phrase.
- Grabbing CO2 from flue gas to use elsewhere or inject underground – that’s one idea.
- Reacting CO2 with some other waste chemical like hydrogen sulfide to make a stable compound – there’s that.
- Converting coal into “syngas” removes nasty contaminants for later disposal and cleaner burning – also possible.
- More at livescience
All these technologies use costly equipment and you may need to burn thirty percent more coal to power the “cleaning.” None of them compete economically with natural gas or, increasingly, renewable energy.
Even politicians who make speeches about clean coal quietly propose to reduce the funding to develop these technologies – and government funding is necessary because “clean coal” isn’t ready to go yet and private companies don’t see it as profitable.
The insanity of politics aside, real problems exist for real people. What will happen to ex-miners, sons and daughters who expected to work in and around mines, and their dying towns? We could provide pensions, pay for schooling, and move people away for less money than “clean coal” would cost. If America were China that might happen. It would take a dictator to accomplish because culture is hard and slow to change. We can deal with bodies easily enough, but what about spirits?
Science may provide an answer, but through psychology rather than chemistry.