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Clean coal is an Illusion

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The Economist points out clean coal is no panacea – expensive, and more hype than reality. Politicians love mouthing the phrase, but the energy industry is not so sanguine, at least when cash is being discussed.

Withered and Died

“FACTORIES of death” is how James Hansen, a crusading American scientist, describes power stations that burn coal. Coal is the dirtiest of fossil fuels, producing twice the carbon dioxide that natural gas does when it is burned. That makes it a big cause of global warming.

But some of the world’s biggest economies rely on coal. It provides almost 50% of America’s and Germany’s power, 70% of India’s and 80% of China’s. Digging up coal provides a livelihood for millions of people. And secure domestic sources of energy are particularly prized at a time when prices are volatile and many of the big oil and gas exporters are becoming worryingly nationalistic. It is hard to see how governments can turn their backs on such a cheap and reliable fuel.

There does, however, seem to be a way of reconciling coal and climate. It is called carbon capture and storage (CCS), or carbon sequestration, and entails hoovering up carbon dioxide from the smokestacks of power plants and other big industrial facilities and storing it safely underground, where it will have no effect on the atmosphere. The technologies for this are already widely used in the oil and chemical industries, and saltwater aquifers and depleted oilfields offer plenty of promising storage space. Politicians are pinning their hopes on clean coal: Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, among others, are keen on the idea.

But CCS is proving easier to talk up than to get going (see article). There are no big power plants using it, just a handful of small demonstration projects. Utilities refuse to make bigger investments because power plants with CCS would be much more expensive to build and run than the ordinary sort. They seem more inclined to invest in other low-carbon power sources, such as nuclear, solar and wind. Inventors and venture capitalists, in the meantime, are striving to create all manner of new technologies—bugs for biofuels, revolutionary solar panels, smart-grid applications—but it is hard to find anyone working on CCS in their garage (although some scientists are toying with pulling carbon dioxide directly out of the air instead of from smokestacks: see Technology Quarterly in this issue). Several green pressure groups, and even some energy and power company bosses, think that the whole idea is unworkable.

[click to continue reading The illusion of clean coal | The Economist]

There are better options for reducing carbon emissions, pretending that clean coal is a viable solution damages the progress in other possibilities.

from a related Economist article:

Despite all this enthusiasm, however, there is not a single big power plant using CCS anywhere in the world. Utilities refuse to build any, since the technology is expensive and unproven. Advocates insist that the price will come down with time and experience, but it is hard to say by how much, or who should bear the extra cost in the meantime. Green pressure groups worry that captured carbon will eventually leak. In short, the world’s leaders are counting on a fix for climate change that is at best uncertain and at worst unworkable.

CCS sounds beguilingly simple. It entails isolating carbon dioxide wherever it is produced in large quantities, such as the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants, compressing it and pumping it underground. The oil and chemical industries already use most of the processes that this involves, although not in combination. And oil, gas and salt water seem to stay put in certain rock formations indefinitely, suggesting that carbon dioxide should as well.

CCS particularly appeals to politicians reluctant to limit the use of coal. Coal is the dirtiest of fossil fuels, and burning it releases roughly twice as much carbon dioxide as burning natural gas. The world will struggle to cut greenhouse-gas emissions dramatically if it continues to burn coal as it does today. Yet burning coal is one of the cheapest ways to generate power

[click to continue reading Carbon capture and storage | Trouble in store | The Economist]

Industrial Temple

boiled down to the most basic facts, the problem is the technology is too expensive to be feasible, even with governmental support.

The problem with CCS is the cost. The chemical steps in the capture consume energy, as do the compression and transport of the carbon dioxide. That will use up a quarter or more of the output of a power station fitted with CCS, according to most estimates. So plants with CCS will need to be at least a third bigger than normal ones to generate the same net amount of power, and will also consume at least a third more fuel. In addition, there is the extra expense of building the capture plant and the injection pipelines. If the storage site is far from the power plant, yet more energy will be needed to move the carbon dioxide.

Estimates of the total cost vary widely. America’s government, which had vowed to build a prototype plant called FutureGen in partnership with several big resources firms, scrapped the project last year after the projected cost rose to $1.8 billion. Philippe Paelinck, of Alstom, an engineering firm that hopes to build CCS plants, thinks a full-scale one would cost about €1 billion ($1.3 billion).

Not the answer, in other words.

Written by Seth Anderson

March 10th, 2009 at 9:24 am

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