Eco-groups form 'Reality' Coalition to fight 'clean coal', setting stage for battle over different versions of reality!

December 05 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy   Year: 2010   Rating: 2

This is RealityLet the battle over 'Clean Coal' begin. 

Call it 'clean coal' or 'cleaner coal' -- the idea is still the same. Stop carbon from binding with oxygen (CO2) and floating up into the atmosphere.

How do you do it?
1) Think like an engineer
Sequester the carbon by pumping it underground 

2) Design new plants
Capture energy via 'gasification' (instead of combustion)

3) Think like a biologist
Retrofit coal plants with bioreactors that pull emissions into tanks of carbon-fixing algae and bacteria that bind carbon with hydrogen to form useful forms of energy (hydrocarbon chains biofuels)

Of the three carbon strategies, bioenergy (algae/bacteria) has the most potential as a 'game-changing' solution.  But it is also the hardest to talk about since systems are not tested commercially.

The Battle Ahead
We should not kid ourselves about the dynamics of this coal conversation. It is likely to get ugly as industry and activists try to demonize each other and paint their own version of 'reality'.   There are no simple, short term quick fixes.   What could happen depends on how the fight evolves around the focus of:

- emotions vs science
- coal energy inside the United States vs China
- present day challenges or exploring and enabling future solutions
- engineeing solutions, or biosolutions
- compromise, regulatory frameworks, or lawsuits

The Players- Industry, Activitists, and Entrepreneurs

Industry- America's Power campaign
During the 2008 US Presidential election televsion viewers saw a well funded coal industry campaign - 'America's Power'. Its emotional appeal- domestic coal helps reduce dependency on foreign oil, good for jobs and economic growth, and we're going to get cleaner, trust us.


Plenty of holes in this reality, but few industry analysts argue that coal is going to be used for a long time.  Coal is not (by default) an alternative to oil.  It produces electricity, and you cannot put electricity (from coal, solar or wind) inside a combustion engine.  Yes, the coal sector employs a lot of people that we must consider in this conversation.  People and regional economies matter.  But developing new energy technologies for clean coal (and alt technologies) is likely to create more jobs than it destroys.  The industry's investments in 'clean coal' have yielded improvements via reduced costs, but no game changing breakthroughs.



Activitists - This is
Now we have a well funded coalition that is going to launch its own emotional message and version of the reality. 

On December 3rd, the Alliance for Climate Protection, League of Conservation Voters, National Wildlife Federati, Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club launched the "Reality" Coalition, to fight the notion of "clean coal."  Their emotional appeal - there is no such thing as 'clean coal', corporations are lying, planetary demise by carbon if we don't switch to wind and solar.

Plenty of holes in this reality as well.  Clean coal as defined by reducing carbon emissions is possible, though it doesn't exist today. Wind and solar are certainly expanding, but coal power plants are not going to shut down anytime soon especially since they have the favorable position of already being connected to electricity grids.   The world is going to double its energy consumption by 2050 and renewables are going to struggle to increase their market share by more than 25% without major changes.  And it's easy to just say that corporations deceive when you are not responsible for keeping the lights on.     

Fighting via the Media   
The "Reality" Coalition will launch a multi-million dollar ad campaign, running in print, broadcast and online media and supported by the website, designed and produced by the agency responsible for the ground-breaking "Truth" anti-tobacco campaign.

"The coal industry is running a cynical and dishonest campaign to mislead the American people, while they stand in the way of real solutions," said Gene Karpinski, President of the League of Conservation Voters. "The 'Reality' Coalition is aimed at holding them accountable for their outlandish claims."

Not a lot of love there...!

Instead of hating Coal, how about loving Algae?
We can already see two very different pictures of reality being promoted by both sides.   And we expect 2009 will be a significant year for developments in coal and carbon solutions

The unfortunate consequence of this battle is that it will likely be most heated in the United States, while the world's attention should really be focused on China as it expands its reliance on coal power.

US President Elect Barack Obama could be forced to lead a very pragmatic conversation between two polarized sides of the spectrum.  

While it might feel good to fight the coal industry around a snapshot image of 'truth', unless you develop carbon solutions for global markets there is no way to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.

The middle way might not be about supporting coal, or opposing coal- rather enabling carbon solutions.

Entrepreneurs - Close the Carbon loop with biology
While the battle unfolds between Industry and Activists, real carbon solutions are being explored by Entrepreneurs who see carbon with a very different lens. 

Their future is a world where biology meets profit.  Use the molecular power of algae and bacteria to alter the fate of carbon by building bioreactor units inside coal facilities.


Carbon from coal has two choices after it is released energy and broken free from its ancient chemical bonds.  It can bind with oxygen to form CO2 and then float up into the air.  

Or it can be captured by microorganisms with enyzmes that bind carbon with hydrogen to form hydrocarbon chains that we recognize in oil and biofuels.

Remember, coal is ancient plant life, oil is ancient sea-faring microbes. Biology captured carbon from the air to create carbon-hydrogen foundations which become coal, and biology can take it back!

This bioenergy solution closes the loop of carbon.  And this is where the smart money is headed even as the battle seems closer to beginning.


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Comment Thread (2 Responses)

  1. These environmentalists are starting to get annoying. The technology is NOT READY to take over the economic advantages of coal yet that still dominates 50% of our energy production. China, Russia, India, Iraq, Iran, et al are going to STILL use C02 burning technologies without caring about the environment.

    I excitedly await solar, biofuels, wind, tidal, clean coal, etc, but we cannot do anything overnight. It’s just not possible unless we put the brakes on society completely or have major technological breakthroughs now.

    Posted by: Covus   December 05, 2008
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  2. Re: Covus Agreed. I think most people who believe we can just ‘end’ coal or oil, are not working with the right set of assumptions about change. Their reality is just off. It’s technology and politics, people, culture, et al. The scale of global energy consumption is staggering… and it will take decades to change this system. Thanks for the comment..!

    Posted by: Garry Golden   December 06, 2008
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