Get Up to Speed on “Clean Coal”

by October 18, 2017
The term "clean coal" became popularized in 2008. It's resurfaced recently as President Donald Trump referenced the practice in a speech in Phoenix. (Photo by the Bureau of Land Management Wyoming via Flickr).

The term “clean coal” became popularized in 2008. It’s resurfaced recently as President Donald Trump referenced the practice in a speech in Phoenix. (Photo by the Bureau of Land Management Wyoming via Flickr).

Heard a lot about “clean coal” lately?

Admittedly, the term seems like an oxymoron. It’s been thrown around energy circles for awhile now, first becoming popular in 2008 as Congress looked at climate change legislation. The term resurfaced in popular discourse in August when President Trump muddled the definition during a summer rally in Phoenix.

“Clean coal” is a vague term. Industry flacks like to describe it as a more efficient coal with low emissions. That’s not much help.

Although the term can describe the process of separating ash and soot from coal, it’s mostly used to explain carbon capture and storage (CCS). Think of it as the coal industry’s response to the green push, making its energy source emission-free. Not surprisingly, the idea tends to get pushback from renewable energy advocates.

Some say the world needs clean coal as renewables won’t be enough to counter carbon emissions. Others are skeptical—mainly due to the process’s mechanical and financial demands—and consider it a pipe dream that will never materialize.

Regardless, if you’re on the energy beat your editor has heard of clean coal and may be looking for a story. Or, it may have become a buzz word among your sources, who have yet to provide a succinct definition. Hoping to get a deeper understanding? Here are five articles to get you up to speed.

Clean Coal Reading List

1. What ‘Clean Coal’ Is—and Isn’t by Brad Plumer at the New York Times

Plumer gives a good synopsis of the history of the term, its stumbles and its misleading nature.

2. Trump Touts ‘Clean Coal’: What Is It, Really? by Stephanie Pappas, a contributor at Live Science.

Pappas explains carbon capture, coal gasification and the miscommunication between Trump’s rhetoric and his budget proposal. For example, the Department of Energy funding that goes toward clean coal projects is on the cutting board.

3. How Does Clean Coal Work? by David Grossman at Popular Mechanics

Grossman breaks down the process and technology involved with CCS.

4. Renewables Aren’t Enough. Clean Coal Is The Future by Charles C. Mann for WIRED.

Mann details his unceremonious welcome when he tried to visit GreenGen, a large clean coal plant based in China. He acknowledges the weaknesses of clean coal while also emphasizing that the world needs the technology.

5. ‘Clean Coal’ Will Always Be a Fantasy by the Editors at Bloomberg

The Bloomberg editors didn’t pull punches. Editors acknowledge that carbon capture appeared promising but failures in recent years indicate that clean coal power plants are likely doomed. Note: Michael Bloomberg supports the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.