'Clean Coal' Will Always Be a Fantasy

'Clean Coal' Will Always Be a Fantasy

(Bloomberg View) -- "Clean coal," always dubious as a concept and never proved as a reality, has now failed as business proposition. Southern Co. has decided to stop work on a process that would have captured carbon dioxide emissions from a coal plant in Mississippi.

Giving up on the project, which was nearly $5 billion over budget and three years behind schedule, makes sense for Southern's customers and shareholders. And giving up on carbon capture makes sense for the energy industry. The technology is too expensive and complicated to be deployed quickly or widely enough to appreciably protect the climate.

The better way to cut back on carbon-dioxide emissions is far simpler: Use less coal. Luckily, that change is already under way.

(Michael R. Bloomberg supports the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, an effort to replace coal power with cleaner forms of energy.)

Carbon capture once seemed promising -- even as recently as a decade ago, when coal fueled almost half of U.S. electricity generation. Back then, continued dependence on the dirty fuel looked inevitable, and a strategy to deal with its prodigious greenhouse-gas emissions seemed essential. Hence, utilities embarked on model coal plants that would capture the carbon dioxide before it could enter the atmosphere.

Only a couple have been built, in addition to Southern's in Kemper County, Mississippi, and none has established an economic case for carbon capture. The Petra Nova facility, in Texas, was reportedly finished on time and on budget, but its construction required a $190 million federal grant, and the carbon-capture unit requires a separate gas-fired power plant. Canada's Boundary Dam carbon-capture unit, meanwhile, has operated much less efficiently than expected, suffering multiple breakdowns and requiring expensive repairs.

Unfortunately, such costs and complexities are unlikely to diminish very much, and few such facilities are likely to be built worldwide in the next 20 years. A new report issued by the Global Warming Policy Foundation concludes that carbon capture for coal-fired power has "no plausible economic future."

The good news is that coal use is already falling fast. The shale gas boom and the extraordinary drop in the cost of producing solar panels and wind turbines in recent years has steered power producers away from relatively expensive coal. Today, the fuel accounts for only about a third of U.S. energy, and that share is shrinking. The rest of the world's big economies are also shifting to natural gas, wind, solar and nuclear power.

It would be a mistake to give up completely on carbon capture technology. It has been used effectively in the chemical and oil industries, and it may be able to help reduce emissions from steel plants and other industrial sources. But it can no longer be viewed as a savior for coal-fired power plants -- or as a rationale to build new ones.

--Editors: Mary Duenwald, Michael Newman

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