Capturing Carbon at Schwarze Pumpe – Part of the Solution or Fostering the Myth of “Clean” Coal?

Of particular interest to many of my colleagues on our recent trip to Germany was the newly commissioned (Sept. ’08) Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) pilot plant at Schwarze Pumpe in Spremberg – an interest in spite of the general belief among the ranks of my fellow enviros that “clean coal” is a myth.

Clean coal may be a myth, or more accurately a pernicious marketing slogan doggedly pursued by the coal industry, but the abundance of coal and the reality of it as a principal source of the world’s energy cannot be wished away.

Designed and built by Vattenfall, a Swedish power utility operating throughout northern Europe, the 30 megawatt pilot CCS project stands next to the commercial-scale 1600 megawatt coal-fired plant in the state of Brandenburg near the Polish border.

Using the Oxyfuel method of removing nitrogen from the air stream and injecting pure oxygen for the combustion of the fuel (in this case lignite coal), the plant is able to capture more than 95% of its CO2 emissions in the process, described in more detail in a recent post at GlobalWarmingisReal.

Schwarze Pumpe proves the technology and demonstrates the feasibility of capturing nearly all the CO2 emitted from burning coal. Over the next 3 years Vattenfall plans on spending 10 million Euros annually for testing and tweaking operation of the plant, seeking to increase efficiency and reduce costs. Tests using hard coal instead of lignite will also be conducted. As a test facility, the plant does not generate power for the electricity grid, instead selling the steam produced to a neighboring paper mill.

Vattenfall’s future plans for CCS development include a 300 MW demonstration plant at J√§nschwalde, Germany and a full-scale 1000 megawatt plant in operation by 2020.

But despite all this forward movement in CCS technology, the question remains, as we were made painfully aware walking through the oxyfuel plant at Schwarze Pumpe: where will all the captured CO2 go?

Captured with no place to go

Operating at full capacity, Schwarze Pumpe can capture about nine metric tons of CO2 per hour. The onsite tanks have a storage capacity of 20 hours, after which time the CO2 has to go somewhere.

There are four principal means of transporting CO2:

  • Trains
  • Ships
  • Pipelines
  • Trucks

The preferred method, and the only viable one for a commercial scale operation, is via pipeline. For the relatively small amount captured at Schwarze Pumpe (100,000 metric tons over three years), CO2 is trucked offsite.

But to where?

The engineers at Schwarze Pumpe offered three possibilities:

  • Oil and gas field enhanced recovery
  • Saline aquifers
  • Industrial applications (CO2 as a resource instead of a waste product)

For CCS projects in Germany, the best hope for sequestration is in the numerous saline aquifers found throughout northern Germany. Research is ongoing into the behavior of sequestered CO2 in these structures, with no conclusive results as yet, nor is there in place any policy framework for regulating long term geologic sequestration (pdf) of the gas.

This leaves the third option, using the captured CO2 for industrial applications as the destination for some of the captured gas from Schwarze Pumpe – but not all. Much of the captured CO2 is vented directly into the atmosphere, much to the chagrin of the engineers at Schwarze Pumpe (not to mention their guests). The irony of capturing the CO2 only to release it a few hours later belies CCS as a real solution. Figuring out what to do with the CO2 once it is captured – and to be able to it at scale – remains a key and pending issue.

To date however, there is no policy framework in place for the process to begin. Vattenfall public relations manager Lutz Picard made it clear it wasn’t their technology holding things up, but the lack of policy allowing them to move to the next step. So what doesn’t get trucked off is sent into the atmosphere. Until issues of the liability, monitoring, and long-term sustainability CO2 sequestration are resolved, CCS will have difficulty taking hold at any meaningful scale.

Economic reality

Even when – or if – the technical challenges of sequestration are fully addressed and policies set, the process obviously has to make economic sense. Something that Vattenfall hopes to demonstrate over the next three years by bringing the operating cost down below that of the price of an emissions allowance certificate traded through the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EUETS) – between 20 and 30 Euros per ton of carbon, most likely around 26 Euros per ton.

Hitting this target is key. If the cost of CCS at scale costs more than simply purchasing a carbon trading certificate, there is no economic advantage for a plant operator to retrofit a facility with CCS.

To CCS or not to CCS – that is the question

Despite the hurdles of economics and stable long-term geologic sequestration, many see CCS technology as an important step in reducing carbon emissions and increasing energy security. Schwarze Pumpe is successfully proving that the Oxyfuyel method of capture works. Even without the ability for long term storage, the “front-end” process is of interest to companies like Canada-based Mantra Energy, whose VP of technology John Russell recently explained to me the process of ERC, a method Mantra is developing that transforms CO2 into formic acid, oxalic acid, formate salts, and methanol. Russell told me they are following closely the progress at Schwarze Pumpe.

With Vattenfall projecting a first commercial scale project no sooner than 2020, the same year by which most climate scientists say that the world’s carbon emissions must peak, there remains uncertainty for many whether CCS can come online in time and at sufficient scale, even if all the remaining hurdles to its widespread use are surmounted.

Many argue that developing CCS technology will lead to more construction of new coal-fired power plants and diffuse efforts toward transitioning to renewable, low-or-no carbon energy sources. Given the world’s current reliance on coal and the situation in which we now find ourselves, with barely more than a decade to stop and reverse the trend of rising carbon emissions, CCS cannot, in my opinion, be dismissed out of hand.

This leads to an interesting question regarding nuclear power, especially for Germany, whose decision in the 80’s to phase out nuclear power generation started the country down the path as a world leader in developing a low carbon economy. Germany’s “Exit Law” mandating complete decommissioning of all nuclear plants is facing increased scrutiny in recent months as the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions becomes ever more apparent (to most people at any rate).

The choice between potentially unstable CO2 escaping into the atmosphere at some long-distant future date, exacerbating the very problem it was meant to solve, or the prospect of entire regions becoming uninhabitable due to radioactive contamination from the storage of nuclear waste is not an easy one – especially since we foist upon future generations consequences of which they will have no say. But there you have it. All choices have a price, and we must decide in short order what the costs will be and who will pay.

Note: the official line in Germany, as presented to our group by the Foreign Ministry, remains dead set against removing the Nuclear Exit Law mandating a phase out of all nuclear plants by 2025. Alexander Sh√∂felder, a diplomat working international energy policy for the German Foreign Office, made his position clear by telling us that the world would need 5000 additional nuclear reactors to have any significant impact on carbon emissions. Nuclear has no place in Germany’s low carbon economy.

I personally remain ambivalent about carbon capture and sequestration – in particular the sequestration.

“Clean coal” may be a false notion – and I believe it certainly is when the entire life-cycle of coal power is considered – but we may be left with no better choice than to pursue the myth.

A picture of clean coal

wezlow_sud_surface_mine1.jpgLignite coal is essentially scrapped off the surface of the Earth in surface mines, such as Welzow Süd open pit mine in Brandenburg near Schwarze Pumpe. And demonstrates why there is no such thing as clean coal.

CCS in the U.S.

Will Future Gen be revived?

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

2 responses

  1. Great article that actually takes a realistic look at CCS. Personally, until someone proves to me otherwise, I am not a believer in CCS. I might be if the captured CO2 was used for another process and not just buried underground.
    I did an analysis actually comparing money spent on CCS vs. the same amount of money spent on an alternative carbon mitigating technology (wind farm)

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