Coal Tattoo

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We’ve talked before about peak coal (see previous posts here, here and here), and now I can’t wait to read Richard Heinberg’s new book, Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis.

Fortunately, David Roberts over at Grist has already done so, and gives us a preview report … and the picture painted in the book is pretty scary.

In short:

There isn’t nearly as much coal left as most people think. “Clean coal” will run down limited reserves even faster. If humanity doesn’t begin massive, sustained investment in renewable power sources immediately, civilization could be at risk before the end of the century. And that’s without considering the impacts of climate change.

And more to the point for our recent discussions of carbon capture and storage proposals:

The second fateful illusion: that carbon capture and sequestration can enable the continued expansion of coal use.

Industry insiders admit that CCS technology will not be developed, and costs reduced enough to prompt widespread adoption, until 2035 at best. By then, if CCS becomes a primary climate strategy and EWG-style analysis is correct, humanity will be in the grips of four interrelated costs and risks associated with coal. Quoting Heinberg:

• the need for substantial investment in new CCS technology;
• higher coal prices and shortages due to depletion;
• higher electricity generating costs due to the use of IGCC and CCS; and
• lower electricity generation efficiencies due to the use of CCS, requiring more coal to produce an equivalent amount of electricity.

So at a time when supplies are declining, while commodity and transportation costs are rising, we’ll need much more coal to get the same amount of electricity from a more expensive generation technology. Surely you see the wisdom of the strategy.

Based on the book, Roberts concludes:

Imagine the remaining reserves of oil and coal as a savings account. There’s a lot in the bank, but pretty soon income is going to decline and savings are going to get drawn down. The question before us is: how fast should we draw down our fossil savings, and what should we spend them on?

Spending on CCS poses a fateful opportunity cost. If scaling up renewables and efficiency (R&E) is difficult today, it will be doubly so when savings have been drained pursuing CCS infrastructure. According to the scenarios developed by Heinberg and the Post Carbon Institute, massive CCS investment would at best delay an energy crash by a decade or two. I’m dubious of these kinds of scenario exercises, but it’s inarguable that after all that fossil energy is spent on CCS, it can’t be retrieved. There’s no do-over. If it doesn’t work out, the energy needed to build out R&E infrastructure will only be more expensive.