According to a new report published by the Worldwatch Institute, funding for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) projects, otherwise known as “clean coal“, has stalled at the 2010 level of $23.5 billion. This concerns some people because the technology will take a long time to develop. If it only gets half-hearted support, by the time it is ready to go, it might be too late to make any difference. So, it would seem that the argument goes, “we need to develop this quickly or not at all.” So which is it?
Right now, there are 75 large scale projects underway in 17 countries. Only eight are operational, the same number as in 2009. These plants currently sequester some 35 million tons of CO2 annually. If all the plants currently under construction were to be completed, they would collectively capture and sequester only 0.5% of the total carbon emissions associated with energy production.
Of course, we know that CCS, has the potential to allow us to use the nation’s vast coal reserves with highly reduced CO2 emission. What we don’t know is how well the CO2 will remain underground, given the vagaries of the under world, with its enormous pressures, perpetual movement and sudden, sometimes catastrophic shifts in rock structures. There are also many questions about the long term reliability of these plants, as well as unforeseen problems that could develop.
Is there any reason we would want to continue using coal in any manner, with all the issues associated with mining it, transporting it, and burning it, if we could produce enough energy to meet our requirements any other way?
Worldwatch president Robert Engelman says. “CCS technology is worth exploring as one of a large array of potential strategies for slowing the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere.” In other words, it’s a hedge, in case the scenario mentioned above comes to pass.
But this is where natural gas enters the picture. Given that huge reserves of natural have recently been discovered here in the US, this puts the coal discussion in a very different light. Yes, there are issues involved with the way that gas is currently being extracted and that needs to change. And if there is a single politician left in the country with enough backbone to stand up to the lobbyists, they will be compelled to do the job in a safe and clean manner, even if it means waiting a while and settling for smaller profit margins in the short term. Safer methods, such as propane gel, have already been demonstrated, but they need to be proven through extensive testing.
Given that the plan all along for coal fired CCS plants was to only sequester enough CO2 to make the coal emissions comparable to natural gas, because of the high energy penalty associated with the sequestration, there is no case to be made for clean coal over gas from an emissions standpoint. That leaves only the cost argument, but natural gas cost has now dropped below coal on a unit energy basis.
There is one approach that looks relatively promising, underground gasification, which actually leaves the coal in the ground, but efficiency and c0st are still uncertain. There is a project currently under construction in Australia.
Where all this leaves me is wondering is why no one is talking about using CCS to capture all the CO2 from natural gas powered plants? We apparently already have the technology to do that, but do we have the will, given that it will cost more?
[Image credit: vattenfall: Flickr Creative Commons]
RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
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