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Cleaning Coal

Converting coal to natural gas is our best strategy for limiting carbon dioxide emissions today.
August 18, 2009

The hot investments these days involve renewable-energy technologies that promise to generate electricity completely free of emissions, along with biofuels that promise to end global demand for coal and petroleum. Unfortunately, these technologies are not economically, technically, or logistically ready to be adopted on a large scale. Renewable energy will ultimately be a critical element of a more sustainable world. But if we have any hope of winning the battle against climate change, we must also focus on solutions that can have a bigger impact faster.

Burning coal is the single largest source of globalgreenhouse-gas emissions, and coal is not going to go away anytime soon. It is by far our largest energy resource–Illinois alone has more British thermal units (BTUs) of coal than Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined have BTUs of oil. Coal now meets 50 percent of U.S. electricity needs, and its use in countries such as China and India is growing. Clearly, we need to find a way to use coal without generating harmful emissions, as an interim solution to one of the biggest threats to society.

One option is to convert coal into natural gas. Natural gas is made up of four parts hydrogen to one part carbon, and it is so clean we burn it in our homes without even needing a vent. A vast pipeline infrastructure already exists to move it around the country, and it burns extremely efficiently. Burning natural gas made from coal in a modern power plant generates about 60 percent less in greenhouse-­gas emissions than burning coal directly and eliminates almost all other pollutants. Converting coal into natural gas has long been too expensive to implement on a large scale. But GreatPoint Energy, a company I founded in 2005, has developed a process called catalytic hydromethanation, which can economically convert coal into pure natural gas while removing and capturing most of the carbon.

Generating half our power in a way that releases 60 percent less carbon is not perfect, but it is far better than most other solutions I have seen. In fact, apart from nuclear energy–which comes with its own problems–I do not know of an option that could make such a significant global impact using available technology. Bear in mind that the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration anticipates that renewables will account for only 13 percent of power generation by 2030, even at very aggressive buildouts.

In this economy, we have limited opportunities to bring to market new technologies that solve our environmental problems. It is up to the entrepreneurs and technologists to exploit the opportunities that exist, make our ideas work, generate returns for investors, and serve the planet.

Andrew Perlman is cofounder, president, and CEO of GreatPoint Energy. He is a member of this year’s TR35.

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