Gleanings from the web and the world, condensed for convenience, illustrated for enlightenment, arranged for impact...

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  • MONDAY’S STUDY AT NewEnergyNews, April 19:
  • San Diego Gas & Electric’s Industry-Leading Plan To Fight Wildfires

    Thursday, February 25, 2010


    CO2 sequestration isn't practical
    Michael J. Economides, February 20, 2010 (Casper Star-Tribune)
    CO2 Capture and Storage Gains a Growing Foothold; The drive to extract and store CO2 from coal-fired power plants is gaining momentum, with the Obama administration backing the technology and the world’s first capture and sequestration project now operating in the U.S. Two questions loom: Will carbon capture and storage be affordable? And will it be safe?
    David Biello, 18 Februqry 2010 (Yale 360)
    DOE Publishes Best Practices Manual for Public Outreach and Education for Carbon Storage Projects; New Publication Aims to Facilitate Project Success, Boost Effectiveness of Outreach Efforts
    January 13, 2010 (U.S. Department of Energy)

    It would be so great if they came up with a way to really make coal clean. Or if they figured out how to make dirt clean.

    It would be such a relief, if there was a practical, cost-effective way to do it, to give coal’s obstinates their heads and tell them to go worship the past by burning all the black rocks they want but just stay out of the way of the New Energy future.

    As David Biello details in CO2 Capture and Storage Gains a Growing Foothold, the coal industry is ignoring good reasons not to and bulling ahead with its plans to dig and destroy and spew. Despite the heroic efforts of the No New Coal Plants activists in the Climate Justice coalition (perhaps the most determined and effective grassroots movement since the Sons of Liberty threw the Boston Tea Party), the coal industry’s built and planned plants in this past decade will emit more spew in the next quarter century than has been emitted since the 1751 birth of the Industrial Age.

    In the face of this determined growth by Big Coal, it is easy to understand why the leaders of industrial countries around the world are willing to spend whatever it takes to make the myth of “clean” coal – also known as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) – into a reality. But “clean coal” is one of those dreamed-of things that there isn't enough money to buy.

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    The myth of “clean” coal probably goes back to the oil industry’s pumping of captured carbon dioxide (CO2) into failing wells to flush out more oil. This was a limited practice and rarely – not never, but rarely – resulted in the gas escaping from the deep oil-harboring pockets into which it was forcefully pumped. The procedure made the whole coal-to-electricity process a little more profitable. But no cleaner.

    Someone, probably one of the old oil wildcatters whose drilling typically came in perhaps 1 in 10 times, took the idea to more coal companies. They decided paying the drillers to put CO2 into unproductive wells was a good way to get rid of it.

    Flush with the thrill of a “solution” that made burning fossil fuels more lucrative for both oil and coal, the industries shared their joy with the many Congressmen and Senators they owned. Soon, the halls of power were ringing with joyous bipartisanship as climate change-concerned politicians saw something they could tout as an answer to the problem of greenhouse gases.

    Campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industries went out on both sides of the aisles and never afterward was muttered a mention about the future of coal that didn’t include the phrase “with carbon capture and storage” or "with CCS." The coal industry’s lobby liked the concept of "clean" coal so much they decided to keep promising it to Congress even after they concluded it was too expensive to ever actually happen.

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    It is easy for wishful politicians to assume that because some limited and relatively untested CCS has been done profitably, it will get better and cheaper at commercial scales. The key word there is “assume” which, as everyone knows, is made of up of the syllables “ass” and “you” and “me.”

    The first problem is capturing the unimaginably enormous quantities of CO2 produced to feed Western society’s insatiable appetite for electricity everyday. But there is technology to do it. Make no mistake: it can be done. It would probably come close to doubling the price of the electricity (OK, a 40% increase, according to one reliable study, from $63 per megawatt-hour to $103 per megawatt-hour), but it CAN be done.

    Even assuming the plan to use not only oil wells but deep geologic formations to store the captured CO2 is workable, the world would need to build a pipeline system the size of the one now used to move oil to move the captured spew to the storage sites (and, no, oil’s pipelines won’t do, CCS would require its own transport). The cost of building such a pipeline system would add enormously to the price of power and the time it would take to build would leave coal plants emitting into the air for decades.

    At this point, the coal would be "clean" – except, of course, for (1) the environmental disaster of mining it and (2) the other toxins besides CO2 that escape into the air and the groundwater when it is burned to poison wildlife and deform the unborn. The "only" problem with for "clean" coal remaining is keeping it safely in the holes in the ground where humankind, answering its lowest animal instincts, has chosen to stick its waste.

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    Funny thing about those holes in the ground: A brand new study by none other than oil industry experts finds it would take a hole the size of a small U.S. state to contain the emissions of a single 500 megawatt coal plant. The U.S. uses 800 GIGAWATTS per year of CO2-emitting power.

