With the emergence of solar and wind energy as well as clean and inexpensive natural gas, it’s fair to ask whether we even need clean-coal technology. But the answer — though perhaps surprising — is that we need it more than ever.

Clean coal technology can refer to a wide variety of advanced technologies, but it has increasingly meant the carbon capture and storage (CCS) as it’s emitted from a power plant and stored underground.

CCS is most closely linked to coal, but it’s a clean technology for any fossil fuel. Whether coal, oil or natural gas, any power plant burning a fuel that produces carbon emissions can be a candidate for carbon capture. That’s likely why some of the most advanced and promising CCS projects are coming from companies that don’t use coal at all.

For example, ExxonMobil’s investment in a company that is combining CCS with fuel cells to generate even more power from waste carbon emissions.

Today, coal and natural gas are used to generate roughly 65 percent of all U.S. electricity. While cleaner-burning natural gas is being used to meet interim emissions targets, it too will need advanced emissions reduction technology in the years ahead.

However, the real driver for advances in CCS is not the eventual necessity of its use here but rather the coming market for the technology overseas. If you think wind and solar can take over the low-carbon challenge, think again.

Even in the wealthy U.S., where taxpayer subsidies for wind and solar have totaled in the tens of billions of dollars, wind and solar meet just 5 percent of the nation’s electricity demand. Optimistic projections have renewables meeting about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity needs by mid-century, not nearly enough to solve our power demands.

While the U.S. is meeting interim emissions-reduction targets by leaning on natural gas, most nations don’t have enough cheap and abundant natural gas as an alternative.

Take China: With little natural gas of its own, China burns more coal than the rest of the world combined. Even as Beijing makes gargantuan investments in renewable power — $360 billion through 2020 — this new investment isn’t coming in lieu of coal, it’s coming in addition to it.

Instead of pivoting to natural gas, China is building new, more efficient coal plants to replace older plants. While these plants will have better environmental performance than those they’re replacing, achieving significant cuts in China’s carbon emissions — the largest in the world — will take great leaps forward in technology, particularly in CCS.

For China and other nations with burgeoning middle classes and surging energy demand, such as India, reducing their emissions means adding emissions-cutting technology onto existing plants. In Asia, in particular, the coal fleet is young. New plants, or those built within the past decade, will run for 40 years or more. Any serious effort to reduce global emissions is going to take technology that can make these existing plants carbon-free, or close to it.

There’s important work happening at U.S. demonstration plants and at our national labs with CCS. Now is the time to double down on the development of this critical technology. Increased tax credits for its demonstration as well as increased funding for research should be budget priorities. The need for U.S. energy technology leadership is only growing.

Are we capable of rising to the challenge?

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Dr. J. Winston Porter is an energy and environmental consultant based in Georgia. Earlier, he was an EPA assistant administrator in Washington, D.C.


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