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Carbon Capture “Vaporware” No Alternative to Real Clean Energy Technology


In the software industry, vaporware is a great new product announced by a developer, but is never released or is seriously delayed. Besides getting users’ hopes up, it can make potential customers hold off purchases of alternative solutions as they wait for the latest and greatest, which the developer swears is just around the corner. While vaporware is annoying, it’s arguably not much more than that for most people. But when it comes to clean tech, there is a lot more at stake, and betting on “clean coal” and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) instead of real clean tech is a terrible idea.

The authors of MIT’s comprehensive Future of Coal study wrote in 2007 that

Coal use will increase under any foreseeable scenario because it is cheap and abundant … [and] CO2 capture and sequestration (CCS) is the critical enabling technology that would reduce CO2 emissions significantly while also allowing coal to meet the world’s pressing energy needs. …

The priority objective with respect to coal should be the successful large-scale demonstration of the technical, economic, and environmental performance of the technologies that make up all of the major components of a large-scale integrated CCS system – capture, transportation and storage.

Unfortunately, CCS pilot projects hoped to be operational before 2014 are very few and far between. In January, the Department of Energy cancelled the FutureGen pilot project because of cost overruns, and BP and Rio Tinto recently abandoned CCS plans in Australia because “rock formations wouldn’t seal in carbon dioxide.” To date no one knows what will happen to CO2 pumped underground in the US at volumes that rival the amount of natural gas transported each day, assuming suitable locations are found. Note also that new coal-fired plants need to be using the technology on a massive scale by 2020 to make a serious dent in CO2 emissions.

But the feasibility of CCS in a meaningful timeframe is not the only obstacle the technology faces. The Future of Coal financial model depends on a $30/ton CO2 charge to achieve cost parity with traditional coal-fired plants, not counting coal price rises in the year since the report came out. That’s right, not only is the technology completely unproven and unavailable in a usable timeframe, the electricity from CCS coal plants will always be more expensive than electricity from the most efficient coal plants out there today. Rapidly growing emitters in the developing world – i.e. China and India – will balk at a permanently higher energy costs, and keep building dozens of dirty plants every year.

Of course, $30/ton is also pretty close to the conservative $35/ton charge my colleague David Wheeler writes is necessary to cause a switch to environmentally benign solar thermal power generation, and is in the middle of the range of carbon charges expected by major US investment banks. Let’s not forget that strategic investments of $4-8 billion dollars by the World Bank’s Clean Technology Fund, or the Chinese, or the US government, could rapidly push the cost of solar thermal power down the cost curve as it scales up using proven technology.

And then there’s wind. The US Department of Energy’s (DOE) 20% Wind Energy by 2030 scenario points out that the price of wind-generated electricity has dropped by 80% in the last 20 years as the technology has improved. At an incremental cost of $43 billion for ramping up wind installations and upgrading the transmission network beyond the massive investment needed already – not counting the value of avoided emissions under a carbon trading scheme – the DOE estimates that the US can feasibly generate 20% of its electricity from wind by 2030.

This is not to say that there aren’t challenges to rolling out renewable energy technologies, from supplying baseload power to simply building the infrastructure on a massive scale. But these are not insurmountable problems, though Congress is not making things any easier.

The bottom line is that wind and other renewable energy technologies are well understood, are as affordable as CCS would be whenever it gets off the ground (in a decade?), and approach the cost of traditional coal power already. Looking at it this way, CCS may be the best kind of vaporware we can hope for in this situation: obsolete on delivery.

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Are you communicating this message to those who are in a position to change their minds on “clean coal” …i.e. how about Jay Rockefeller, Senator from W.Va. who’s even backing a liquid coal for military uses and who seems to turn a blind eye on mountain top removal. There will be no West Virginia soon…just hopeless, streamless rubble. Do you ever forward your research to senate offices and the staffs who help formulate their policies???

[Reply]

Thanks for your piece on CCS. My sense is that its real logic has very little to do with its technical feasibility, or whether it is real or is vapor. Rather, it it has been created largely as a political sop to the coal industry. It has obtained deference from an extraordinary set of people, including the MIT group, but a careful technical and economic analysis that discredited it would clear the decks for discussion of real alternatives, and would be a great public service.

[Reply]

Excellent summary. I’ve put a link to this page on the first page of my web site.

Good job.

Jim Holm

[Reply]

The real elephant in the room is the already known emissions free source of reliable, human controllable energy – atomic fission.

Wind and solar thermal might have some utility, but they are never going to replace much more than a tiny fraction of the electrical power currently being generated by burning about 6 billion tons of coal each year.

If you are really serious about looking for alternatives that can make a dent in coal consumption and you refuse to listen to the answers that people have for the questions about byproducts, weapons concerns, cost, and safety, then you are simply being self deceptive.

There are legitimate questions, but there are also answers that get pretty darned close to solving the remaining issues that have slowed nuclear development.

The one issue that we have yet to solve is the fact that the energy establishment and its supporting industries really LIKE the fact that their control of fossil fuel resources keeps the rest of us addicted.

[Reply]

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