Running our cars on coal: it seemed like a good idea at the time

Dirty, dirty coalConcerned that your car isn’t spewing enough heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? Here’s an idea: power your commute with coal.

The coal in the ground in Illinois alone has more energy than all the oil in Saudi Arabia. The technology to turn that coal into fuel for cars, homes and factories is proven. And at current prices, that process could be at the vanguard of a big, new industry.

Such promise has attracted entrepreneurs and government officials, including the Secretary of Energy, who want domestic substitutes for foreign oil.

But there is a big catch. Producing fuels from coal generates far more carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming, than producing vehicle fuel from oil or using ordinary natural gas. And the projects now moving forward have no incentive to capture carbon dioxide beyond the limited amount that they can sell for industrial use.

This is the dark side to the silver lining of high oil prices. Theoretically, high prices will decrease demand for oil and spur the search for substitutes. But as petroleum gets ever more expensive, the alternative technologies that become economically viable are not by necessity better for the environment. In some cases, they’re far worse.

Unless, of course, the carbon content of the alternative fuels is priced into the cost. Last week we discussed the merits of carbon trading for ethanol, which can vary widely in carbon content. Perhaps far more important will be setting up a carbon trading scheme for fossil fuels. Because, as it turns out, there are worse things for the environment than oil.

(As an aside, the quoted article highlights why I don’t put much stock in either the peak oil Armageddon crowd, or the peak oil utopians. The Armageddon crowd foresees widespread chaos, mass starvation, etc. when oil becomes dear and our economic and transportation infrastructure collapses. The utopians see a future in which we all eat locally-produced organic foods as the world’s supply chain reorganizes around the reality of expensive oil. What we’ll probably see, in actual fact, is some price shocks, a drop in demand for oil, and — unfortunately — a big shift to coal.)

Author Bio


Comments Disabled

  1. Keith Farnish - July 11, 2006

    There is lots on this site about making driving a more environmentally friendly experience but, and maybe it’s an American thing, it just seems that the thought of not driving, e.g. walking, taking public transport, cycling or even thinking about whether the journey is necessary at all; is alien to a lot of “environmental” posts I see.

    This is not having a dig at TerraPass, it just seems to be that the no-brainer that various commentators in the UK today have been talking about – that of just using less energy – is much more difficult to get across in the USA. Maybe I am wrong, maybe there is a huge movement to reduce, reduce, reduce in America, but whatever the case, it has to happen this way. Carrying on as normal is not an option : human behaviour has to change before we can even think that the battle is close to being won.

  2. Adam Stein - July 11, 2006

    This is a fair point. The truth is that we at TerraPass are big bicycle enthusiasts, and if we gave free reign to our impulses, much of the blog would be taken up with love notes to our two-wheeled conveyances.
    Typically we write these posts with base assumption that people have to drive, because, in fact, many people do have to drive. American communities are set up this way, and only in a relative handful of large cities are bicycles or public transportation a feasible way of getting around.
    But we probably should press harder on this point. The best way to conserve is to ditch your car.

  3. Keith Farnish - July 12, 2006

    Adam, I’m so glad you are cool with this concept. It is always hard for a true “green” to share a table with the polluters – there has to be a level of acceptance that behavioural change will take time and for a while mitigation will be vital, but it can really hurt to admit it.

    Keep up the good work – and the sub-text too 😉


  4. Brad Klein - July 12, 2006

    I am confused, because I read in the July ’06 issue of Popular Science magazine that if all automobiles on the road today were instantly converted to electrical vehicles, and ran on coal-fired electricity, the CO2 emissions would still be only half of what autos currently put out. Your article above does not agree with PopSci. Please let me know upon what you base the above article’s claims. Thanks.

  5. DH - July 12, 2006

    In my own experience as a US resident, it seems that public transport or bikes are extremely impractical more often than not. I’m definitely an environmentalist, but the honest truth is that most people don’t want to risk life and limb by riding a bike and it’s also very impractical. For example, I simply cannot bike twenty miles to school, especially when all the roads have drivers traveling at 40+ MPH. I’ve taken public transport for months before, but it takes me at least an hour and a half – often two hours – just one way to or from my school. I have a friend who even lives within walking distance of a bus station and it would take him two hours to get to work. Compare this to the thirty minutes it takes me to drive to school and the twenty my friend takes to get to work. And to be honest, most people don’t like bikers on the road – they usually cause congestion.

