Myth 2: Coal is Clean

When the industry talks about “clean coal,” it is referring to a range of technologies that burn coal more efficiently, and pollution controls that remove some of the nastiest pollutants from the smokestack. Yet even the most efficient coal-fired power plants only operate at around 44% efficiency, meaning that 56% of the energy content of the coal is lost. These plants emit 15 times more carbon dioxide than renewable energy systems and twice as much CO2 as gas-fired power plants.

Pollution controls can remove sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxides, PM2.5 and mercury from the smokestacks. However, installing these pollution controls can add hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost of a new coal plant, making them more expensive than other renewable options, and discouraging their adoption. Today many countries continue to build new coal plants and run existing coal plants without modern pollution controls, seriously affecting the health of their citizens.

While pollution controls can remove a lot of the toxic waste from the smokestake, these toxins end up in the coal ash. This ash is stored in waste ponds or landfills which leach sulfur dioxide and heavy metals into surface and groundwater. Studies in the United States show an increase in water pollution after installation of scrubbers on coal plants.

The coal industry advocates that carbon capture and storage (CCS) can reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. However, CCS is an unproven technology which has not yet been implemented at a large-scale fossil fuel plant. The greatest barrier to CCS is its economic viability. Between 25-40% more coal would be required to produce the same amount of energy using this technology. Consequently, more coal would be mined, transported, processed and burned, increasing the amount of air pollution and hazardous waste generated by coal plants. The cost of construction of CCS facilities and the “energy penalty” would almost double the costs of electricity generation from coal, making it economically unviable.

Furthermore, there are considerable questions about the technical viability of CCS. It is unclear whether CO2 can be permanently sequestered underground and what seismic risks underground storage poses.

Ultimately, coal cannot be considered “clean” when you factor in the air and water pollution generated by coal mining, preparation, transport and combustion. Pollution from the coal life cycle harms human health and the environment. Clean coal is a dirty lie.

Read our factsheet on why Clean Coal is a Dirty Lie.