VIEWS: What are the Economics of Cleaner Coal? Or Are We Asking the Right Question?

Dispatch from SSC Intern Alok Sinha

This comes from one of the best sources for research on Cleaner Coal – MIT. The University held a symposium this spring on how to make coal friendlier for the environment.

The need for Clean Coal is crucial as the world, specially the US & China won’t be able to do anything meaningful to greenhouse gas emissions until they find the answer to the coal question. The need to do so is urgent now and not in the future. To adhere to the global standards of reduction in Greenhouse emissions, one of the foremost requirements is CO2 emission reduction from existing coal power plants.And now that the US has passed its own climate bill, this requirement will become more stringent.

The results from the MIT study suggest that even though cleaning up coal is doable, it is not straightforward. Retrofitting existing coal plants is as costly, if not more, as building new ones. The study points out that capturing carbon at existing plants could cost $50 to $70 a ton. This is more than what is recognized in the US. However China might be able to do better because it is focusing on building state-of-the-art supercritical coal-fired power plants.

The other interesting part of the study focuses on carbon capture and storage. Up until now, the focus has been on methods of the actual capture. There is still no viable plans or technology for effective disposal of the captured carbon. The report highlights that without sequestration, C02 capture has no purpose. There will be a lot of effort and money for R&D required to address this part of the problem as well.

The report certainly points out that to save a little, a lot needs to be spent. The report estimates that US will have to spend $1 billion a year for the next decade in R&D on true clean coal plants. This is in addition to the $12/15 billion needed to figure out how to convert existing coal plants.

These developments are obviously concerned only with how to clean up coal plants. And yes, this is a big part of the power sector, which is a significant part of the emission puzzle. But obviously this research needs to be supplemented by a research in alternative clean energies, which I personally believe to be a more important part of the jigsaw puzzle.

Learn more about MIT's study here.