Must Read: The Economist slams “The illusion of clean coal” as Congress, Obama seek to revive Futuregen

In two must-read articles, the uber-sober Economist magazine slams “clean coal” — aka carbon capture and storage (CCS), or carbon sequestration — as an “illusion,” and an expensive and potentially dangerous one at that.

 In an editorial, the Economist points out:

  • Tonne for tonne, CCS looks like an expensive way of cutting carbon. The cost of it may fall, but probably not by much, given the familiarity of the technologies it uses.
  • CCS is not just a potential waste of money. It might also create a false sense of security about climate change, while depriving potentially cheaper methods of cutting emissions of cash and attention–all for the sake of placating the coal lobby.

And a longer technology briefing makes points very similar to ones I have made many times, namely that CCS has huge cost, timing, scale, permanence, and liability problems (see “Is coal with carbon capture and storage a core climate solution?” and below).

First, however, there is another must-read article from the front page of today’s WP: “New Life for ‘Clean Coal’ Project,” which details efforts to revive the Nevergen Futuregen CCS project in Illinois.

Note to media: Triple kudos to the Washington Post for putting “clean coal” in dirty (air) quotes not just in the headline and the article’s first use of the term, but also in the figure caption. This should be standard practice for CCS since the myth of ‘clean coal’ died a long time ago.

Fundamentally, Futuregen died because it was mismanaged by the Bush administration and because the denial-driven coal industry was never sufficiently interested in saving itself from self-destruction to cough, cough, cough up the needed cash to keep the project going as costs rose, as the WP explains:

The reasons behind the Bush administration’s decision to kill the plant are the subject of two year-long probes — one by the Government Accountability Office and another by a congressional committee — that will be released this month.

Internal department e-mails and memos show that Bodman directed his staff to develop an alternative plan, exploring whether to scrap the large plant and replace it with five or six smaller plants to test pieces of the same technology. The e-mails show that staff members were skeptical of the new plan, dubbed “FutureGen Plan B,” which would call on the industry to pay a higher share of the cost.

“New money riding in to save the day seems unlikely,” said one e-mail. Staff members described the new plan as unworkable and came up with their own name for it — “the Frankenstein.”

I actually think that history may be incomplete. Remember, the cost of all coal plants were soaring since 2000 (see “Power plants costs double since 2000 — Efficiency anyone?“). So Futuregen costs were going to rise — and the coal industry would should have had to cough up more money — even under the original plan. But the industry seems to have a death wish — not just for humanity, but for itself (see “Like Detroit, the coal industry chooses (assisted) suicide“).

Now I should make clear that I’m not against doing serious research into the option of CCS (as a small portion of a much, much larger clean tech R&D program). That is particularly true because if CCS did prove practical and affordable, probably post-2030 when carbon dioxide prices are probably above $100 a ton, then you could cofire the coal with biomass (see “An intro to biomass cofiring“) — and end up with carbon-reducing or “negative carbon” electricity.

But I am against anybody thinking that CCS is going to be practical or affordable anytime soon, against people relying on the “false sense of security,” as the Economist put it, that CCS is likely to be a major contributor to national or global CO2 emissions reductions before, say, 2030 (if then).

Let me end with the WP figure, which is a good depiction of what Futuregen is supposed to be, followed by some excerpts from the Economist‘s sober technology briefing.



Money for nothing

The problem with CCS is the cost. The chemical steps in the capture consume energy, as do the compression and transport of the carbon dioxide. That will use up a quarter or more of the output of a power station fitted with CCS, according to most estimates. So plants with CCS will need to be at least a third bigger than normal ones to generate the same net amount of power, and will also consume at least a third more fuel. In addition, there is the extra expense of building the capture plant and the injection pipelines. If the storage site is far from the power plant, yet more energy will be needed to move the carbon dioxide.

Estimates of the total cost vary widely. America’s government, which had vowed to build a prototype plant called FutureGen in partnership with several big resources firms, scrapped the project last year after the projected cost rose to $1.8 billion. Philippe Paelinck, of Alstom, an engineering firm that hopes to build CCS plants, thinks a full-scale one would cost about ‚¬1 billion ($1.3 billion).

In 2005 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists that advises the United Nations on global warming, came up with a range of $14-91 for each tonne of emissions avoided through CCS. Last year, the IEA suggested that the price for the first big plants would be $40-90. McKinsey, a consultancy, has arrived at an estimate of ‚¬60-90, or $75-115.

Either way, that is more than the price of emissions in the European Union: about ‚¬10 a tonne. America does not have a carbon price at all yet. A bill defeated last year in the Senate would have yielded a carbon price as low as $30 in 2020, according to an official analysis. So CCS might not be financially worthwhile for years to come.

Analysts assume that the price of emissions will rise, as governments impose tighter restrictions, and that the price of CCS will fall, as engineers learn how to do it more cheaply. The IEA, for example, predicts CCS will cost just $35-60 per tonne of emissions reductions by 2030. McKinsey foresees a price of ‚¬30-45 when the technology is mature, some time after 2030.

