Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Will Clean Coal Work?

Yesterday the Washington Post ran a lengthy piece about the potential and technological limitations of "clean coal" technology. Essentially, clean coal is all about capturing carbon emissions and burying them underground. But with the best estimates predicting that the technology is still 6-10 years away from being commercially viable, there are still a lot of questions to be answered.

The Post reports:

"Coal companies and environmentalists alike are counting on a breakthrough in carbon capture and storage technology to siphon off harmful emissions from the world's coal plants. Coal plants in the United States account for a third of U.S. greenhouse emissions. In the past five years China has brought online coal-fired electricity equal in size to total U.S. installed capacity, and new plants are coming online in the developing world all the time. Without a breakthrough on coal plants, it may be impossible to meet emission limits climatologists say are needed.

Yet carbon capture and storage remains the elusive holy grail of the coal industry, an idea that could contain the damage inflicted by coal-burning power plants but a technology that remains expensive, energy intensive and largely untested. Even optimists say it will not be commercially available for another six to 10 years. Pessimists say it might take much longer, and may never be ready for widespread use without attaching a punishingly high price to carbon."


"But the AEP project illustrates the tremendous obstacles ahead. As big as it is, the equipment there will only capture the emissions from 20 megawatts of power generation, a meager 15 percent of the plant's output. Morris's predecessors were smart enough to buy lots of extra land at the West Virginia plant, but other coal plants would have trouble finding room."

"The huge carbon capture and storage devices are hugely expensive, too. AEP executives estimate that the cost of carbon capture for a modest-size coal plant of about 235 megawatts would start at $700 million. That works out to about $100 for a ton of carbon dioxide, far above the projections made by the Environmental Protection Agency about prices under a cap-and-trade scheme similar to one passed by the House in June. MIT put the cost of carbon capture and storage at $50 to $70 a ton. (The Waxman-Markey bill would give the first six gigawatts of plants -- equal to around seven average-sized plants -- a $90 per ton subsidy in the form of free allowances.)"