G8 WANTS ‘CLEAN’ COAL TRIALS BUT THERE IS A CATCH
Here is a great new angle on a story to which the mainstream press has paid way too little attention. “Clean” coal – something the utilities keep advertising on TV and politicians keep promising as the solution to global climate change – still does not really exist at scale except in theory. It is something NewEnergyNews has reported on frequently. (See “CLEAN” COAL NOT READY – SWEDISH STUDY)
The new angle: Nobody wants to be the first on the block. There are several competing technologies, all expensive, none proven, and there are no laws (like caps on emissions or a trading system that rewards efficiencies) to incentivize implementation. It’s a lot cheaper and easier for all involved to keep talking about how “clean” coal will solve the global climate crisis and keep burning coal while Big Coal reassuringly says, “Don’t worry, be happy!”
More than a quarter of U.S. emissions come from burning coal. When the move to plug-in vehicles comes that measure will jump year by year. It is much worse in emerging economies.
Catch-22: Utility regulator Virginia State Corporation Commission (VSCC) turned down an American Electric Power/Appalachian Power application for a large scale CCS-capable plant project promising to capture 90% of generated emissions and sequester them in a nearby well. VSCC said it was "neither reasonable nor prudent" because the technology is twice as expensive and unproven. (The Catch: How can a technology be proved if applications for pilot projects are denied?)
“Clean” coal is more precisely named carbon capture and sequestration (or storage) (CCS). The idea is simple. Coal is burned to generate heat to boil water to create steam to drive turbines to make electricity. CO2 gases are a byproduct of burning coal. The plan: Capture the CO2. Store the captured gases in (theoretically) airtight pockets deep underground.
The process has been and continues to be done on a small scale, though imprecisely. In oil-producing regions, coal plant gases have been trapped and injected into flagging oil wells to drive more oil out. This is called Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR).
EOR is costly, but the extra oil production justifies the expense. There is no certainty of the quality or quantity of the emissions captured, which doesn't matter to the oil producers as long as the gases drive oil out of their wells. The gases appear to remain safely in the wells but, once again, this is not of paramount concern to the oil producers. There is little scientific evidence about the permanence of the gases sequestered in the wells and some studies suggest there might be slow leakage.
The coal plants involved still release a portion of their CO2 emissions, in some cases 10% and in some cases 90%, but there has been little effort to perfect that part of the operation as the intention heretofore has simply been to capture some gas for EOR.
EOR has only been done on small scales. Estimates suggest that CCS for present U.S. coal plants would require new infrastructure equal to the entire present oil and gas system. That’s a lot of gases to be moved and buried in geologic structures. And, if a "clean" coal dependent infrastructure is created, there would be more gases to be moved and buried next year. And more the year after that.
While the article from which this “nobody wants to be first to try CCS” angle comes implies it is urgent to get busy making clean coal work, NewEnergyNews has another idea. Remember the sign over the gateway to Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy: “Abandon all hope, those who enter here.”
Maybe there ought to be a similar warning on anything to do with “clean” coal. Read the warning, realize the only ones condemning the world to it are those who can't see beyond it and move on to building a New Energy infrastructure of wind and solar and ocean energies that will cost just as much and take just as long but won’t require the environmental degradation of coal mining. Or the emissions-intensive process of coal transport. Or the mind-numbing life-threatening labor of coal digging. Or the risk of poisonous devastation if the sequestered emissions eventually bubble up.
Abandon “clean" coal, all those who understand. There is good reason for the title of the Greenpeace report on CCS: False hope. Why carbon capture and storage won't save the climate.
A "clean" coal plant is so far a very complicated plan - and almost nobody has a reason to risk the cutting edge. (click to enlarge)
G8 wants 20 carbon-burying projects by 2010
June 8, 2008 (AFP via Yahoo News)
Carbon-caputring technology is stalled by a Catch-22
Matthew L. Wald, June 9, 2008 (International Herald Tribune)
Ministers for the Group of Eight plus Three (Britain, Canada, Italy, Japan, France, Germany, Russia and the United States plus China, India and South Korea)
The G8 ministers announced they must immediately ready plans to launch 20 carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) projects. U.S. projects have great difficulty obtaining approval from regulators and investors due to Catch-22.
Geologic storage is not a surely proven safe bet. Who pays if it fails? (click to enlarge)
The G8 ministers statement calls for plans to be ready by 2009 and 20 projects to be underway by 2019. (OK! Who’s first? Come on, speak up…)
European leaders regularly cite the growing use of coal in emerging economiesas a justification for implementing CCS despite its shortcomings.
- CCS costs ~60 euros (95 dollars)/avoided tonne of CO2. Allowances permitting emissions can be purchased for ~25 euros/tonne of CO2.
- FutureGen, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) pubic-private partnership pilot CCS project, came to a screeching halt earlier this year when DOE pulled out after costs rose by 1/3 before construction even started.
- New generation nuclear plants have had similar problems. After Congress took on the burden of insuring the plants, funding fro construction was still too high. When Congress guaranteed loans for nuclear energy undertakings, a few takers came back to the table but continue to hesitate as costs escalate and payback periods get longer.
Greenpeace doesn't think much of the idea. (click to enlarge)
- G8 + 3 ministers’ statement: "We strongly support the recommendation that 20 large-scale CCS demonstration projects need to be launched globally by 2010 ... with a view to supporting technology development and cost reduction for the beginning of broad deployment of CCS by 2020…"
- Armond Cohen, executive director, Clean Air Task Force: "No one wants to go into the new world…We have very few takers because of the price premium."
- John Rowe, chief executive, coal and nuclear plant builder/oprator Exelon: "The estimates are accurate to within plus 20 percent to plus 100 percent…These are very complicated projects, with a great deal of both science and engineering and of public acceptability tests that have simply not happened yet…"