    Time to admit Puerto Rico and Guam into the union because if the U.S. can pull together 1,600 small states with useable geologic sequestration underneath them, it will have enough space to store its spew. One year.

    Sequestering Carbon Dioxide in a Closed Underground Volume, presented to the Society of Petroleum Engineers by M.J. Economides of the University of Houston and Christine Ehlig-Economides of Texas A&M University , took a closer look at the rates and volumes necessary to inject huge quantities of CO2 into those holes in the ground. Economides called the conclusions “…quite negative and, in fact, sobering.”

    To safely sequester CO2 in a closed system the volume of liquid (CO2 has to be compressed from a gas to a liquid to move it to the sequestration sites) cannot exceed more than about 1 percent of pore space. This means it will require 5-to-20 times more underground hole space than had been previously assumed: “…and it renders geologic sequestration of CO2 a profoundly non-feasible option for the management of CO2 emissions.”

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    It is pretty obvious the Obama administration strategy is to give the coal industry money to do its experiments and let it prove CCS unworkable. The danger of this strategy is that early CCS projects could appear more financially successful if the coal companies offset their costs selling byproducts for things like fertilizer and concrete fill.

    But there are only so many markets for byproducts, whereas the generation of electricity for modern civilization – like rust – never stops. Early CCS pilot projects may make the technology seem expensive but financially feasible, only to be revealed unworkable after spending for a fleet of projects wins approval from gullible politicians led down the garden path by the coal lobby.

    Somebody needs to get busy figuring out how to explain to political leaders lost in the dream of an easy answer (and to a desperate industry uncompromisingly committed to saving itself) that, yes, this thing you are trying to do can be done on a small scale but, by the time you do it in a big enough way, it will cost so much and leave you with so many other problems that it just isn’t worth doing anymore.

    Dreams die hard. But, as Bob Dylan once observed, as long as you’re dreaming you’re still asleep. Which is why anti-coal activists around the world are screaming “WAKE UP!”

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    Both the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and President Obama have voiced the hope for “clean” coal as a means to the greenhouse gas emissions reductions of ~25% by 2020 and 80+% by 2050 the world needs to achieve to prevent the worst impacts of global climate change.

    The coal industry’s determination may be as strong as the heroic movement trying to stop it. The plants it built or planned from 2000-to-2010 will emit 660 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, substantially more than the 524 billion metric tons emitted since 1751, the nominal beginning of the Industrial Age.

    The Obama administration has indicated it intends to get at least five “clean” coal demonstration projects started by the time it leaves office in 2016.

    Technology now exists to remove CO2 emissions from coal-burning power plants but the questions of price and safety remain unanswered. The uneasy response of people who live in areas proposed as deep geologic sequestration sites has heretofore been substantiated only by isolated incidences of harmful leakage. The Economides/Economides-Ehlig paper substantiates the unease with concrete numbers and scientific fact.

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    Indications of the scale of new technology required and the prohibitive costs installing it would necessitate: The vaunted Mountaineer trial project stores less than 2% of the more than 500,000 metric tons of CO2 it creates monthly. It is asking for $334 million in federal funds to scale it up enough to capture 20% of its emissions. 5 times that to capture all the emissions means ~$1.6 billion. 600 times that for all the U.S. coal plants? Not even worth doing the math.

    How accurate is the Mountaineer example? The controversial Futuregen pilot project, abandoned by the Bush administration in 2008 because of cost, is once again set to be funded by a public-private partnership and will likely cost $1.5 billion (for a small coal plant). U.S. Department of Energy estimates put the cost of “clean” coal electricity from Futuregen at $103 per megawatt-hour. Standard “cheap and dirty” coal presently competes with wind at $63 per megawatt hour.

    “Clean” coal proponents claim they can get the cost down to $73 per megawatt-hour. No comment. As a result of such ambitions, more U.S. experiments with “clean” coal are in the works.

    Oklahoma-based Tenaska intends to build a $3.5 billion IGCC power plant in Taylorsville, Ill., equipped to capture 50% of the CO2 emitted. The Erora Group plans a comparable project in in Henderson County, Ky. The Southern Company will install amine scrubbers, a different technology to capture the CO2, at power plant near Mobile, Ala. And Duke Energy may install equipment to capture 18% of the CO2 at a planned Edwardsport, Ind., 630 megawatt, $2.35 billion IGCC plant.

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    The enthusiasm has spread through the IPCC to Europe. France just brought online the oxyfuel combustion capture and storage Lacq project in Jurancon, in southeastern France. It will transport ~60,000 metric tons of CO2 per year 17 miles to a depleted natural gas field for storage.

    On the other side of the world, the Chinese government and its largest coal supplier, Australia, will build several demonstration projects. One will be in Beijing and use the amine scrubber technology at a combined heat and power plant. China has also started work on its version of FutureGen, dubbed GreenGen, a 650-megawatt, IGCC plant expected to come online in 2015 and pipe its CO2 to depleted oil fields near the city of Tianjin.

