CO2 Capture Cost of Electricity (COE) Impact
Image credit:Existing Plants Emissions and Capture R&D; Program ...National Energy Technology Laboratory, "Program Goal and Baseline Plant," March 2009.slideshow. (pdf file)
Some carbon capture and storage (CCS) is going to happen. It's inevitable. I suggest that it would be smart strategy for environmental activists to support taking the earth's virginity with a commercial-scale carbon storage experiment; so that, as fast as possible, CCS will be shown for what it is: a technology with very poor economics and limited applicability for baseline power generation. Before I detail my argument for supporting renewed CCS research and development - knowing that the awful economics will engage Congress faster and and with far more impact than environmental activism can - I'd like to point out that my thinking has not changed much from August, 2007 when I posted There Is No Such Thing As Clean Coal and, more importantly, since The Carbon Sequestration Cost Everyone Else Forgot was posted.
Why pairing traditional coal burning technology with CCS will be hugely expensive.
Adding sulfur removal to the emissions stack of a standard-issue coal plant parasitizes up to 12% of the power the coal plant is capable of producing. Bolt on the additional pollution controls needed to pull out the mercury and a several more percent of the energy output disappears. Now, add to that the technology needed to capture C02 from a traditional coal plant and to compress it prior to injection, and the cost of electricity (per the graphic) increases 35% (or more).
Why integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technology and carbon capture and storage (CCS) will also be far more expensive than anyone thinks.
As is pointed out in The Carbon Sequestration Cost Everyone Else Forgot, it is invariably better from a process economics standpoint to locate a coal plant close to the customers who buy its electricity than to locate the plant over a saline groundwater aquifer many hundreds of miles away from the customer base. If utilities are forced to relocate their existing generation facilities to the unique geologic formations needed to keep injected C02 locked in the ground, economics will be even worse if they need to build new transmission lines.
The alternative - building highly energized and pressurized insulated C02 pipelines from generating plant to off-site, deep injection wells - is another huge expense and carries the operating burden of consuming still more of plant electrical output to run the pipelines' pumps and chillers. (By that point, the sellable output of an existing traditional coal-fired plant would probably be around half of the "boiler plate" capacity numbers.)
Keep in mind that the new-IGCC coal-fired plants will cost billions per each and could take decades to build.
The faster "Clean Coal" economics are laid out with some accuracy, including both the capital and operating cost for liquid CO2 pipelines and the costs for residuals management, the more rapidly investors will see the wisdom of putting their money in renewables first.
That said, developed nations are very likely to deploy these technologies where conditions are ideal; at least enough to provide baseline power (generating facility above saline groundwater aquifer, far from population center, with overlying aquitard, close to coal sources, and proximate to electricity markets). Presently, only nuclear power offers a low carbon footprint alternative for such baseline power. Acceptance of these realities could be part of the thinking behind US Energy Secretary Steven Chu's apparent open-mindedness about CCS, as explained in this Technology Review article:- Chu Entertains FutureGen Alliance Energy Secretary Steven Chu meets with proponents of a troubled clean-carbon project.
Secretary Steven Chu met with representatives of the FutureGen Alliance today, reinforcing positive signals from Chu two weeks ago that the troubled project could be revived.
Choosing battles wisely.
IGCC and CCS can be slowed by political opposition; and, in some nations they might be stopped entirely by grass roots activism. But is that the outcome you really want? Do you want the Obama Administration to consume its energies lining up climate action support from senators from coal dependent states?
Would not it be better to let free market forces keep the extent of CCS deployment to a minimum, and instead focus on countering certain opposition to wind-farm to city, power transmission lines. We'll also need all the strength we can muster to scale up offshore wind farms along the East Coast. Look at Cape Wind's history if you don't think that will take commitment and resources.
There are political and regulatory battles around CCS that will be worth fighting for, however.
We should oppose expansions of coal burning utilities that do not commit voluntarily to utilize CCS as a permit condition.
We should actively oppose waivers or exemptions for coal plants wanting to duck responsibilities for managing their carbon emissions.
These two choices provide activists the necessary leverage to stabilize climate. These are where a united, strong voice from the grass roots is needed. Not in quibbling over whether CCS should or should not go forward, absolutely. The free market will handily take care of that.