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Is Coal Inevitable?

Over at Grist, Dave Roberts conducted an in-depth interview with Sarah Forbes of the World Resources Institute, who directs their research efforts into carbon-capture and storage for coal plants. If anyone's finding themselves in dire need of a primer on CCS, read the interview. But let's give a blockquote to this exchange on China:

[Roberts]: China has hundreds of old-fashioned pulverized coal plants. The argument is that they’re not going to stop burning coal because it’s cheap. But attaching a CCS facility onto a pulverized coal plant is one of the most expensive options. If they won’t do large-scale renewables, why would they do this? If they are willing to do something more expensive, why this and not renewables and efficiency?

[Forbes]: I hope and believe that they are moving forward on renewables. I guess I see it as: if we’re going to continue using coal, this is our one chance to solve climate change. It should not replace investment in energy efficiency or investment in renewables, not here, not in China, not anywhere.

Important question, one that underscores an oddity in the coal debate. Even though it's still very much unproven, CCS for coal tends to get far more in subsidies than any other low-carbon technology. This held true for the House climate bill, and will no doubt be true of the Senate bill. Advocates usually insist that CCS should get top billing because we're already using so much coal—it supplies roughly half of our electricity—and therefore coal's "not going away." As Virginia Democrat Rick Boucher put it, "preservation of the ability of electric utilities to continue coal use is essential."

But this is backwards. Conventional coal's only become so widespread because, for more than a century, it was cheaper than alternatives—partly due to the fact that the pollution it caused went largely unregulated. As we shift to a low-carbon world, where we can no longer afford to burn dirty coal freely, that may not continue to be the case. If CCS ends up being the cheapest, easiest low-carbon option, sure, we should go with that. But if, say, baseload solar thermal proves cheaper than CCS, then that's going to win out—as well it should.

So it doesn't make much sense to say coal's "not going away" and therefore we have to accommodate it. What we have to do is curb carbon-dioxide emissions. CCS is certainly worth exploring and researching as a promising option, but if it turns out not to be economical as other means of averting climate change, then there's no principled reason to preserve coal's primacy. (Boucher, who hails from a mining-heavy district, may have parochial reasons for protecting coal, and those deserve a hearing, but it's worth being clear about the difference.)

--Bradford Plumer