Original article posted by Richard Heinberg in the Wall Street Journal Nov. 23, 2014. Click here to go to WSJ.

For years, Americans have seen commercials touting “clean coal,” while politicians on both sides of the aisle have extolled its promise. The technology to capture carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants has been tried and tested. Yet today almost none of the nation’s coal-fueled plants are “clean.”

Why the delay? The biggest problem for “clean coal” is that the economics don’t work. Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, is extremely expensive. That gives the power industry little incentive to implement it in the absence of a substantial carbon tax.

Why would implementing CCS be so expensive? For starters, capturing and storing the carbon from coal combustion is estimated to consume 25% to 45% of the power produced, depending on the approach taken. That translates to not only higher prices for coal-generated electricity but also the need for more plants to serve the same customers. Other technologies designed to make carbon capture more efficient aren’t commercial at this point, and their full costs are unknown.

And there’s more. Capturing and burying just 38% of the carbon released from current U.S. coal combustion would entail pipelines, compressors and pumps on a scale equivalent to the size of the nation’s oil industry. And while bolting CCS technology onto existing power plants is possible, it is inefficient. A new generation of plants would do the job much better—but that means replacing roughly 600 current-generation power plants.

Altogether, the Energy Department estimates that wholesale electricity prices with the initial generation of CCS technology would be 70% to 80% higher than current coal-based power.

The discussion of CCS technology in a recent assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change contains too many qualifiers to be interpreted as a declaration that clean coal will be competitive with renewable fuels.

Long term, the economics of coal are likely to get worse, with or without CCS. Coal is nonrenewable, finite in quantity and therefore subject to depletion. Rates of production from most regions of the U.S. are in decline. And as depletion forces the mining of lower-quality resources, production prices will rise because of the need for more-sophisticated extraction technologies. Declining output is inevitable sooner or later.

Meanwhile, the price of electricity produced from solar and wind power is steadily dropping. The only thing that keeps coal-based electricity cheap today in relation to power from renewable sources is the industry’s ability to shift the hidden costs—environmental and health damage—onto society. If, as climate regulations inevitably kick in, the coal power industry adopts CCS as a survival strategy, any lingering economic advantage over wind and even solar will disappear.

CCS also doesn’t address the full range of coal’s impact on society. It won’t banish high rates of lung disease, because it doesn’t eliminate all the pollutants from the combustion process or deal with the coal dust from mining and transport. It also doesn’t address the environmental devastation of “mountaintop removal” mining.

This is not to say that “clean coal” has no future whatever. Coal plants with CCS will be built where captured carbon dioxide can be used to generate extra income—for example, by using it to stimulate old oil wells or make cement. But even a dramatic increase in such uses would put only a small fraction of carbon from coal to work.

A full transition of today’s coal power industry to CCS is extremely unlikely unless the economics substantially change for some currently unforeseeable reason. And other technological advances, like more-efficient coal-fired plants, can only slow the growth of harmful emissions at best.

In all likelihood, the real future lies elsewhere—with distributed renewable energy.