Guest Editorial

Coal doesn't have to be a four-letter word


Coal is the new dirty four-letter word on the campaign trail. Any attempt to rationally discuss the merits of clean coal technology sends most politicians scurrying to extol the virtues of solar energy and wind power. Unfortunately, "green power" can supply only a small part of our energy needs. The reality is we need coal to generate electricity, and coal offers a way to transition to clean hydrogen-based fuel systems.

For example, new innovations in coal burning technology eliminate nearly all pollutants and some of the resulting electricity can be directed to crack water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen could eventually replace gasoline in our cars, and the oxygen is released into our atmosphere.

That's one of the components of President Bush's energy initiative which invests $1 billion in demonstration projects over the next 10 years to create the world's first coal-based, zero-emissions electricity, and hydrogen power plants.

Clean coal has other benefits, as well. In Washington state, TransAlta has installed two flu gas desulphurization (FGD) units at its Centralia plant that filter out more than 94 percent of the sulfur-dioxide, a contributor to "acid rain." That power plant is now one of the cleanest coal power plants in the world. In addition, the scrubbing process results in tons of excess commercial grade synthetic gypsum, an environmentally friendly ingredient in "green" wallboard.

The fear mongering about coal ignores the basic fact that without it, America's lights will flicker, and industries will shut down because more than half our electricity comes from coal.

The "green sources" touted by the anti-coal faction will not bring us enough electricity to run our computers and internet server farms, smelt aluminum and make paper, heat and light our homes and offices, and drive our buses, monorails and light-rail systems.

I am not suggesting we abandon development of solar, wind, biomass, fuel cells and hydrogen technology. Hopefully, one day those sources may provide enough power at a reasonable cost, but in the meantime, we have to live and work and that means we must depend upon coal.

More importantly, if we don't supply enough energy for our economy, our competitors will. In fact, China's ambassador to the United States recently told a small group of business leaders in New Orleans that his nation is expanding its generating sources in any way it can. While the Chinese plan to build new nuclear and hydroelectric projects, the fact is, China is building new coal-fired plants as fast as it can.

Add to that the fact that China's sizzling economy is demanding more and more oil, which threatens to drive record oil prices even higher. More importantly, 70 percent of China's electricity comes from coal-fired plants and that isn't likely to change.

Rather than treating coal as the unwanted stepchild, why not develop the clean coal technology the president suggests?

Selling our clean coal technology to nations around the world would be the best way to significantly reduce greenhouse gases, acid rain and other unwanted pollutants while enabling those countries to expand their economies and improve the quality of life for all their citizens.

Don C. Brunell is President of the Association of Washington Business.


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