The debate about the future of the US energy policy is warming up, and it is possible to achieve temperatures close to burning in the middle of politics this explosive pre-election season. One industry that has long been the pillar of the US power plant is coal, and the coal case particularly satisfies two reasons. The first is that large reserves in the western US states, such as Montana and Wyoming, provide a sustainable path to enhanced energy independence from unstable and often ineffective oil producing countries. Only reserves in Montana are staggering 120 billion tons; at the level of consumption in 2006, this would be sufficient to fully meet the needs of China's coal in almost half a century. Negative, of course, is that coal-fired thermal power plants are among the worst greenhouse gas emitters.
This conflict of interest has caused loud confrontations in Washington and across the country regarding the role that coal will have in the future of America. Majority Leader in the Democratic Senate Harry Reid and other influential representatives of the Congress, such as Henry Waxman, have shown their opposition to promoting coal interests, arguing that carbon spending is very high and that attention is focused on renewable energy sources such as wind, geothermal and solar energy. Conscious of the rising pressure, coal mining giants who enjoy billions of profits are looking for the use of fuels that will reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. But for Reid and others, the term "clean coal" will only ever be oxymoron.
The Democratic Governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer, has built a great deserved reputation as an advocate of ecological causes. However, his state is divided between conservation elements and a more traditional core of ranchers and farmers and, of course, the interests of "big coal" to which he is not insignificant. Since he occupies that division, he is uniquely positioned to encourage better use of coal. "There is no choice but to go ahead with coal," he said recently. "The question is, how will we advance and develop a technology that will make coal clean?"
The focus of Schweitzer's bid is the implementation of large-scale coal gas and coal-fired coal projects (CTL). Like other alternative energy initiatives such as biofuels, their ultimate efficiency and desirability remain uncertain. But given the energy needs of America and the fact that in the foreseeable future coal power plants will continue to play a big role, it seems to have deserved our attention.
The process of coal gasification degrades coal into its constituents by subjecting it to high temperatures and applying pressure using steam and oxygen. The resulting synthetic gas or "synthetic gas" is mainly carbon monoxide and hydrogen. It is much easier to remove pollutants such as mercury and sulfur than synthetic gas, which allows it to burn cleaner. In addition, when it is snygas clean, it is similar to natural gas, which allows it to burn in more efficient gas turbines. The gas can be further converted into liquid fuel through the Fischer-Tropsch process, and can then be used directly as a fuel oil or even to drive the vehicle.
Perspective is not without unreasonable defects. First of all, this would imply the continuation of the exploitation of coal, and extraction itself might be a repugnant practice. Second, although it allows for a significant reduction in carbon dioxide in relation to the levels of dirty coal-fired power plants, considerable quantities are still being released. Releases are reliably easier to catch, but the prevailing idea of "sequestration" – the storage of underground carbon dioxide – remains problematic. Finally, in infantile phases, the costs of an "integrated combined cycle gasification" (IGCC) for electricity generation are still very high. However, as with all new and unexplored technologies, it was expected that these costs would be reduced if the plants became widespread.
Due to the exploitation of coal that will continue to demand, and because it only allows CO2 reductions, and not their removal, coal gasification can not be considered a solution in the absolute sense. Of course, there is also an external issue of energy inputs for the gasification process. But when one adopts a more pragmatic attitude that the light of his desirability begins to shine. The extraction of coal must be strictly regulated. Early launch of IGCC plants will require major subsidies and other incentives. But if the costs start to fall, coal gasification and CTL technology can be key catalysts for energy independence and cleaner fuel.