I’m not betting on CO2-free coal plant

What with our never-ending quest for energy, it seems coal is making a huge comeback.

Yeah, coal. You know, that black stuff that was once king, subject to Upton Sinclair novels and Appalachian songs. Mined out of the earth and burned for energy. That coal.

A big problem with coal – besides the highly-questionable means of extracting it – is that it’s one dirty fuel. And with newfound concerns about how much carbon dioxide is blown into the atmosphere, I’m amazed coal is being considered at all. Here in South Carolina, as recently noted in an earlier blog entry, four of the top five producers of CO2 in the state are coal-burning power plants.

But man is nothing if not an experimenter, and Mattoon, Illinois, will be the site of the next experiment. Plans are set to build the first “FutureGen,” a coal-burning power plant that allegedly does not emit carbon dioxide. That’s what the press releases say, anyway. This plant is going to be a big one, at least as far as real estate and price tag. It will be built on several hundred acres at a cost of $1.8 billion – in Charlestonese, that’s two Arthur Ravenel Bridges. When completed, the plant is expected to create “hundreds of jobs” to that central Illinois town.

OK. So what’s the secret here? Ahh, the carbon dioxide is to be stored underground – out of sight, out of mind.

I am somewhat familiar with the workings of coal-based energy. Overlooking the Colorado River near Laughlin, Nevada, stands one such plant. Some locals call it the “steam plant.” Steam, my butt. The plant burned coal slurry piped in from the Four Corners region of Arizona, where it was dug out from Navajo land. And like with most agreements with Native Americans through our history, white man got to keep the coal that was mined while the tribe got the shaft. But that’s another story.

The Mohave Generating Station was something of a local joke. For some reason it seemed production was at its highest at night. At a time you couldn’t see that smoke plume rising up from the smokestack. A colleague of mine, in print, referred to that plume as the generating station’s “nocturnal emission,” a phrase I wish I’d turned. And, when then-Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan visited the site, there was no plume to be found – gee, talk about putting your best foot forward.

During that time I got a tour of the generating station, where I got to climb a 60-foot cooling tower to shoot some photos. And the big boss of the generating station told us media buzzards, with a perfectly straight face, that the most noxious emission from that plant was fly ash.

Yeah, fly ash. The stuff that sticks to your car. Run it through a car wash and your problem is solved. Not a word about sulfur dioxide. And not much about carbon dioxide, which wasn’t exactly something that worried even the most hard-shell environmentalists back then.

With this background info, I’m real curious to see how this story plays itself out. If this is an actual solution, that would be wonderful. But I don’t really see storing the carbon dioxide underground as a way to solve anything.

In truth, this sounds more like our standard way of handling environmental issues: Throw a bunch of money at the problem, then hide the effects. Really, it’s like burning coal when you can’t see the plume in the night sky.

Author: Eric Pulsifer

Eric Pulsifer is a veteran wordsmith with experience as a journalist, editor, musician, and freelance writer.

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