Pittsburgh Hosts International Coal Conference: As The Climate Clock Ticks

Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, historically at the center of US coal production, regularly hosts a meeting of the worlds' scientists and engineers who are dealing with coal's dirty details.

Those attending this year's 25th Annual International Pittsburgh Coal Conference, focus "on environmental emissions issues and technologies surrounding the continued use of coal and the development of future coal-based energy plants to achieve near-zero emissions of pollutants, reduced costs, and high thermal efficiency while producing a suite of products to meet future energy market requirements."

A public radio reporter speaking from the conference described estimates that coal-fired electricity, with current technologies for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) deployed, would cost "80 to 100% more". Good thing the best minds in coal research are all together in one place: unless those costs can be cut by an order-of-magnitude, there's no way coal will ever compete with renewable energy.

How Many Tin Foil Hat-Wearers Does It Take To Screw In A Light Bulb?
The last two years have provided ample demonstration that large scale wind farms, even if given government subsidies far less than those received by the coal industry, can be installed and operated quite competitively. (See our earlier post on subsidy levels called Graphic Of The Day: US Federal Energy Subsidies And Support, Fiscal Year 2007.) Here's the portion of that archival post which relates to this one:

coal mining, and possibly coal specialty processing and distribution, companies received more in direct Federal subsidies ($2.4 billion) to reduce air pollution -- presumably through washing or blending with additives to remove metals and sulfur compounds as well as non-combustables -- than did the non-ethanol renewables category.

Wind's ability to be developed incrementally gives it a speed and "pay as you go" advantage over coal: developers put up at one time only as many 1 to 2 mW turbines as near-term demand projections call for. Coal-plant developers have to build the whole beast for 30 years of projected demand.

Unlike a CCS coal plant, there is no uncertainty at all with wind about pollution control effectiveness: wind has no pollution to control. And let's be clear about "CCS." The added cost for CCS is all about pollution control. Coal proponents can call it whatever they want, but CCS nothing more than process changes and bolt-ons needed to better control pollution: C02 in large part. The whole "co-products" aspect is a pipe dream. Utilities are not chemical plants.

Timing is everything in the race between "clean coal" and renewable energy..
How many years will it take to design and prove out Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) for coal-fired generation of electricity? How much additional time will be needed to shutter existing coal-fired plants, where CCS is not feasible, gradually shifting generation to newer coal-fired plants with CCS? Again, we have no precise idea. CCS is highly uncertain.

Uncertainty about the total time needed to design and test one or more generating plants with CCS fully deployed no doubt puts pressure on technical experts, while spelling out "risk" to bankers. And risk is what the money people don't want to hear about right now. See where this is going?

Getting back to our tinfoil-hat question -- what would be the best possible lobbying tactic to buy some time for CCS development, given the financial and technical uncertainties we just outlined?

Answer: delay renewable incentives legislation. While the climate bomb ticks.

Image credit::ArtSciChicago, Spiral Climate Clock proposal

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Tags: Clean Coal

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