Synthetic fuels derived from coal are taking a beating these days, but when it comes to energy solutions one must be careful not to oversimplify, even in the case of coal. Case in point: what looks like an evil in the context of North America’s energy system may offer important advantages to the developing world.
In North America coal synfuels face two powerful adversaries. First there is the ethanol lobby, which sees synthetic gasoline and diesel fuel produced via coal gasification as a competitor for federal tax breaks. Environmentalists and energy analysts offer a more virtuous beef: the energy-intensity of the coal-to-liquids processes. Coal synfuels leave an even bigger carbon footprint than refined petroleum fuels — even if the CO2 from the synfuels plants is captured and stored underground. Today’s Grist makes that case in “Coal bashing: good, and good for you”, including a new study from Carnegie Mellon on the climate advantage of subsidizing plug-in hybrid vehicles rather than synfuels.
In China, however, coal synfuels offer an attractive route to cleaner air. Methanol produced from coal, for example, can be converted into clean-burning dimethyl-ether or DME which is similar to propane. DME supplied in portable tanks supplants indoor burning of coal, wood, or dung which the WHO estimates is second only to poor sanitation as a cause of premature mortality in the developing world.
Coal-derived methanol also offers environmental benefits as a motorfuel. Blended into gasoline (something that my reporting confirms is already happening with Beijing’s tacit approval) can cut local air pollution in Chinese cities by at least a fifth according to research from Princeton’s Environment Institute and Beijing’s Tsinghua University.
How to solve the potential increase in CO2 emissions? Capturing and sequestering the CO2 is one option. Another complimentary solution promoted by the Princeton group is to feed both coal and renewable biomass into the synthetic fuel plants.
The takeaway message for me is that we should be careful not to take energy solutions off the table too hastily. The climate problem is too big for that. I say let a thousand flowers bloom, even those that grow on coal.