14 Jul 2008: Analysis

Coal’s New Technology:
Panacea or Risky Gamble?

The coal industry, political leaders, and some environmentalists have high hopes for the concept of carbon sequestration, which takes carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants and buries them underground. But so far, this new technology does not live up to the hype.

by jeff goodell

According to NASA climatologist James Hansen, there’s still time to avert a climate crisis. All we need to do, he said in a speech a few weeks ago in Washington D.C., is “phase out coal as quickly as possible.” Of course, given the fact that coal generates more than half the electricity in the United States, and is even more vital in the developing world, this is easier said than done. But if we can’t kick the coal habit, can we at least burn it in a way that doesn’t cook the planet?

The key to coal’s future — and maybe our own — is a technology called carbon capture and storage (CCS). At first glance, the idea seems straightforward: As coal is burned (or, in the future, gasified), remove the carbon dioxide, pressurize it into a supercritical liquid that's roughly the consistency of oil, then pump it underground. Depleted oil and gas wells make good storage sites, as do deep saline aquifers 2,000 feet or so underground. You can even pipe the CO2 offshore and inject it under the ocean floor. In theory, the CO2 will stay buried in these spots for hundreds if not thousands of years, thereby allowing us to continue burning coal without trashing the earth's climate.

Politically, CCS is a godsend. Both Barack Obama and John McCain are eager to carry Big Coal (swing) states like Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, and Ohio, where the promise of “clean coal” is the easy answer to every hard question about energy security, global warming, and the economy. The promise of CCS is also a central ingredient in the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity’s “clean coal” campaign. The coal industry trade group is spending $35 million on slick TV ads to reposition coal as an indispensable fuel for the 21st century — a task not unlike repositioning Barry Manilow as a hip-hop star.

Unfortunately, CCS is more fantasy than reality at the moment. Squirting CO2 into old oil wells is simple enough — the oil and gas industry does it all the time to help push out stubborn reserves. But capturing billions of tons of CO2 from power plants and pumping it underground — and doing it safely and cheaply, on a global scale, both in the West and the developing world — is another thing altogether. Even the Bush Administration has had doubts: Last January, the Department of Energy (DOE) canceled FutureGen, a next-generation coal plant that was being funded by the DOE and a consortium of big coal and electric power companies, citing cost overruns. Just two months earlier, administration officials had called FutureGen “the centerpiece” of their strategy for clean coal technologies. The DOE is now restructuring the program to fund a handful of smaller CCS demonstration projects.

To understand the problems with CCS, let’s start with the mechanics of capturing and storing CO2 from the stack of a coal plant. For pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, you can just bolt a scrubber on the stack and be done with it. But CO2 billows out such a diffuse stream, and in such huge volumes, that nobody has figured out a good way to capture it from a stack yet that isn't prohibitively expensive and doesn't reduce the efficiency of the plant by as much as 30 percent. Other possibilities, such as burning coal in pure oxygen, may someday make the job of capturing CO2 from a pulverized coal plant easier, but this technology is nowhere near ready for commercial deployment.

The ability to capture CO2 is likely to apply only to new coal plants. Retrofitting the thousands of existing plants is, at the moment, a pipe dream.”
It may turn out that capturing CO2 will require shifting to an entirely new kind of plant, called IGCC, or “integrated gasification combined cycle,” which uses heat and pressure to transform coal into a gas, which is then burned to generate electricity. IGCC has lots of advantages, but most important is the fact that CO2 can be removed during the gasification process, when the volume of the gas is much smaller than it is when it is released up the stack of a conventional coal plant. The disadvantage of IGCC is that it is new and different and expensive, and this industry has a long history of fighting anything new and different and expensive. In any case, the important point is that the ability to capture CO2 is likely to apply only to new coal plants. Retrofitting the thousands of existing coal plants is, at the moment, a pipe dream.

For the sake of argument, however, let's assume a smart engineer invents a cheap, efficient way to capture CO2 from existing coal plants (lots of people are throwing money at the problem). The big question is: Can we bury enough to make a difference?

Right now, there are three major carbon capture and storage projects in operation in the world (at one of the projects in Saskatchewan, Canada, the CO2 is used to enhance oil and gas recovery; storing the CO2 is secondary). The most significant is the Sleipner Platform in Norway, where StatoilHydro, a big Norwegian oil and gas company, has been pumping nearly one million tons of CO2 into a reservoir beneath the North Sea each year since 1996. It is an enormous engineering project, deploying one of the largest offshore platforms in the world. But compared to the engineering effort that would be required to stabilize the climate, it's nothing. It would take 10 Sleipner-size CO2 storage projects to offset the annual emissions of a single big coal plant.

David Hawkins, head of the climate change program at the Natural Resources Defense Council and a forceful advocate of CCS, is undaunted by such facts: “Yes, burying billions of tons of CO2 is a huge job, but that is not necessarily an argument against CCS. You can’t solve a big problem without a big effort.” But Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba, Canada, argued recently in Nature that “carbon sequestration is irresponsibly portrayed as an imminently useful option for solving the challenge [of global warming].” Smil pointed out that to sequester just 25% of the CO2 emitted by stationary sources (mostly coal plants), we would have to create a system whose annual volume of fluid would be slightly more than twice that of the world’s crude-oil industry.