    By the way, I’ve heard that the power plant emissions that would be created to power electric cars are about 50% less than the emissions caused by – using – gasoline. It sounds like the article is talking about the cost of production/refinement rather than the total output. Of course, I definitely support the idea of carbon taxing and capping and trading, and I do love the idea of biking. I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m against it, I’m totally for it – it just has to be reasonable.

    P.S. Did I mention we’d be biking in 100 degree weather here?

    Dallas, Texas

  6. 1985 Gripen - July 12, 2006

    As far as bicycling or public transportation as an option: it’s just not viable in some places. Case in point: Los Angeles (2nd-largest city in the U.S.). Let’s just take my last car trip for example:
    I had to drive my son to summer day camp so that I could work (I work from home but can’t work and take care of him simultaneously). The day camp is 3.6 miles away through congested city traffic/freeway. Also, the high today is supposed to be 101 degrees F (that’s just over 38 degrees C to you outside the U.S.). My son doesn’t even know how to ride a bike and refuses to let me teach him. So, biking isn’t an option.
    Let’s look at public transportation. This being Los Angeles, my only option is by bus. I’d have to take TWO buses and walk 1/3 mile EACH WAY. Did I mention the heat? Also, the trip costs $1.25/person each way. So to drop him off in the morning and pick him up in the afternoon would cost me around $7.50. Considerably more expensive than simply driving him with my car. Imagine having to pay $7.50 EVERY DAY to drop him off and pick him up during the summer!
    While alternative modes of transport might be an option in Britain Keith, in large U.S. cities like Dallas and L.A. it’s not. Don’t assume everyone in the States have the same options as you but are simply fat, lazy, wasteful Americans though that kind of thinking is en vogue outside the U.S.

  7. 1985 Gripen - July 12, 2006

    In response to Brad’s comment, I’m guessing the difference is that the PopSci article is talking about using coal-fired power plants to generate electricity to power electric cars. The article here at TerraPass is about advocates of actually running the cars themselves off coal, I believe. So the emissions out the tailpipe of the cars would contain much more CO2 than a gasoline-powered car.
    They’ve come up with a way to make diesel fuel from coal, I’ve read.

  8. Anonymous - July 12, 2006

    We Americans have become so suburbanized, it’s quite a challenge to come up with good ideas for moving the masses each day! I’d love to be able to take the train to work, even if it DID cost me an extra 20 minutes or couple dollars. Unfortunately the system just isn’t set up that way! Infuriates me, but I figure the only thing to do at this point is for us citizens to keep hollering about making the mass transit systems more user friendly and more sensible. I think time could prove that Americans really DO want to be more gentle to the environment – just make it possible for us to live our lives!

  9. Kristin - July 12, 2006

    I wish public transportation were more reasonable in the States! When I first moved to Seattle, I was excited about living in the “big city” so I could be a good citizen and take the bus to work. Lo & behold, the bus ride for an 8-mile journey would take two buses and 45 minutes each way (plus $52/month for a pass)! Not an option I wanted to take when I could get to work in my car in 5 to 10 minutes. And biking in a city that makes NO accomodations for bikers downtown is terrifying! I was once run off the road by a bus! (somehow that seems ironic). If there were bike lanes or even entire streets dedicated to bikers it would make a huge difference.
    Many employers don’t have shower facilities on-site, and whether you’re biking in 100-degree weather in Texas or pouring rain in Seattle, you’re going to want a shower before going into the office… It’s going to take a national change in priorities to make alternative transportaion an option for all of us.

  10. Alex Stange - July 12, 2006

    Brad’s comment is relevent, and seems to have been brushed aside. Let me put it in an example: is there a difference in emissions between 100 electric cars that are charged by a coal-fired power plant and 100 coal-powered cars?

