History. Shortly after the Moana Hotel opened in 1901, the coal ship Helga rounded Diamond Head in the night, mistook the hotel's lights for those of the harbor, and ran aground on Waikiki's reef. The Moana became the first hotel ever to sink a ship. For years afterward people canoed out to harvest the coal, which was what Honolulu used then to create electricity. And we still do.
Now leap ahead to the promises you hear from both 2008 presidential candidates, endorsements of clean coal. Both are chasing coal state votes, but before you vote, let's examine what both coal and so-called clean coal involve.
Half the rail traffic in the U.S. consists of coal trains. The nation has over 600 coal burning electrical plants that produce 52% of all U.S. electricity, including one coal plant on Oahu that produces 18% of Honolulu's electricity. All of Honolulu's coal -- 222,000 tons a year of it from Indonesia presently at $70 a ton -- has to be shipped in, requiring a sizable life cycle carbon footprint -- mining and shipping by train, loading, shipping by sea, and unloading in Honolulu, then burning it.
Clean coal requires injecting its CO2 emissions into the ground, but Oahu has no geological depositories for CO2 available. Hence, we're stuck with dirty coal. Moreover, CO2 sequestration is an experimental, all but untried, expensive process, requiring massive new infrastructure to transport CO2, for many coal burning plants are not close to geology that allows injecting CO2 underground. CCS (Carbon Capture and Sequestration) raises the cost of coal burning by 40% to 60%. Coal experts and investors also signal a wariness about liabilities associated with CO2 capture. Once sequestered underground, CO2, a killer gas, may escape from its storage and cause a disaster as it engulfs unwitting humans above ground. Coal plants like ours in Honolulu also emit sulfur, nitrogen oxide, and mercury. The latter causes serious neurological and developmental problems in humans.
Here's the scorecard on clean coal so far. Of $5.2 billion invested in 13 clean coal projects, the U.S. General Accounting Office says eight have serious delays or financial problems -- six of them 2 to 7 years behind schedule, and two are now bankrupt. As for submerged costs(bad pun, I know), communities where coal is mined suffer significant environmental degradation and pollution, and mine workers face great risk of death, injury, and work related diseases. So clean coal or dirty, miners and their families in Indonesia are likely suffering on behalf of all electrical users in Honolulu, you and me.
Nearly one kilowatt out of five of all the electricity that you and I use in Honolulu. comes from dirty coal. So while claims about clean coal won't help you sort out Obama versus McCain, fortunately clean coal won't be coming to paradise. Lucky us. Maybe we all ought to ask HECO to replace Oahu's dirty coal with clean, renewable energy, send HECO a note with that suggestion in your next electric bill payment. I will. Think about it.