Coal as a Clean Energy Source, Part One: Some Background

Coal as a Clean Energy Source, Part One: Some Background

The Green Rocket’s Monday video post featured a topic of ongoing debate around the world, especially in the United States: Coal.  It is one of the largest sources of energy for electricity generation worldwide, accounting for half of the electricity generation in the U.S. (Source) As a fossil fuel, burning coal for energy creates vast amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, including its major component carbon dioxide (CO2).  In fact, coal combustion accounts for roughly a third of all CO2 emissions in the United States–more than any other sector, including transportation.  To further put this into perspective, also consider that CO2 itself accounts for 84.8% of all greenhouse gas emissions (in the U.S). (Source)  These statistics are represented graphically below:

Source of Data: Human-Related Sources and Sinks of Carbon Dioxide (2008)

Coal has the highest carbon intensity among fossil fuels, resulting in coal-fired plants having the highest output rate of CO2 per kilowatthour (kWh) (Source, p7).  Clearly, coal-plants have a huge role to play in climate change.  Yet, the improvements in efficiency of CO2 emissions in the U.S. coal industry have been minimal, as I will outline in detail in Part II.

This sentiment has also been reflected in recent politics and policy in the U.S..  Obama’s administration has been aiming for green policy reforms even during the election, and including clean coal.  As quoted by Behind The Plug, Obama maintained a platform as a “big proponent of clean-coal technology…I want us to move rapidly in developing those sequestration technologies that’s required.”  He noted an Obama administration will, “provide incentives to accelerate private sector investment in commercial scale zero-carbon coal plants.”  Specifically, “What we need to do though is to put clean coal technology on the fast track and that means money. It means investment in research. That’s something that we should have already been doing.”

Since taking office, we’ve seen the Obama administration take a number of actions in support of progressive environmental policy.  More recently, EPA review of scientific evidence on the impacts of carbon dioxide has led to  expectations that the government will regulate CO2 emissions.  This is a significant turnover from the Bush presidency, where CO2 was not regulated because the EPA argued it was not a pollutant.  After a major review of the evidence, this decision was overturned and carbon-cutting legislation is now being proposed in Congress.  In addition, the EPA decision – known as an “endangerment finding” – enables certain regulatory cuts to be made without waiting for the proposals to become law.  This is of vast importance not just for Americans, but also for developing countries and the rest of the world looking for leadership in clean energy and climate legislation.  So in relation to the coal industry, this means there is a demand for policy intervention and clean technologies to secure a safe environmental future.

Look out for Part II which will assess the current state of the coal industry in more detail.

Creative Commons Attribution:No Title“, Flickr, jonasclemens


  1. great article…….such a great website :) i remember when i worked in the legislature in Victoria….there was much discussion about removing coal based plants from BC entirely. wonder if that has happened?


  2. Good article… however the quote, “More recently, the government decided to regulate CO2 emissions in a decision made by the EPA.” — that’s not what they decided. The EPA finding is only a finding, it does not mean they will regulate. There are about 7 bills in the US Congress right now discussing how to regulate via legislation, which is what the government prefers. The Waxman-Markey bill is the most well known and it is a cap and trade bill. The EPA doing the regulating would be done only if the Congress can’t pass a bill this year or next, but it is not the preference of the gov. to do it that way.
    And Gore et. al. is right — there is no such thing as clean coal. The best thing to do would be to phase them all out and close the current coal plants.

  3. Thanks a lot Shelly, I misinterpreted what I read about that. I have looked into that further and adjusted the post!

    I’m in agreement on the no coal sentiment … but I’ve definitely been intrigued by what I’ve read about the current technologies being investigated for clean coal. Still — seems like a lot of unknowns when we have certainties about other clean energy technology.

    And good question Pat, I’ll look into that!