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The Catch-22 of Clean-Coal

Bill DiBenedetto | Tuesday November 3rd, 2009 | 0 Comments

ccssequestration-2-17af4The old adage cautions one to be wary about what is asked for because often the expected result comes out somewhat differently.

Take the latest report from the Australia-based Global CCS Institute as the latest example. The fifth and final of a series, the 224-page ‘Strategic Analysis of the Global Status of Carbon Capture and Storage,’ prepared for the CCS Institute by a WorleyParsons-led consortium, is supposed to make the case for the efficacy of accelerating the commercial deployment of carbon capture and storage (CSS) projects.

It does, sort of, but not very effectively depending on one’s perspective. It is certainly not the slam-dunk for commercial CCS projects spreading across the globe and taking care of nasty coal-plant CO2 emissions (by, in effect, burying them) that clean-coal fans anticipated.

In fact the report makes a strong case that CCS, or clean-coal technology, is currently moribund and too expensive. It’s technically feasible, but the political and economic challenges are huge: Only seven CCS projects exist and they are all attached to gas plants.

The G8’s objective, agreed to last year at the Hokkaido Toyako Summit in Japan, is to launch 20 large-scale CCS demonstration projects by 2010 and then to deploy “at least” 20 commercial scale projects globally by 2020.

That timetable looks very difficult to achieve, especially when costs are factored in: Those 20 plants might be built by 2020 if national governments agree to pony-up $100 billion annually to CCS research, the report says, and even then it will take until 2030 to have a significant number of those in operation.

If the technology works as expected it likely will add an average of 78 percent to the cost of electricity from coal because CCS increases the cost of production.

That’s a lot of ifs, risks and expenses at the heart of the whole CCS exercise and the report bluntly acknowledges this:  “A viable business case for commercial scale, integrated projects has not been established at this time for coal-fired power generation and other large CO2 emitting industries.

“Without policies and legislation to assign a value to CO2 or to compel large stationary emitters to reduce CO2 emissions to the atmosphere, industry has limited incentive to install CCS facilities.”

In short the costs are prohibitive, expecting governments to step up with the kind of comprehensive policies and funding needed is a dream and the timetable is nearly impossible to achieve.

Even if clean coal plants dot the planet in 2030, it may be too late by then to make a significant dent in the catastrophic level of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere that scientists and climatologists expect will lead to well, climate catastrophe.

The CCS Institute report calls the cost issue a “classic catch-22 scenario. The only way costs can decrease is by installing a large number of CCS projects worldwide. However, the high cost of CCS is challenging project development.”

As long as literary allusions are in use, there’s a catch-22 corollary when it comes to clean coal called double-think: Believing that that there is such as thing as clean coal while knowing it’s not possible, and spending trillions on the concept anyway.


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