Then there are the questions about what happens to all that CO2 once it’s pumped underground. “We have confidence that large-scale CO2 injection projects can be operated safely,” a study on the future of coal by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded. But since our experience with large-scale injection is so limited, no one knows for sure what the risks are. CO2, which is buoyant underground, can migrate through cracks in the earth and around old wellheads, pooling in unexpected places. This is troublesome because CO2 is an asphyxiant — in concentrations above 20 percent it can cause a person to lose consciousness in a breath or two. In theory, you could enter a basement flooded with CO2 and, because it’s an invisible, odorless gas, you would never know it’s there.

Until CO2 is priced at about $40 a ton, power companies will find it cheaper to keep dumping it into the air rather than capturing and burying it underground.”
Liability is also a large and unresolved problem. If a micro-seep of CO2 asphyxiates five girls in a basement during a slumber party in Illinois, who is going to be held accountable? Injecting CO2 can also push briny salt water from deep aquifers up toward the surface, potentially ruining drinking water supplies. If a town’s water is ruined, who pays? One solution that is frequently discussed is a version of the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnities Act, which assures power companies that if their nukes melt down, they won’t be liable for the full cost of the disaster. That might be a good deal for Big Coal, but not such a good deal for the rest of us, who will essentially end up holding the bag if something goes wrong.

Finally, there is the all-important question of cost. The era of cheap power from coal is over — today, the capital cost of building a new coal plant is more than double what it was just a decade ago, and if you factor in the cost of capturing and burying CO2, the cost of a coal plant rivals a nuclear plant. Most studies show that until CO2 is priced at about $40 a ton, power companies will find it cheaper to keep dumping the CO2 into the air rather than capturing and burying it underground. However, given the political realities in America, that is unlikely to happen anytime before 2020, even if climate legislation is passed during the next administration.

Add to this the technical issues that still need to be sorted out with CCS, and you can see why Greenpeace argues that it is unlikely that CCS will be commercially deployed before 2030. Indeed, given how quickly the price of renewable energy is falling (wind and large-scale concentrated solar power are already competitive with coal in some parts of the country), you have to wonder why anyone would go to the trouble of building a coal plant at all.

I don’t mean to be entirely dismissive of coal’s future in a world that takes global warming seriously. Clearly, every ton of CO2 that is safely buried underground is a step in the right direction. But betting our future on an expensive, unproven technology like CCS is, at best, reckless. We don’t need to bury our problems. We need to reinvent our world.

POSTED ON 14 Jul 2008 IN Energy North America 

COMMENTS


We have to do something and we need to try. FutureGen would be a chance to learn.
Interesting juxtaposition of this article to a teaser for another article on this site: (After Bush, Restoring Science to Environmental Policy--- The Bush administration has been widely criticized for placing politics over science when it comes to environmental policy-making. The next president must act to reverse that trend.)

One wonders whether FutureGen would have gone forward if Texas (the other finalist site and home of Bush) had been chosen over the Illinois (home of Obama) site.
Posted by Paul W on 15 Jul 2008


CCS Panacea or Risky Gamble?
Neither, just a lie - vaporware as it's known in the computer business...
Posted by Fair Trade on 15 Jul 2008


Vapourware if not attempted, waving a dead
chicken if attempted. But that applies only to
burial of CO2. Solidifying it as inert rock dust on
the surface is clearly better, and turns out to be
so much easier that it has already been done on
a large scale inadvertently
http://tinyurl.com/59fsnw . It is not quite
accurate to say that Price-Anderson guarantees
US nuclear plant operators that "if their nukes
melt down, they won't be liable for the full cost
of the disaster". The whole cost comes out of
their insurance, unless it exceeds $10 billion or
some such figure; but this is no more likely for a
reactor core melt than it is for a backyard
barbecue flare-up. Just look at a diagram of the
core plus the barriers around it, such as can be
seen at
http://canteach.candu.org/library/20044102.pdf
, p. 12, labelled "Figure 5-7 CROSS-SECTION OF
A PWR CONTAINMENT BUILDING".

Posted by G.R.L. Cowan on 16 Jul 2008


It is very difficult to top -- or contradict -- whatever Vaclav Smil says about virtually anything.
Posted by Eric Roston on 17 Jul 2008


There is a possible answer to coal's dilemma. When and if fuel production is linked to turning captured CO2 into charcoal and sequestering it in the soil, the wastes energy production and consumption will be directed toward soil restoration the result would be higher crop yields, more food, less deforestation, more carbon capture through more plant growth, more biofuels, etc.

Please take the time to find out about biochar at http://www.biochar-international.org/aboutbiochar/articlesonchar.html

Lou Gold
http://lougold.blogspot.com
Posted by Lou Gold on 19 Jul 2008


Can you email me the Smil reference in Nature?
Posted by Richard Rosen on 24 Jul 2008


Here's Vaclav Smil's letter: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v453/n7192/full/453154a.html
Posted by Veronique Greenwood on 24 Jul 2008


It's not just your politicians that seem to be lapping up the 'clean coal' spin. Here in the UK, our government is telling us to cut carbon emissions by 60% and then pushing for massive airport expansion and lots of lovely new coal power stations (http://www.nonewcoal.org.uk/).

For some reason, renewables are seen as unproven, risky and expensive... and CCS isn't. Hmm.
Posted by Sean Furey on 05 Aug 2008


Comments have been closed on this feature.
jeff goodellABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeff Goodell’s latest book, Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future, was chosen as one of the best nonfiction books of 2006 by Kirkus Reviews. He is the author of three previous books, including Sunnyvale, a memoir about growing up in Silicon Valley, and Our Story, an account of nine miners trapped in a Pennsylvania coal mine. A contributing editor at Rolling Stone, his work has appeared in The New Republic, The Washington Post, The New York Times Magazine, and Wired.
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