Fortune Brainstorm Green

Earlier today I attended a small roundtable discussion about clean coal. Most of the people there were basically pro-clean coal: people from NRG energy, railroad companies, venture capital firms, and David Hawkins from NRDC. Some other folks were uncommitted. In the anti column were me and Mike Brune from Rainforest Action Network. Also in attendance: Fred Krupp of EDF and eco-oldtimer Stewart Brand.

There were pockets of agreement. To his credit, the guy from NRG lamented that the term "clean coal" had been used as a marketing trick — he said the only thing that should qualify is a coal plant that actually sequesters CO2. There was general agreement that building new pulverized coal plants is a very bad idea, and that the immediate priority should be efficiency.

The disagreements were where you’d expect: can renewables scale up. Is coal getting (or asking for) unfair subsidies. Is it realistic to bury hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 all across the country.

I remain unconvinced that it’s worth subsidizing new forms of coal plants — I still overwhelmingly think that our short-term goal should be to stop the building of new coal plants, period.

But one argument I did find compelling is the utility of post-combustion carbon capture — the kind of technology that can capture carbon out of the smokestack of a traditional coal plant (or use the CO to grow algae, or whatnot). It makes sense to me to fund that technology and try to drive the expense (which is enormous) down. The fact is, there are going to be lots and lots of coal plants in the world for the foreseeable future, even if we don’t build any more. However expensive post-combustion capture may be, it’s less expensive than tearing a plant down.

More on this stuff later.