Saturday, Aug. 25, 2007 | 7:30 a.m.
When does something dirty become clean?
Is it clean when it is spotless? Or when it's less dirty than it was before?
Those are questions 9-year-olds ask when told to clean their rooms. They are also questions at the heart of a debate over coal-fired power plants in rural Nevada.
The three plants proposed in Lincoln and White Pine counties will be clean coal plants, producing environmentally safe energy, their developers have said. Plans for those plants include using the best and latest technology, making them cleaner than any plants built in the 1970s and 1980s.
Environmentalists say utilities bandy about the term " clean coal " to "green wash" the discussion about fossil fuel-burning power plants.
"It's an oxymoron, like calling a dump a landfill," the Sierra Club's Lydia Ball said. "Dust it off and shine it up and make it pretty."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who opposes the three Nevada plants, agrees. "They say, 'We'll use clean coal technology.' It doesn't exist," Reid said at the Nevada Clean Energy Summit a week ago. "There is no such thing as clean coal technology ... There is not a coal plant in America that is clean."
The three plants would emit a combined 31 million tons of carbon dioxide each year for about 50 years. That makes them as bad as the Mohave Generating Station, an early '70s plant near Reid's hometown of Searchlight that was branded the dirtiest coal plant in the nation before it was shut down two years ago.
Technology used at the plants would, however, reduced emissions of sulfur, nitrogen, mercury and other pollutants drastically over Mohave 's .
But is that enough?
Utilities say that eventually renewable energy from solar, wind, geothermal and other truly clean energy sources will replace fossil-fuel plants. But until then the industry needs to meet energy needs through coal plants, and modern coal-fired facilities are unquestionably cleaner than ever.
"We must provide clean, environmentally friendly fossil-fuel plants to ensure customers are receiving power when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing," said Michael Yackira, president and chief executive of Nevada Power's parent company, Sierra Pacific Resources.
"Clean coal" is that bridge, he said.
But is there such a thing?
The term "clean coal" originated in an Energy Department program started in 1986 to develop and commercialize lower-cost options for controlling emissions from coal-fired power plant s. Most of the funding for the Clean Coal Technology Program's projects, such as a proposed zero-emission coal plant, come from the utility industry.
"We're now targeting zero emissions," said Nelson Rekos, project manager of the Energy Department's major demonstration projects office.
The program is developing technology to make coal plants more efficient, perfecting a process that turns coal into gas that can be burned to create electricity and finding ways to capture and trap carbon emissions.
But commercial zero-emissions power plants are at least a decade away, partly because of cost.
Energy Department programs are studying how to get the carbon out of emissions from coal-fired power plants before it is released into the air and how to then keep it stored safely underground.
Much of the technology being used in modern coal plants, such as the ones proposed in Nevada, was tested by the Energy Department during the past 20 years. Scrubbers that will remove sulfur dioxide from emissions at a proposed LS Power plant, for example, were tested by the Energy Department, as were burners that produce less nitrogen oxide.
Methods to improve efficiency - making the same amount of energy with less coal - are used in today's cleaner plants. For every 1 percent gain in efficiency there is a 3 percent reduction in emissions.
Eric Crawford, director of project development for LS Power, which is proposing a 1,590-megawatt coal plant near Ely, said the technologies being pioneered by the Energy Department are still risky and unproven.
Crawford says the term "clean coal" is meant as a "living, breathing term that describes the technology on the leading edge."
His plant will employ that technology - the best available commercially - to reduce emissions, he said. The plant will emit 80 percent less mercury than allowed by federal standards, for example.
Sierra Pacific Resources executives say their 1,500-megawatt project proposed near the LS Power site will produce five times as much energy as the Reid Gardner power plant near Las Vegas. Reid Gardner, recently dubbed the dirtiest plant in the nation by an environmental group, produces 45 percent more harmful emissions.
Both companies will retrofit their plants with carbon capturing technology once it's ready for the market, executives say.
Rick Spilsbury, who lives near the sites where the LS plant and Sierra Pacific Resources coal-fired plants are proposed, says the best available technology still means pollution will mar the wilderness of White Pine County.
"Coal that stays in the ground is clean, but once you take it out and breathe it, it's bound to be a problem," Spilsbury said.
Frank Maisano, a spokesman for a third coal plant , proposed for Lincoln County by Sithe Global Power, said comparing dirty '70s coal plants with today's clean-burning plants is like comparing a Toyota Prius with a '75 Gremlin.
"If you think we're building 19th-century technology, you haven't been paying attention. It's a massive difference," he said. "And we do have to be realistic about how we meet growth and at the same time do it in an environmentally responsible way."