Coal Tattoo

Carbon capture: Dreaming the impossible?

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Two new major media articles out today raise serious questions about efforts to rely on “carbon capture and storage” — CCS — to keep coal in the nation’s energy mix.

First, there’s a Reuters report that the technology needed is very expensive and is expected to still “be in its infancy” far beyond 2020, a deadline by which many scientists — and President Barack Obama — say serious carbon dioxide emissions reductions are needed:

Development of the technology has been slow, especially after the Bush administration abandoned FutureGen, a $2 billion plan that sought to join business and government to fund test storage from a large coal-fired plant.

Burying carbon dioxide from power-plant coal is costly because it requires the addition of equipment to siphon the gas from a huge volume of emissions.

Due to the economic crisis, early efforts likely will focus on lower-cost targets such as oil refineries, gas processing plants and ethanol distilleries, which emit purer, easier-to-capture streams of carbon dioxide, experts predict.

Interestingly, the Reuters piece also quotes John Grasser, spokesman for the office of fossil energy at the U.S. Department of Energy … I know John back when he was speaking not for DOE, but for the coal industry over at the National Mining Association. Made me wonder what the difference is between the industry’s own trade association and a government agency set up to promote that same industry … anyway, John told Reuters:

It isn’t going to happen overnight. But over the next 10 or 20 years, we’re hopeful that these technologies will become commercially available and widespread.

Next was a story in The Economist,  which basically concluded that politicians are pinning too much hope on all of this CCS business:

The idea that clean coal, or to be more specific, a technology known as carbon capture and storage (CCS), will save the world from global warming has become something of an article of faith among policymakers too. CCS features prominently in all the main blueprints for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. The Stern Review, a celebrated report on the economics of climate change, considers it “essential”. It provides one of the seven tranches of emissions cuts proposed by Robert Socolow of Princeton University. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reckons the world will need over 200 power plants equipped with CCS by 2030 to limit the rise in average global temperatures to about 3°C—a bigger increase than many scientists would like.

Politicians have duly lined up behind the idea. Barack Obama talked up CCS during last year’s election. Gordon Brown, Britain’s prime minister, has said the technology is necessary “if we are to have any chance of meeting our global climate goals”. The leaders of the G8, a rich-country club, want it to be widespread by 2020.

If you feel a “but” coming here, you’re right:

Despite all this enthusiasm, however, there is not a single big power plant using CCS anywhere in the world. Utilities refuse to build any, since the technology is expensive and unproven. Advocates insist that the price will come down with time and experience, but it is hard to say by how much, or who should bear the extra cost in the meantime. Green pressure groups worry that captured carbon will eventually leak. In short, the world’s leaders are counting on a fix for climate change that is at best uncertain and at worst unworkable.

The Economist also published an editorial comment on the issue:

With the private sector sitting on its hands, Western governments are lavishing subsidies on CCS. Some $3.4 billion earmarked for CCS found its way into America’s stimulus bill. The European Union, which already restricts greenhouse-gas emissions through a cap-and-trade scheme, unveiled further incentives for CCS last year. Britain, Australia and others have also vowed to help fund demonstration plants partly because they reckon the private sector is put off by the huge price-tag on a single CCS power plant, and also in the belief that the cost of CCS will fall with experience.

The private sector, however, is reluctant to fork out not just because of the upfront cost of power plants, but also because, tonne for tonne, CCS looks like an expensive way of cutting carbon. The cost of it may fall, but probably not by much, given the familiarity of the technologies it uses.

Politicians should indeed encourage investment in clean technologies, but direct subsidies are not the way to do it. A carbon price or tax, which raises the cost of emitting carbon dioxide while leaving it up to the private sector to pick technologies, is the better approach. CCS is not just a potential waste of money. It might also create a false sense of security about climate change, while depriving potentially cheaper methods of cutting emissions of cash and attention—all for the sake of placating the coal lobby.