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Can the coal industry be saved in spite of itself? Should it be?

By Joe Romm  

"Can the coal industry be saved in spite of itself? Should it be?"

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coal_on_fire.gifOne of biggest debates about climate solutions is whether coal generation with carbon capture and storage (CCS) is going to be practical and affordable on the timescale needed to avoid catastrophic outcomes. And, of course, there are many who don’t CCS is coal should be saved at all.

I am not in the second camp, but I doubt coal with CCS is likely to exceed one wedge (I’ll discuss this more next week). And we probably need 14 wedges to stay below 450 ppm. I have no doubt concentrated solar will delivery far more power than coal with CCS (see here) — two or three wedges are possible.

The coal industry has long been in denial about the reality of human-caused global warming, so they are woefully unprepared for what is to come. And the administration has botched Futuregen (see here), the centerpiece of its CCS effort.

Can Congress do a better job? The answer can be found in a new analysis by Bob Sussman and Ken Berlin for the Center for American Progress, “Maximizing Carbon Capture and Storage Under the Lieberman Warner Global Warming Bill.” Here is a summary:


Bob Sussman and Ken Berlin have analyzed the Lieberman Warner bill provisions to encourage early deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) at new coal plants. They focus on the “bonus allowance program” — which would issue free allowances to utilities who build plants with CCS based on the tons of CO2 sequestered. Their conclusion: this program would be very costly (between $68 and $110 billion through 2030) but would result in a small number of new plants with CCS (no more than 48 Gigawatts by 2030).

The reason for these large costs is that utilities would receive windfalls far greater than the added costs of CCS itself. Some one Gigawatt plants, for example, would receive free allowances worth $4.6 billion. These allowances would enable utilities not simply to finance the added costs of CCS but to offset emissions at existing coal plants, delaying reductions that would otherwise be required under the bill’s declining emission caps. Despite the windfalls received by specific utilities, CCS would not in fact be required at any new plant and conventional uncontrolled coal plants could continue to be built.

Sussman and Berlin argue that a better approach is to adopt an emission performance standard for all new coal plants based on the capture potential of the best performing technology, coupled with a program of subsidies that would offset the higher costs of CCS but not provide windfalls to utilities. These subsidies would derive from the revenues from auctioning allowances under Lieberman Warner, not from bonus allowances. Sussman and Berlin estimate that subsidies which cover the incremental costs of CCS as compared to conventional coal plants would enable construction of 150 gigawatts of new coal capacity by 2030, at a cost of between $28.7 billion and $96 billion, depending on the price of allowances. The emission performance standard would make it unnecessary to pay a premium to utilities to entice them to build CCS plants rather than conventional high-emitting facilities and would accelerate the research and development, demonstration projects and site testing necessary for early CCS deployment and advances in the technology.

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17 Responses to Can the coal industry be saved in spite of itself? Should it be?

  1. Earl Killian says:

    California passed a law, SB1368, which prohibited utilities from entering into long-term contracts for power produced with emissions greater than a natural gas baseload plant. Unfortunately, the California Energy Commission interpreted that language as 1100 pounds CO2 per MWh (499 g / kWh) instead of 800 pounds per MWh (363 g / kWh). I recommend that Congress set a numerical limit instead of letting the regulatory agency be too lenient.

  2. David B. Benson says:

    Of course, dry biomass can be fired in modern fluidized bed coal reactors. In some locations it is co-fired with coal. Using biomass with CCS is carbon-negative, not just (approximately) carbon-neutral.

  3. Earl Killian says:

    David Benson, co-firing percentages are usually small, and since CCS does not typically do 100% CO2 capture, it is unlikely that biomass with CCS is zero or negative carbon.

  4. Mark Shapiro says:

    To misquote Yogi Berra: “If you have to make a mistake, don’t make the wrong mistake.”

    I suggest that coal with CCS is the wrong mistake for three reasons:
    1 – It will always cost more than coal without CCS, hence the complex gaming you wrote about above.
    2 – You must store megatons of an asphyxiant underground safely, forever.
    3 – CO2 is only the last cost of coal. Mining is the first cost. We are literally removing mountains in Appalachia. You can watch from Google Earth or ilovemountains.org.

    Let’s expand the three good wedges: efficiency, renewables, and conservation.
    (And I can’t wait for your solutions to AGW; you’ve telegraphed them pretty well. Please don’t forget simple conservation.)

  5. Jade A. says:

    Screw coal power! No Bear Sterns-esque bailouts. Let the coal industry burn!

  6. David B. Benson says:

    Earl Killian — I agree that co-firing is currently ususally small. One the other hand, about 150 km north of here is a 75 MW electic generator fired entirely by forestry wastes.

    Firing nothing but biomass with CCS is certainly carbon negative so long as the fraction of CO2 captured is greater than zero.

    If the CCS captures, say, 80% of the CO2, then deriving 20% of the CO2 from biomass is the carbon neutral breakeven point (without going into great detail regarding why somewhat more than that is necessary for breakeven).

  7. Earl Killian says:

    David, let’s illustrate this with an example just to get a feel of it. Say we have a 500 MW supercritical pulverized coal plant as described in MIT’s The Future of Coal. It takes 185 tonnes per hour of coal to feed it and it generates 415 tonnes CO2 per hour (830 g CO2/kWhe). I then do 90% CCS. Now I burn 243 tonnes of coal per hour and emit 55 tonnes per hour of CO2 (109 g CO2/kWhe)–it takes a lot of coal to power CCS–and bury 491 tonnes per hour of CO2. To make this carbon neutral I need to replace 25 tonnes per hour of coal with a carbon-neutral fuel. If I used biomass, which is usually not carbon neutral, I will need even more. Compared to the original 185 tonnes per hour, the carbon-neutral fuel requirement is 13%.

