Alaska’s Coal: A Clean Energy Choice

The technologies associated with coal combustion have made enormous strides in the last hundred years.  Yet many people have impressions of coal that are based on antiquated information.  The gritty conditions of 19th century industrial cities, described by authors such as Charles Dickens, are a far cry from the 21st century world of coal-fired generation.

ComputerModern technology has allowed coal power plants to slash emissions of health-related pollutants by more than 90 percent, and the federal government has invested billions of dollars to develop additional clean coal technologies.  This includes a $1 billion investment in the "FutureGen 2.0" project, which will use advanced oxy-combustion technology to produce a near-zero emissions coal power plant.

A recent report from the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) noted the tremendous progress that coal power plants have made in protecting the environment. The CEC is an international body created by the U.S., Canada, and Mexico to promote regional environmental cooperation, and the effective enforcement of environmental laws (

Baking “There are facilities in the database that, with the use of modern pollution control equipment, are currently achieving greater than 90 percent reductions in NOx [nitrogen oxides], SO2 [sulfur dioxide], and mercury. This is a source of optimism for air quality officials responsible for protecting human health and the environment, the electricity generation industry, and individuals concerned about these issues. The emissions data show that the industry has a demonstrated ability to achieve substantial improvements in its environmental performance while continuing to meet the needs of a growing North American economy.” (North American Power Plant Air Emissions, published by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, p. 2, emphasis added)

A recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology describes the technologies that have led to emissions reductions of greater than 90 percent in pulverized coal (PC) power plants:

Technology“Although coal-based power generation has a negative environmental image, advanced PC [pulverized coal] plants have very low emissions; and PC emissions control technology continues to improve and will improve further… It is not clear when and where the ultimate limits of flue gas control will be reached. In the U.S., particulate removal, via electrostatic precipitators (ESP) or fabric filters, is universally practiced with very high levels of removal (99.9%)...

"Newly permitted coal-fired PC units routinely achieve greater than 99.5% particulate control, and removal efficiencies greater than 99.9% are achievable at little additional cost. Wet flue-gas desulfurization (FGD) can achieve 95% SOx removal without additives and 99% SOx removal with additives... Selective catalytic reduction (SCR), combined with low-NOx combustion technology, routinely achieves 90+% NOx reduction over non-controlled emissions levels. New, advanced PC units in the U.S. are currently achieving criteria pollutant emissions reductions consistent with the performance outlined above and have emissions levels that are at or below the emissions levels achieved by the best PC units in Japan and Europe…” (The Future of Coal, Chapter 3, pp. 22-23, emphasis added.)

DishSince 1970, the amount of coal-powered electricity in the U.S. has almost tripled. Yet, because of modern technology, total emissions of health-related pollutants actually dropped steeply during the same period of time.  Data from the EPA show that emissions of nitrogen oxides fell by 38.7 percent, emissions of sulfur dioxide were reduced by 56.6 percent, and particulate matter was down 93.1 percent.

Alaska Coal Association, 100 Cushman Street, Suite 210, Fairbanks, AK 99701