    The enthusiasm about “clean” coal has not spread to the people who will have to live above the holes proposed as sequestration sites. They wonder how safe the idea is.

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    In the oilfields, there was no effort to catalogue the success of keeping down the CO2 pumped into the ground. As long as it drove oil up, drillers were satisfied. Anecdotally, there were incidences of leakage but no notable harms.

    Most famously, sudden emergences of naturally-occurring volcanic CO2 (similar to geysers like Yellowstone’s Old Faithful) occurred under unfortunate circumstances in Indonesia and Cameroon causing the asphyxiation of hundreds in 3 separate events.

    Monitored sites of captured CO2 injection in the North Sea and Canada show ominous signs. Imaging at Sleipner revealed migration and leakage into the sea has been observed. The Canadian field has also shown leakage, though there is dispute about the cause.

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    The possibility of similar events is very real. No geologist can predict with certainty where the depressurized and re-gasified sequestered CO2 might migrate. Alstom, which has engineered more than one type of CO2 capture and sequestration technology, installed an oxyfuel boiler known as Schwarze Pumpe at a German plant. The people who live over the nearby natural gas field where the Schwarze Pumpe-captured CO2 would be stored have fought and so far stopped the proposed project. Residents of the Dutch town of Barendrecht have similarly stopped a Shell CO2 storage pilot project. Residents worry not only about a deadly leak but the fall-off in property values associated with fears of one, if the ground beneath them were to be pumped up with CO2.

    The companies pumping the CO2 cannot promise it will stay safely where it is sequestered indefinitely though they would remain liable. Insurance companies will not write polices for the technology for longer than 20 years. The only security is government indemnities.

    With the hope of turning public sentiment around, the National Energy Technology Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has compiled Public Outreach and Education for Carbon Storage Projects, a handbook of best practices in the art of soothing the public’s anxieties. Experience at the regional level has taught DOE that public outreach must be part of the project, not because it has anything to do with the project’s success but because without public outreach the project will meet “significant delays, increased costs, and lack of community acceptance…”

    Translation: Give folks a chance to think this cockamamie idea through for themselves and it won't fly.

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    5 months is apparently a long time in coal years: Is it safe to risk taxpayer money by indemnifying the CCS process for the companies doing “clean” coal? On the basis of its experience since October 1, 2009, AEP, the company that has captured 3,000 metric tons of CO2 at the Mountaineer plant and stored it in the nearby Copper Ridge dolomite formation says it is safe to plan on socking away 100,000 metric tons a year in coming years. AEP’s project manager admits there have been ups and downs but is satisfied that with 5 long months experience he can be confident the sequestration process works.

    Yes, it does. So far. And it will continue working safely. Until it doesn’t. Then people will die. It might be this year or in 20 years. It might be at Copper Ridge or somewhere in China.

    And to what end? So the coal industry can survive another few decades? And go on despoiling Appalachia with mountaintop removal mining? And piling up the toxic ash that comes from burning coal?

    The cost of doing “clean” coal will not make coal clean but it will make it expensive. For the same money, New Energy brings minimal environmental impacts, minimal risks and ever renewable sources. Do the math.

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    - President Barack Obama: “If we can develop the technology to capture the carbon pollution released by coal, it can create jobs and provide energy well into the future…”
    - Monte Atwell, gasification group general manager, General Electric: “[Carbon capture and storage] is going to cost us money…[but that] plant is going to work. Failure is not an option.”
    - Mayor Scott Hill, Racine, Ohio, across the river from the Mountaineer and Sporn power plants: “[The CO2 is] supposed to be better down there [in the geologic structures] than in the air…I wonder what happens long-term... You know, they just tell you what you want to hear.”
    - Philippe Paelinck, director of CO2 business development at Alstom: “Even with the most optimistic [projections] on renewables and nuclear, you still have 60 percent fossil fuels by 2030 with massive emissions…If CCS technology is not accepted by the public, we will not be able to arrive at the necessary levels of emissions — and those are zero for the power sector by 2050.”

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    - Michael Economides, Professor, Cullen College of Engineering at the University of Houston: “…[Previously assumed CO2 injection rates] are totally erroneous…The implications of our work are profound. They show that models that assume a constant pressure outer boundary for reservoirs intended for CO2 sequestration are missing the critical point that the reservoir pressure will build up under injection at constant rate. Instead of the 1-4 percent of bulk volume storability factor indicated prominently in the literature, which is based on erroneous steady-state modeling, our finding is that CO2 can occupy no more than 1 percent of the pore volume and likely as much as 100 times less…The United States has installed over 800 gigawatts (GW) of CO2 emitting coal and natural gas power plants. In applying this to a commercial power plant of just 500 MW…the reservoir would be enormous, the size of a small U.S. state…[T]he work clearly suggests that it is not a practical means to provide any substantive reduction in CO2 emissions…There is no need to research this subject any longer. Let’s try something else.”


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