This is the fourth entry in a series of six email exchanges between two climate-change experts on the future use of coal. The series was originally posted here.

Editorial note: Time is of the essence, Roberts argues. We must be agile and find solutions that can be rapidly implemented, learned from, and refined, rather than depend on approaches that consume capital and resources and waste valuable years. Solutions must be innovative and forward-looking — not “end-phase add-ons” that only mask pollution and make it expensive to do the right thing.

Hi Sasha,

On most of what you wrote we are in what’s called “violent agreement.” Energy is a core part of the climate challenge and deserves immediate, sustained, intense attention. One of the most gratifying trends of the last five years has been the influx of ambitious young people working on energy solutions. (See Joshua Green’s great story on the new wave of cleantech entrepreneurs.) I suspect in 10 years we’ll be farther along than we dare predict from today’s vantage point.

The reason I set energy in the wider context of multiple overlapping ecological problems was not to suggest that we should wait until 2030 for some Whole Earth silver bullet of a solution. Quite the contrary! It was to suggest that we need to learn how to address multiple challenges simultaneously; we need to take a more holistic view of costs and benefits; we need to put a premium on speed and resilience. We need solutions that are highly iterative, so that we can deploy, learn, refine, and redeploy quickly. It is precisely because we have so little time that we can ill afford to place our bets on centralized, capital-intensive industrial mega-projects.

Where I think we disagree is in your characterization of coal with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) as a short-term solution, ready to be implemented immediately to “buy time” as we figure out more enduring solutions. It is perhaps true that the technical skills to burn coal with CCS exist, but the implication that CCS is ready to be deployed at scale today flies in the face of most expert opinion. MIT’s landmark study on the future of coal estimated that it will be 10-15 years before CCS is ready for commercial deployment. Some coal executives aren’t even that optimistic. A Duke Energy representative testified to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, “I don’t see major extraction sequestration in the foreseeable future, for the next 20 years or so. That’s not our firm’s forecast because it’s so expensive relative to the other control options and because of its technical difficulty.” No large coal plant in America has ever captured and stored a high percentage of its CO2 emissions. The legal liability framework is not in place; the regulations are not in place; there is no plan to address the enormous NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) pushback that will greet any attempt at high-volume CO2 storage. And to make a dent in the coal problem, large-scale sequestration would have to be implemented at virtually every coal plant in the country; every year we’d be handling a higher volume of gas than the entire global oil industry, by a wide margin. All that massive new infrastructure, just to dispose of waste.

The challenges for CCS are not primarily technological but economic and social. The reason coal power seems so cheap is that the U.S. has been running (into the ground) a fleet of old, dirty power plants that were grandfathered (exempted) under the 1976 Clean Air Act. But those plants are pumping out as much as they can and utilities now face the need to invest in new generation capacity. The fact is that new coal plants — plants compliant with today’s environmental regulations, much less tomorrow’s climate laws — are extraordinarily expensive. Construction costs for new power plants have more than doubled since 2000. There have been very few coal plants built in the U.S. in 30 years because they just aren’t an attractive investment. Most utilities that have sought permits for coal plants have foundered on cost overruns or public opposition.

Coal is already being outcompeted by natural gas, renewables, microgeneration (small-scale onsite low-carbon technologies, cogeneration (the simultaneous production of electricity and heat using a single fuel such as natural gas), and above all energy efficiency. And that’s without expensive new CO2 controls. Making “clean coal” commercially viable in the U.S. would mean taking a declining industry and reviving it with a huge infusion of taxpayer money. That sounds to me like large-scale corporate welfare, not savvy environmental policy.

You will no doubt counter that a) commercialization can be accelerated by public policy, and b) China is not constrained by our environmental laws, so it needs a coal-based solution. These are good points! I’ll address both in my subsequent email. For now, one final note.

You said that we should not try to solve climate change the way we solved previous environmental problems. I could not agree more. The way we solved previous pollution problems was by requiring the addition of end-of-pipe waste-control widgets. That made manufacturing and power generation cleaner but more expensive — the economy/environment trade-off that has always vexed green politics and made progress difficult.

“Clean coal” is exactly that kind of old-fashioned solution. It’s another waste-control widget tacked onto power plants, raising costs while reducing (some) pollution. It’s damage mitigation. For climate change, we have an alternative: instead of sinking more money into handling the waste from last century’s fuels, we can invest in a new system based on intelligent use of waste-free energy from the sun, wind, earth, and plants, managed by a smart, responsive, robust power grid. We can revitalize our crumbling infrastructure and build a much-needed foundation for 21st century innovation, jobs, and economic growth. We can embrace the future. Doesn’t that sound like a better idea than sticking another scrubber on the past?

DR