Coal Tattoo

The great race: Coal vs. the Climate

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Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

In case any Coal Tattoo readers missed it, we had a major piece in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail called “Coal vs. Climate: Will greenhouse controls come before it’s too late.

The story takes a look at American Electric Power’s CCS test over at the Mountaineer Plant in Mason County, and tries to put it in perspective of the huge challenge facing the coal industry in trying to deal with climate change. The summary:

But coal is in a race with the climate.

The planet is heating up faster than scientists thought it would just a few years ago. Experts say greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced soon, before it’s too late.

At the same time, the coal industry says it needs more time to perfect and deploy technology to capture and store carbon dioxide from power plants.

Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, is expensive. It sucks up a lot of a power plant’s energy and takes up tremendous space.

Power companies haven’t figured out exactly how to do CCS on the monumental scale needed. And experts aren’t sure if pumping such huge amounts of compressed CO2 underground is really safe.

Nobody knows if coal or climate is going to win this important race, but the world is watching, and even some of the strongest advocates of CCS have started to make it clear that the path ahead for coal is far from easy.

The nature of this crisis for coal was best summed up by this passage from the story:

In a recent special edition of the journal Science, Scottish CCS expert R. Stuart Haszeldine warned that carbon capture projects might be falling behind the pace that is needed.

Haszeldine cited a “lamentable lack of financial commitment to real construction.” If more pilot projects aren’t up and running by 2014, “learning from these to provide commercial credibility will drift beyond 2020.”

“The worldwide construction of many tens of hundreds of large CCS plants — necessary for a substantial impact on climate mitigation — will then be delayed beyond the deadline set by climate change predictions,” Haszeldine wrote.

I’d be interested in reader thoughts about the story, and I wanted to pass on the links before, which take you to some of the source documents I found very helpful in reporting this story:

Special issue of Science about carbon capture and storage (subscription required).

Coal Power in a Warming World, a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

—  How to Avoid Dangerous Climate Change, a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage, a special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report, from the IPCC.

Understanding and Responding to Climate Change, Highlights of the National Academies Reports, 2008 Edition.

Capturing CO2 from Coal-fired Power Plants: Challenges for a Comprehensive Strategy, by the Congressional Research Service.

Energy at the Crossroads, by Vaclav Smil

Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges and Decisions, Synthesis Report, by the Copenhagen Climate Congress.

My reporting on these issues has also been greatly educated by Joseph Romm’s blog, Climate Progress, and by Andrew Revkin’s reporting on his Dot Earth blog.  Coal Tattoo readers have also been very helpful, and I’ve enjoyed the online discussions we’ve had the last few months about CCS.

We’ll be hearing more later this week about the Mountaineer project, as AEP has a big ceremony planned on Friday at the plant in Mason County. In the meantime, I’d be interested to hear from Coal Tattoo readers about Sunday’s article …