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Clean-coal technology can be a climate saver

If you believe that advances in clean coal technology can play a pivotal role in preventing the worst effects of climate change – and I do – then you’ll be interested to know that America is well-positioned to take the lead on multiple fronts.

Rather than despairing about global warming and hoping for magical solutions from solar and wind energy that will be too slow in coming to make a real difference in carbon mitigation, government policymakers should realize that clean coal is already reducing airborne emissions and that it can make a far more important contribution in the years ahead.

Major progress has been made in curbing emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates. And efforts are under way to develop and demonstrate new clean-coal technologies that can be used to reduce carbon emissions in the United States and globally.

Simply put, without innovative ways to produce lower-carbon energy from coal, the battle against global warming will surely fail.

Think about it: coal plants account for about 40 percent of electricity production in the U.S. and worldwide. Some countries rely very heavily on coal: South Africa, 93 percent; Australia, 78 percent; China, 79 percent; India, 68 percent; and Germany, 41 percent.

Coal is also important in many smaller countries such as Israel and Greece, which depend on it for more than 50 percent of their electricity. Here in New Mexico, coal provides 68 percent of our power.

Investing in advanced energy technologies, while allowing the continued use of our most affordable and abundant fuel source, is not only logical but it might actually produce the solution the world needs. If the U.S. is going to be a leader on climate, we have to embrace a future with coal rather than turn our back on it.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has done a disservice in proposing carbon regulations for existing coal plants that would require a whopping 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions nationally and a 33.9 percent reduction in New Mexico by 2030. This would lead to coal’s demise as a power-plant fuel and discourage further research on clean-coal technology.

Ditching coal won’t help in the battle against global warming, not if other countries like China and India continue to burn coal without gaining access to clean-coal technologies.

We have to get serious about demonstrating clean-coal technology, namely carbon capture and storage. As the nation with the world’s largest coal reserves and an unmatched ability to innovate, we need to deploy CCS at a number of sites with different geological formations in the U.S. and abroad.

We can also reduce emissions by increasing the efficiency of coal combustion. Witness the use of ultra-supercritical boilers that emit less carbon per megawatt of power than conventional plants.

Such boilers can achieve up to 44 percent efficiency, compared with an average of 33 percent for the existing fleet of coal plants, resulting in 20 percent less carbon.

Another advanced coal technology is coal gasification, a process in which coal is converted to a gas before it is burned, making it easier to separate the carbon dioxide as a relatively pure gas before power is generated. Such integrated gasification combined cycle, or IGCC, plants may achieve higher efficiencies.

Coal remains the fuel of choice around the world because it is abundant and cheap and for many nations it means energy security. Those who believe the U.S. can somehow convince the rest of the world to abandon coal in favor of less reliable and more expensive natural gas ignore reality. Witness Europe’s strained relationship with Russia, which is using its gas exports for political bullying.

Phasing out the use of coal in the U.S. is not climate leadership; it’s denial of what really needs to be done. Instead of imposing stringent carbon regulations on coal plants – which would place an undue economic burden on Appalachia and the Midwest, two regions that rely heavily on coal – we should move full-throttle towards increased development and demonstration of coal technologies.

If we don’t move forward with CCS and show that it can work and be deployed cost-effectively, what country will?