Proposed GreenGen IGCC coal plant in Tianjin, China
Unproven and Expensive
Here's a climate conundrum. Last week, the International Energy Agency said in a report (pdf) that to avoid climate catastrophe, 2,000 carbon capture and sequestration (CSS, or sometimes "clean coal") plants need to be built in developing countries by 2050.
And fortunately, it turns out that China, the biggest coal burner, is a great place to bury greenhouse gases. "Study Says China Is Ripe for Carbon Storage," is the headline of the Green Inc story. The study by the US Dept. of Energy says China's rich geology is conducive to carbon storage, and puts the cost of transportation and storage at $2 to $8 per ton, or half the estimated cost in the U.S. Of course, burying huge amounts of carbon dioxide is easier when you don't have to face European-style regulations or citizens concerned about poisonous leakages or explosions.
And then there's the price tag.The study by the IEA calls for 100 large-scale, fully deployed CCS plants around the world in the next decade and 3,400 by 2050. And because 97 percent of the world's GHG emissions will come from developing economies over the next two decades, most of those projects will need to be in places like China and India.
The estimated cost? By 2050, it could cost more than $5 trillion to retrofit fossil fuel plants that represent 17 percent of worldwide electricity. In China and India, just the cost of 62,000 miles of underground pipelines alone would be around $275 billion.
Would Subsidies Help?
The free market doesn't support carbon capture. As the report notes, "In the current regulatory and fiscal environment, commercial power plants and industrial facilities will not invest in CCS because it reduces efficiency, adds cost and lowers energy output."
But not even that kind of government support will help either, says the IEA. Its report notes that all the current ideas -- cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, subsidies -- still won't be enough for funding and improving carbon capture.
Meanwhile, developed nations will likely need to foot the bill for developing world carbon capture projects. The governments of China and India, the two leading developing economies, remain skeptical about carbon capture, and are unlikely to fund a massive roll-out of the technology, at least not on their own.
That's why Norway and the World Bank are now talking about starting up a multi-million dollar trust fund for CSS in developing countries.
TreeHugger's John Laumer argues that the best way of exposing the faults of clean coal technology investment and construction -- as opposed to say, viable alternatives -- would be to let the coal companies try to turn a profit while implementing CCS. Thus, given the support CSS has received, skeptics should stop opposing CSS and instead demand that coal companies install the technology. "Let them try, watch them fail, and put this issue behind us," one commenter writes.
But that assumes that investment in CSS will come from the market. Already, much of it is coming from government -- money that could otherwise be spent on expanding renewable energy technology.
The Costs of "Clean Coal," In Dollars, Lives, and Coal
Clean coal, according to the report, is expected to cost $35 to $50 a ton; cleaner natural gas with CCS, $58-$66 a ton, and industrial uses such as cement, as much as $100 a ton.
To get there, notes the WSJ's Environmental Capital, the report begins
talking of $2.5 trillion to $3 trillion in "additional investment" through 2050. But the report throws trillion-dollar figures around with such abandon, it's hard to measure the true cost. A few pages later, for instance, the report estimates the "additional cost" of all the carbon capture projects in the world at $5.8 trillion.
Then there is the sheer physical difficulty of installing 3,400 carbon-capture projects around the world by 2050: That's an average of 85 projects per year, every year, till the middle of the century, or one every four days. Starting pitchers can't even keep up that pace to throw a few innings; imagine trying to make, move, install, test, and commission large-scale carbon-capture projects at that pace. And then find a place to put all those millions of tons of carbon dioxide.
Even in a place like China, which as the new Dept. of Energy study points out, has plenty of potential underground reservoirs to put its carbon, there remain worries about the unintended consequences of that kind of storage, from safety to future land rights issues.
And in China, coal extraction remains the number one workplace killer, with over 3,000 miners lost last year.
Another huge hurdle for capturing and storing carbon dioxide: it requires a lot more energy -- energy that itself may need to come from coal.
China Doubts Carbon Capture
In China, for instance, the added costs and energy required for carbon capture have created many skeptics among both officials and environmentalists, as the NRDC's Qian Jingjing noted in a recent blog.
That skepticism is based in part on realities in China's energy sector, where prices tend to be kept artificially low. Consider the country's high-tech coal plant scrubbers. The added costs of this technology leads plant owners to idle it while using the cheapest, dirtiest coal available, according to an MIT study last year. What's to stop "clean" coal-fired plant managers from cutting corners too?
"Carbon capture and storage, particularly for China, is not one of the priorities -- the cost is an issue," Su Wei, director-general of the climate-change unit at China's National Development and Reform Commission, told Bloomberg in August. More effective, he said, would be a similar investment in energy efficiency and smart grid development.
Mixed Message on CSS?
This is not the first time a study has made an urgent call for carbon sequestration and storage -- while also pointing out that it is miserably expensive and impractical. In July another report on CSS by MIT found that the U.S. will have to spend $1 billion a year for the next decade in R&D; on true clean coal plants, in addition to another $12 billion to $15 billion shared by industry and government to figure out how to convert existing coal plants.
"Get ready to spend a lot to save a little," said the WSJ blog.
Alternatives to Coal, and Clean Coal
Why is so much energy being poured into a technology that's untested, inefficient and mind-numbingly expensive when there are myriad other viable ways of producing clean electricity?
Proponents of CSS will point out that given its abundance, coal is going to be burned no matter what, and that these problems are precisely why more investment is needed.
Still, Greenpeace and others have put forward models that show that with enough renewable energy production, by 2020 China and India could halt coal production -- an industry that already costs China $13 billion a year in damages -- and begin phasing it out without giving up strong annual economic growth. A Harvard-Tsinghua study over the summer said that China could draw most of its energy from the wind until at least 2030.
The cost of installing that much wind power -- and, importantly, building out the electrical grid -- would be around $900 billion dollars (at current prices) over the next twenty years.
That's high. But considering the size of the Chinese economy, the need to build out the grid anyway, and the trillions mentioned around "clean coal," $900 million sounds like a pretty good price for cutting carbon emissions to within safe limits.
Not to mention that wind is already proven. Just to get clean coal plants up to a usable scale could take billions.