One year ago, Energy Central called on one of the world's leading researchers looking into the promise of clean coal, Howard J. Herzog, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The way we burn coal today is not compatible with a carbon-constrained world, and we need new technologies to burn coal cleaner in the future," he said. "We're falling far short of the level of investments we need to do today in order for coal to play a major role."
Herzog was one of the authors of an important report on the role coal will play in powering America in 2050. The black chunks wrested from the earth's interior when burned provide half of our electricity. Keeping that fuel viable has got to be a top priority. Herzog said that to get the job done, it will take a commitment of $1 billion a year for eight to ten years for research and development.
Remember FutureGen, the $1.5 billion public-private effort to develop a near zero-emissions coal-fired power plant? The Department of Energy early this year backpedaled on its commitment to the project, saying it needed to be restructured because of an unforeseen escalation of costs.
Herzog's call for more coal generation research and development as well as the demise of the original concept of FutureGen creates lots of questions. It's even truer now that the financial wizards of Washington in recent weeks have frantically thrown around hundreds of billions worth of bandages for a badly fractured economic system.
Our single-minded focus on bailing out Wall Street misses something huge. The be all and end all of American civilization is not Wall Street. The stock market -- indeed capitalism -- has evolved into an efficient engine of allocating capital to worthy endeavors that create jobs and improve our lives.
Bill Clinton on the David Letterman show recently observed that early in the Bush administration the Federal Reserve injected a tidal wave of capital into the economy and it had nowhere to go. Hence, there was a big bubble in real estate and we are now gummed up in the resulting mess.
Where are the leaders of the energy industry? They should be standing on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, telling the nation day after day, "You know what? Why not peel off one or two of those hundreds of billions that Washington has suddenly found? Instead of plowing them into 'toxic' real estate assets to help out some flailing financial dinosaur, how about using them to fund the research Howard Herzog is talking about?
And instead of retreating on FutureGen, how about doubling and tripling what initially was allocated to the overall effort? Why not create multiple demonstration plants of new clean coal-burning technology?"
Thomas Friedman, columnist for The New York Times and author of a compelling book analyzing our energy, economic and environmental future, Hot, Flat and Crowded, recently captivated hundreds of industry players at the GridWeek conference in Washington. His overarching point is that civilization may be about to experience a change as sweeping as the advent of the Industrial Revolution. The society that figures how to produce energy cleanly for an expanding share of mankind will lead this century.
The street-level view of what lies ahead was offered by one GridWeek speaker, Michael Oldak of the Edison Electric Institute. "We are going to double or triple the rate base just to keep the lights on," Oldak said.
The energy sector is the third-leading borrower of funds, tapping debt markets for half the money for power plants. Only the government and the financial sector borrow more. Government and finance do not produce things. Energy is perhaps our most vital product.
Why not use investments in our energy future as the vehicle for getting America's economy back on track?
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EnergyBiz magazine is the thought-leading, award-winning publication of the emerging power industry. This article originally appeared in the November/December 2008 issue.
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