Yesterday was Earth Day, and in commemoration, I read a story in Wired about the future of a particularly controversial source of energy, coal. The point that the story made is that there is no way that the world is going to stop using coal for electricity, it’s too entrenched, plentiful, and cheap, so the best way to achieve a happy ending is to push to develop ways to capture the carbon and bury it deep underground.
Yes Virginia, there IS such a thing as clean coal. Not that it will ever burn clean, just that in places like China and Germany, scientists are figuring out ways to massively capture all of that dangerous CO2 and sulfur and when you do this, coal is nearly as clean as solar.
The statistics about coal usage around the world is frightening. Even with its massive solar energy push, that’s put panels in nearly every farmer’s fields in Germany, that country has opened more coal fired plants in 2013 that in any year in the past two decades. In Poland 86% of the electricity comes from coal, and it’s the same in Indonesia, South Africa and Australia. The US, with our big push into natural gas fracking, is the exception, and that’s why we are exporting so much coal (and wood pellets) to Europe.
But Wired never publishes stories that only tell the grim things, and in this story too, there remains some hope. At the beginning of the story author Charles C. Mann tries to enter a mysterious building in Tianjin, where acre upon acre of a hyper industrialized zone looms like something out of a Terminator movie. He’s in search of GreenGen, a factory that was built to extract the carbon dioxide from coal plants and channels it miles underground where it can be safely stored. There are many factors and challenges, but there are scientists both in China and the US who think we can make this work.