    Since biomass tends to be harvested once or twice a year, this is a lot of biomass that we need to store at the coal plant waiting to burn. I suspect replacing 25 tonnes of coal per hour represents a lot more biomass. Even if 1 for 1, it is 219,000 tonnes for a year’s supply. I am not saying it’s impossible to do; I am just trying to get a feel of the scale of things.

  8. Paul K says:

    Isn’t the difference that the carbon in biomass is already in the active carbon cycle while coal, until dug up, is permanently sequestered?

  9. Jared Gellert says:

    I think it is much simpler to just ban the construction of new coal plants that don’t sequester carbon. That will be an effective ban against any new coal plants, because plants with CCS can’t compete economically with concentrated solar, wind or eventually wave power. And I’m all in favor of simple solutions that we non-scientists can understand.
    We need to be very clear that increased demand for energy based on economic growth must be met by making the economy less energy intensive. That’s easy to do with efficiency and conservation. Efficiency is, without a doubt, the lowest hanging fruit.
    The next step will be to phase out all coal plants, as we decrease our electricity usage because of efficiency, and also build renewable sources.
    My reservation about cap and trade is that we need to keep this simple, and, as illustrated here, cap and trade can get really complicated very quickly.

    Thanks for this blog. As a newbie at this, the blog and your book are very valuable.

  10. Kiashu says:

    Assuming of course that we can get CCS to work. Which I doubt.

    Liquefying the CO2 takes energy, too. About a third the energy the plant produces, for a coal-fired one.

    1. Coal-fired station produces 1kWh and 1.325kg CO2.
    2. 1.325kg CO2 captured and stored by liquefaction plant, using 1.325kg x 0.252kWh/kg = 0.334kWh.
    3. 0.667kWh goes on to be used.

    And so, accounting only for the emissions due to burning of fossil fuels in the generator, and only for the energy required for liquefaction of the resulting CO2, we find that a third of our energy generated would go to CCS; we spend a third of our energy cleaning up after the other two-thirds. So with widespread CCS with our coal-fired plants, we’d have to either cut our electricity use by one-third, or else increase the amount of generation by 50%.

    Which seems both unwise and unlikely…

  11. David B. Benson says:

    Earl Killian — Nicely done, thank you. To put the biomass supply requirement in perspective there is a demonstration reactor in The Netherlands which produces 75,000 tonnes of torrified wood pellets from forestry wastes for co-firing with coal. The Netherlands will have at least one more about the same size.

    A recent position paper suggests that South Carolina can produce, economically, enough torriffied wood from forestry wastes to meet 10% of the state’s requirement for coal to generate electricity. (So boosting that to 13% would be fairly easy, just include some agricultural wastes.)

  12. David B. Benson says:

    Earl Killian — Regading storage, utilities lke to keep a 6 months supply of coal on hand. Using a suitable non-degrading biomass, such as torrified wood, immediately mixing that supply in with the supply of coal ought to solve the preservation problem. Indeed, even once-yearly agricultural wastes could be handled similarly.

    So I don’t see storage as being a major issue.

  13. David has it right.

    If Joe’s arguments, and Jim Hansen’s, that we are already in dangerous CO2 concentration territory are correct, then we have to draw the total down. Providence has, remarkably, given us an escape hatch. We can either harvest or burn biofuels with the express purpose of burying them solid or liquid. This will certainly not be cheap compared to just burning coal, but if there’s an energy residual it will be worth it.

    Nothing will be cheap compared to what we are used to, but it will still be very cheap compared to animal or human muscle power. If we are smart we can and will take this opportunity to save ourselves.

    What we really need to resolve is how to keep this engine running and still feed everybody.

  14. David B. Benson says:

    Paul K — Precisely so. Burning biomass is carbon neutral. Sequestering any non-zero portion the resulting CO2 makes the total proscess carbon negative, removing carbon from the active carbon cycle.

    That said, the colection and transportation of the biomass probably makes use of fossil energy just now. So to counter that requires that a somewhat largeer fraction of the resulting CO2 has to be sequestered.

  15. Earl Killian says:

    David Benson, so if you substitute for 13% of the coal, then coal+biomass+CCS is 211 tonnes/h, vs. the original 185 tonnes/h for the coal consumption. So we need to remove 14% more mountains to feed this beast.

  16. David B. Benson says:

    Earl Killian — Or that much more biomass (which I would find preferble on many grounds).

  17. Earl Killian says:

    David Benson, when NREL was talking about biomass co-firing in a report, they indicated that distance (which is related to the amount of land area required to capture sunlight using less than 1% efficiency) made the quantities of biomass being contemplated uneconomic. Here is a cut-and-paste of the paragraph:

    “This analysis examined power generation for two fossil based technologies, coal-fired power production and natural gas combined-cycle (NGCC), and two biomass technologies, a biomass-fired integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) system using a biomass energy crop, and a direct-fired biomass power plant using biomass residue as well as a biomass residue/coal cofired system. Each system includes the upstream processes necessary for feedstock procurement (mining coal, extracting natural gas, growing dedicated biomass, collecting residue biomass), transportation, and any construction of equipment and pipelines. For the cases where CO2 is sequestered, the CO2 is captured via a monoethanolamine (MEA) system, compressed, transported via pipeline, and sequestered in underground storage such as a gas field, oil field, or aquifer. The power generation capacity of each system examined was kept constant at 600 MW. For the biomass power systems, it was assumed that several small plants
    are needed to achieve 600 MW of electric capacity. This is because large transportation distances make biomass power uneconomical at large scales.”