I’ve written here before about the extraordinary obstacles to change created by the endowment effect — our tendency to place enormous value on those things (and energy systems) we already have all out of proportion to their actual worth, to fear irrationally for the loss of what we have, and to undervalue what could be gained by using something else.

One particularly bothersome aspect of the endowment effect is its unequal distribution: we tend to be especially deeply invested in certain pieces of the status quo, no matter how woefully inefficient or laden with negative side effects. We’ll adopt a new phone or a whole new technological basis for our TVs in a blink — we went from good ole cathode tubes that’d held us in their warm glow for half a century to LED to plasma in less time than it takes a sitcom to reach syndication — but we’ll fight like trapped wolverines to keep everything but cars off our roads.

We’re especially squirrely when it comes to energy. Consider the way we treat the news of exotic future-tense breakthroughs in the energy field. In fact, consider a specific one from just this week: the absolutely mind-blowing news of a new technology developed at Penn State that uses the embodied energy in seawater and garbage to produce hydrogen, which has of course long been touted as a potential replacement for gasoline in our cars’ engines.

The science is of course pretty complicated — few of us have the scientific background to readily parse a sentence like “The key to these microbial electrolysis cells is reverse-electrodialysis or RED that extracts energy from the ionic differences between salt water and fresh water.” But then, few of us really understand how an iPhone’s touchscreen turns our light swipe across it into the deadly parabolic arc of an Angry Bird, but that hasn’t stopped us from dedicating way more time to doing so on any given day than most of us spend contemplating the cosmos.

So really, what we should be paying attention to is Penn State engineering professor Bruce E. Logan’s summation of the value proposition, based on peer-reviewed, technical-journaled research. Which summation is sufficiently Jetsonian that I’m going to boldface it and set it off in block quotes, like so:

This system could produce hydrogen anyplace that there is wastewater near sea water. It uses no grid electricity and is completely carbon neutral. It is an inexhaustible source of energy.

This is the kind of thing that should evoke your best dumbstruck Keanu-esque whoa. This is lightning in a bottle, something for nothing, gold from dross, all that. Now of course it’s also way future-tense, undoubtedly riddled with technical hitches and logistical wormholes and all the other stuff that often stretches the process from lab to marketplace across many years.

On the other hand, it exists. There’s a lab in Pennsylvania where a versatile fuel source is being made from a renewable and currently worthless resource, creating no waste in its production or use, and easily adapted to supply power to a range of devices from long-prophesied fuel-cell cars to Bloom Energy’s boxes that have been setting Silicon Valley’s hearts racing in recent years. This is an actual, functional prototype of a thing that works.

So imagine in my next breath I said that governments around the world — the American and Canadian ones in particular — had decided this was promising enough to dump billions of dollars into bringing it to market and in fact were basically predicating our future energy supply on this new hydrogen production system. I bet even if you’re a cleantech renewables nut like me, that’d give you pause, elicit a whole other genre of whoa, the one from old Westerns that means slow down there, hoss. It would likely strike you as starry-eyed, reckless, a dangerous gamble on an unproven technology to supply us with one of our most vital needs in turbulent times. Right?

Now compare this to our reaction to the phrase clean coal. There is, at this moment, not a single coal-fired power plant anywhere on earth that captures and buries all of its carbon dioxide emissions. There’s one in West Virginia storing away 1.5 percent of its smoke, at a cost of $13 million. (Plans are afoot to expand this to 18 percent, at the low, low price of another $673 million.) Doing so actually reduces the efficiency of the overall plant — you actually have to make more power to compensate for the energy spent hiding the horrifically awful side effect of the energy you need. The Norwegian government has declared sequestration on this scale at natural gas plants to be its equivalent of the Apollo program, and yet the flagship test has abandoned the idea of actually burying all of the emissions at a single plant as too expensive and complex at present, choosing instead simply to try to demonstrate that it would be theoretically possible, which it is having a hard time doing.

There’s ample evidence, in other words, to suggest that clean coal couldn’t possibly be broadly feasible for another generation or more. It may never really be. It is, in fact, much more in the realm of speculation than Penn State’s hydrogen-based perpetual motion machine is. And yet both the Canadian and American governments have sunk billions into it, as has the government of my home province of Alberta. We’ve sleepwalked through the last 20 years, our emissions jumping by 45 percent globally, and a cornerstone of our current strategy to do something about it rests on one day being able to inject our carbon dioxide emissions back into the earth.

Why? Why does clean coal seem so plausible and reasonable to energy bureaucrats and politicians and business leaders when lab-tested, truly gamechanging renewable technologies are treated as cute, peripheral novelties? Simple: vested interests and the endowment effect. The vested interests are theirs — in North America, in particular, our political and business elites are deeply invested in our lucrative, catastrophically destructive status quo — and the endowment effect is ours. They sell us the pipe dream of clean coal because we buy it. It doesn’t challenge the value we’ve invested in the system we’ve got, the one that keeps our plasma TVs aglow and our new mobile phones charged for another round of Angry Birds. It says we’ll stick with what we’ve got and bolt a miracle fix onto it when we need to.

Clean energy from wastewater and the sea upends the status quo; clean coal perpetuates it. Deluded by the endowment effect, we’ll pick the devil we know every time.

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Limitless clean energy from wastewater? Nah, let's stick with clean coal
A Penn State lab has found a way to make hydrogen fuel from wastewater and seawater with no emissions. So why aren't we doing this?