Coal is the most abundant fossil fuel and the least expensive one used to generate electricity in the US. It's also the source of many local problems, including those caused by strip mining and mountaintop removal, as well as disposal of toxic coal ash. But the biggest threat of all may be to the entire planet: burning coal releases large amounts of carbon dioxide, or CO2 — and carbon dioxide is a major contributor to climate change.
Scientists say if the world continues emitting carbon dioxide following current trends, the average global temperature could rise by 7 degrees Fahrenheit or more by the year 2100, and by 9 degrees or more in the U.S. The oceans, expanding as they warm and flooded with melt-water from glaciers and ice sheets on land, could rise between two and five feet.
In Georgia, a state that gets 60 percent of its electricity from coal (the national average is 50 percent), residents are already worried about the effects on their state's economy and ecology. As the temperature rises, the Live Oak — the state tree — could find it hard to thrive. Coastal cities like Savannah, meanwhile, will be under increasing threat from the rising sea.
Like others across the country, Georgians are connecting the dots between how they get their electricity and what the future holds for their lives. As a result, they’re trying to figure out how to cut down on the CO2 emitted by burning coal.
One answer might be to reduce the amount of coal used — but coal is abundant and inexpensive, and therefore hard to give up. Yet it's also possible to reduce the amount of CO2 that comes from a coal-fired power plant. That's the idea behind "clean coal" or, to use the more technical term, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). CCS technology could capture as much as 90% of the carbon dioxide emitted from coal power plants and pipe it deep underground, into porous formations of rock and sand that can absorb the CO2 and prevent its escape to the atmosphere.
CCS technology appears to be viable, but implementing it at large scales is still at least a decade away. It also will require billions of dollars in investment, and some states, like Georgia, are less geologically suitable for storing carbon dioxide than others. CCS will make electricity from coal more expensive. And some opponents worry about whether any underground location can truly contain the CO2.
The wider debate about clean coal and CCS is being played out on television, through a multimillion-dollar advertising war. Opponents say coal is a “dirty rock” that can’t be wiped clean with an advertising campaign. They insist that even if the CO2 problem is fixed, mining, ash disposal and combustion will keep coal from being truly clean. The other side emphasizes the fact that coal is inexpensive, that the U.S. has domestic reserves that could last two hundred years or more, and that using coal is a prime way to help the U.S. remain competitive with fast-growing economies like China and India — both of which are major coal users.
Even if CCS ultimately proves to be successful on a wide scale, experts say that there are steps people can immediately pursue to get a head start on reducing carbon dioxide emissions. "Efficiency is the first fuel that we should be going to," says Stephen Smith, Executive Director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
Others point out that reducing CO2 emissions to the degree needed to avoid major climate change will require not only efficiency improvements, but also a portfolio of options. CCS, they say, could be one such option.
Toward that end, the federal government is currently directing some stimulus funding to help demonstrate CCS technologies. Meanwhile, Congress is debating legislation to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions. If such legislation is approved, that could ultimately provide the necessary incentive for coal-burning companies to invest billions of dollars in CCS — the amount needed to make CCS a reality.
Footage credits: David Novack (“Burning the Future”), Georgia Power, America By Air, Appalachian Voices (I Love Mountains), Getty Images, J. Miles Cary/Knoxville News Sentinel, Ocean Footage, Shutterstock