  11. James - July 12, 2006

    Yes I think there is quite clearly a difference. In one case you produce electricity enmass — a process which can be made reasonably efficent. Electricity is easy to distribute (powerlines) and suffers little or no distribution costs (ok, i’m handwaving here — powerloss in transmission lines IS significant, but I count it as a production cost… ) Whereas by contrast this is talking about spending energy (no doubt produced by a coal plant somewhere) To take coal, and refine it into a liquid fuel. The refinement takes energy. Then you drive it (or pipeline it hopefully) around, and burn it in your car. It stands to reason that the extra refinement step is rather costly in both CO2 and energy loss. So I think from a power effiency standpoint (and often CO2 emmisions follow) — producing electricity once and then using it for transport is more efficient.

  12. Eliza - July 12, 2006

    I was very happy to find the opportunity to offset our carbon emissions. I do appreciate however the need to eliminate harmful emmissions in the first place and not just use this as a method to continue wasteful and destructive habits. We would love to buy a hybrid car but for our middle class family with two young kids (usually with friends in tow) and huge dog (she found us and we couldn’t turn her away), the pruis is not very feasible. Hybrids will also need to come down a little in price from where they were the last time we purchased a vehicle, we did look at them. We are hoping to find some used (two years or so old) hybrids on the market in the next few years. My husband did ride his bike to work in his old job but his new job is in a University town and the housing prices in the immediate areas were above our means. We found a nice home in a good neighborhood for our kids in our price range about a 20 minute drive from his work, so not very feasible to walk or bike. There is no public transport from the area we live to his work. The nearest bus stop is about 10 miles from our house. It would be a rather exhausting and time consuming commute to bike 10 miles to wait for a bus to go the rest of the way to work. It would also involve needing to change over to another bus line to get to his destination. So it would become a really long convoluted process involving a ten mile bike and two different bus rides. This is a pretty rural state. We are a 15 minutes drive from the nearest supermarket. We do practice other environmentally friendly actions; recycling, energy efficient appliances and lighting, buying locally when possible, working out a kid carpool with parents whose kids are in the same activities, etc…
    I felt rather badly recently when I read someone on another site saying people who participate in carbon offsetting programs were just hypocrites. I know we aren’t perfect but we are working on it. I think there is at least some merit in doing what you can at the place you are in the moment rather than nothing at all.

  13. Mike Johnston - July 13, 2006

    I’ve skimmed through the posts and many good points are brought out. In europe they stress bikes, walking, and public transport because they have a working system and shorter distances to cover. There are countries over there that aren’t much bigger than Rhode Island. They also have a very well developed commuter train system. The only place in the US that is even close is New England. You also don’t see the halving of property values when you get 25 – 30 minutes outside of a city like we do here. Case in point is the house I am in now. The same house 10 miles closer to Louisville Ky would be almost twice as expensive. (The same house in a major city would be 7 figures.) When you add in that I don’t have to lock my car at night and my son’s bike is safe on the front lawn and there are very good incentives to live an extra 15 minutes from work.
    Mike J.

  14. Adam Stein - July 13, 2006

    James and 1985 Gripen’s comments are exactly right. There is a big difference between using coal to generate electricity in a massive power plant vs. converting coal to liquid fuel to put in your gas tank.
    The discussion about biking is interesting. I definitely sympathize with the complaints about the difficult of bike commuting and public transportation, but I do think we need to consider that the car-based lifestyle many describe represents a combination of policy failure, poor urban design, and also lifestyle choice, not a fact of nature. Proper bike lanes or greenways and effective public transportation can make a huge difference in the bikeability of a city, and these are issues that we can, as voters, affect.

  15. Alex Moyer - July 13, 2006

    Regarding Brad’s coal for electricity vs. old as an oil substitute question, Adam is absolutely correct, coal is superior on the grid supplying electricity for electric cars rather than in the car’s tank. Here’s why: the CO2 from coal in a centralized plant can be captured and sequestered in old oil wells. This is the “clean coal” option that the Bush administration has been discussing. There is currently no precedent for sequestering CO2 coming out of the tailpipe.
    The CO2 emissions from a gallon of oil made from coal is 80% HIGHER than from conventional oil (email me for sources). I did a thesis paper on the coal/CO2 electricity vs transportation quandry at Harvard Business School. Email me if you’d like me to email you a copy of my report. (

  16. kamal - July 13, 2006

    we in india want to produce and sell biodiesel from jatropha , and we want to associate with terrapass . we want to help terrapass in making the world environment free of pollution
    plse let us how cna we contribute and associate with you