Planet Gore

Coal Is Already Cleaner

On the coal issue, one fact is routinely butchered: The idea that modern coal energy is “dirty.”

Press accounts reflexively abuse the term because it’s easier to scare the public with lurid terms like the “dark fuel” (Matthew Wald in The New York Times) than explaining the mineral’s “threat” to the planet is the same odorless gas we are exhaling right now. Carbon dioxide may be a relatively large byproduct of coal, but it is a greenhouse gas, not a “dirty” particulate. 

The modern coal plant, in fact, is remarkably clean compared to the belching smokestack stereotype of CNN stock footage. Take American Electric Power’s (AEP) gigantic Gavin plant in the Ohio Valley (which, together with its sister, 2900-MW John Amos facility, produces more power than all of America’s wind turbines combined — a capacity factor of 4125 MW vs. just 3750 MW for the entire wind industry).


Located in Cheshire, Ohio, the two-unit, 2,600 MW capacity Gavin plant was completed in 1975. To comply with federal clean air standards, plants like Gavin have switched to low-sulfur coal mixes, which – though 50 percent costlier than standard coal – has reduced sulfur and nitric-oxide emissions by 90 percent.


Additionally, Gavin has decreased those emissions by 98 percent again by installing scrubbers in 2004. As a result, even as Gavin today produces 35 percent more power than it did 18 years ago, its emissions are a whopping 13 times less (383,400 tons of SO2 vs. 29,164 tons today). Yet, despite this achievement, coal is ridiculed by the very senators that forced these emissions challenges on the plants to begin with!


“Clean coal” is another term used all too casually (it refers to carbon-sequestration). For all the ink it generates, there is not a single operating “clean coal” plant in America (AEP, for example, is only in the experimental stages). Why? Cost.

Consider: The Gavin scrubbers alone cost more than $850 million to install — or nearly $200 million more than the original construction cost of the plant. Yet, that cost pales in comparison, says an AEP spokesperson, to the price of converting a plant to carbon-sequester.

Henry Payne — Henry Payne is the auto critic for the Detroit News.

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