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Load 16 (Clean?) Tons And What Do You Get…

by Scott Bittle

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

The federal government this week announced plans to push biofuels and "clean coal" technology, in an effort to move forward on energy options even while a more complicated "cap-and-trade" plan stays stalled in Congress. Developing new technology is important to solving our energy problems, but what is really at stake here and what choices do we have?

Americans get half of our electricity from coal, and the pros and cons of it are actually pretty simple. Coal is inexpensive, we have lots of domestic supply, and some 80,000 people work in the industry. On the other hand, coal puts out more greenhouse gases and pollutants than our other options, even other fossil fuels like natural gas and oil. (See our handy chart from Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis to compare different energy sources).

So coming up with ways to use coal without producing greenhouse gases could be a breakthrough. But it's not exactly around the corner -- the Obama administration's plan would create five to 10 commercial demonstration projects by 2016, and if they succeed, widespread adoption would be even further off.

That's why it's important for policymakers to focus the energy debate on the fundamental choices we face. Too often we end up arguing over the complexities of a cap-and-trade plan, or the emissions targets needed to control climate change. But to engage the public, the key questions are more basic: what kind of power plants do we need? How should we fuel our cars? These are questions Americans can and should grapple with – and in a world that needs more energy at the same time it needs cleaner energy, the public needs to be part of this debate.



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