In a week where utilities with coal-fired power plants have been, well, under fire, so-called "clean-coal" startup GreatPoint Energy said Friday it raised $100 million in a third round of funding (see posts in Earth2Tech and VentureBeat).
The Massachusetts-based company has a technology to turn dirty coal into cleaner-burning natural gas.
GreatPoint says it can remove sulfur, mercury and 60 percent of the carbon out of coal, making natural gas at a cost of $3 to $3.50 per million Btu. With natural gas selling for more than $6 per million Btu today, that leaves plenty of room for profit.
But there's still some question about what to do with the unwanted elements. While a market for mercury already exists, the idea of sequestering carbon and pumping it into the ground still is unproven.
Cleaner coal technologies are controversial. "I would not use the word 'clean' anywhere near the word 'coal,'" said Robert Wilder, CEO of WilderShares, which manages three energy indices, earlier this year.
But they are among the technologies that could gain from the attack on regular coal-fired power utilities' wallets.
Pain in the Wallet
On Thursday, the East Kentucky Power Cooperative, one such utility, agreed to pay a fine of $11.4 million - the highest amount ever - for violations of the Clean Air Act's acid-rain program.
While it isn't the first penalty under the program, it's the first settled in court and the largest by far, said Roxanne Smith, a spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency, who didn't immediately have details about the next-largest settlement.
"This is pretty seminal," said Peter Fusaro, chairman of the energy- and environmental-consulting group Global Change Associates.
On Monday, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo subpoenaed five energy companies to determine whether plans to build coal-fired plants would result in previously undisclosed financial risks from greenhouse-gas emissions.
At least three of the companies, AES Corp., Xcel Energy and Peabody Energy, issued statements denying any wrongdoing, with Peabody dismissing the attorney general's move as "political."
The same day, New Jersey filed a federal court appeal seeking review of an EPA decision allowing a coal-fired plant in Pennsylvania.
And on Wednesday, the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee wrote a letter opposing the EPA approval of a coal-fired power plant in Utah.
The approval came after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in April that the EPA can regulate carbon-dioxide emissions from new vehicles. The ruling countered the EPA's stance that it doesn't have the authority to regulate those emissions.
Paying for Pollution
All these events are part of a growing trend to make businesses account and pay for their pollution, said Rob Erlichman, CEO of solar firm Sunlight Electric Co.
The anti-coal incidents, particularly the acid-rain case, show that complying with carbon-emission regulations "is a fiduciary responsibility of companies," Fusaro said. "They have to do it."
And shareholders are realizing it, too, said Matt Horton, a principal at venture-capital firm @Ventures.
"People betting with their investments are sufficiently concerned about carbon controls that they are beginning to be proactive about legislation and their carbon profile and wisely are realizing it's one yardstick companies are being measured on," he said.
And the trend to hold companies accountable for their emissions is good for alternative-energy companies, Erlichman said.
"[The price for] conventionally generated power in this country is kept artificially low because we're not capturing the whole cost of creating the energy, building the power plants and the environmental footprint," he said. "Anything that could help capture the cost will be valuable and will move the market in meaningful ways."
He pointed to the high price of fuel in Europe, saying it has led to a market for small, energy-efficient cars over large gas-guzzlers.
Still, the idea that we'll never see another coal-fired power plant without high-tech carbon controls is "inconceivable," Erlichman said, "much to the consternation of people like me and people worried about mercury in the water."
"China's building one coal plant a week. Is it reasonable to assume we won't build another one ever? Probably not."