That sounds about right — sometime after 2030, when the technology is mature and the CO2 price is high enough.

Fingers crossed

But these estimates entail some generous assumptions. McKinsey, for example, imagines that CCS plants will break down no more often than normal coal plants, despite their more complicated machinery. It assumes that the average cost of capital for CCS plants will be no more than 8%. And it projects that costs will fall by 12% for every doubling in capacity. That is roughly the same rate as for wind power, even though most of the processes in CCS are already widely used in other industries, suggesting that the scope for improvement is slender.

Greenpeace, a pressure group, argues that it is impossible to be certain that carbon dioxide will not eventually leak out of the ground. Carbon dioxide forms an acid when it dissolves in water. This acid can react with minerals to form carbonates, locking away the carbon in a relatively inert state. But it can also eat through the man-made seals or geological strata intended to keep it in place. A leakage rate of just 1% a year, Greenpeace points out, would lead to 63% of the carbon dioxide stored in any given reservoir being released within 100 years, almost entirely undoing the supposed environmental benefit.

Spills would also be a health risk, since carbon dioxide is heavier than air, and so can build up in low-lying or poorly ventilated spots. Earlier this year, Zurich Financial Services said it would offer insurance for CCS plants and storage sites while they were operating, and for a limited time thereafter. But CCS advocates all assume that governments will eventually take charge of reservoirs, along with all the monitoring costs and legal liabilities. America’s lawmakers went a step further, and agreed to insure the proposed FutureGen plant and to indemnify the firms behind it from all lawsuits arising from leaks.

Yes, that’s right, just as with nuclear power, you, the taxpaying public, will have to swallow all the risk of a catastrophic leak from CCS (see “How much of a subsidy is the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industry Indemnity Act?“).

Can we all agree, finally, that whatever it is, if ever it is, CCS ain’t clean.

12 Responses to Must Read: The Economist slams “The illusion of clean coal” as Congress, Obama seek to revive Futuregen

  1. Albert says:

    Thanks, I received an e-mail from my Senator this morning that touted “fossil energy research and development” (along with many good clean energy moves). I just replied, thanking her, and suggesting that she read the piece from today’s Economist magazine.

    Here is the relevant text from the e-mail I received:

    I have good news! The ARRA included over $41 billion to improve the way our country uses, produces and conserves energy. This will support projects such as the Weatherization Assistance Program, modernizing the electric grid, repairing federal buildings to increase energy efficiency, fossil energy research and development, energy efficiency and renewable energy research and many others. Securing our energy future is important. I supported this funding legislation because I believe in a sensible energy plan that promotes alternative energy and energy efficiency and reduces global warming pollution.

  2. Dan Hughes says:

    Relative to actions required to reduce CO2 emissions by the USA, Professor Pielke Jr. has posted an interesting homework assignment here: .

    The assignment is closely related to the Obama administration’s goal of reducing emissions to 15% below 2005 levels by 2020.

    All innovative solutions are welcomed, I’m sure.

    Thank you for taking time to consider making contributions to the approaches.


  3. paulm says:

    Gales set wind power record for Spain

    Fierce winds push north-west Spain’s wind farms to provide 40% of the country’s electrical power

    The peak of 11,180mw of electricity supply came mid-morning yesterday, as fierce winds swept across much of north-west Spain, where most of the country’s extensive wind farms are situated.

  4. CCS is so random and out of control. “No problem – put it into some rocks” We are so gullible to think that digging a deep enough hole will solve any problem.

    Any solution must be clearly defined and understandable by the average consumer. It should not contain magic. And should not have such a “cross your fingers” type of risk.

    We don’t have time to learn from our mistakes. And we can’t wait.

  5. Sasparilla says:

    I’m kinda hoping this thing gets built as it will give a glaring spotlight to all the real problems with CCS (no saying we don’t know about that yet..) and political cover when dealing that section of the political spectrum (which covers Dems and Reps). This is probably why the coal industry stopped pushing for this.

    It should be pretty obvious very few CCS plants beyond this prototype will get built…its just too financially unsound. But let them build this thing so everyone can see just how bad it is (and there’s no wiggle room).

    We just need Obama and the EPA to step up to the plate and say no new Coal plants without CCS from here on out. Forget waiting on the stupid Cap and Trade.

  6. David B. Benson says:

    Burn algae.

    Or put through an anaerobic digester and burn the biogas.

    Algae can daily double in cell count, so should obtain very much higher weights per unit area.

    Essentially caron neutral, but if paid enough (not much) the biogas could be sepearted into the burnable methane and the acid gas (almost pure CO2) which is then ready for sequestration. Doing the latter it is carbon negative (which is good).

  7. DB says:

    Do remember that ‘Mattoon is in the middle of Illinois’ and that Mr. Obama is also from Illinois. IIRC, he is also in favor of corn-produced ethanol.

  8. So what is the alternative to dumping CO2 underground? The energy required to crack CO2 into CO is 5.5 eV, approximately the same as water electrolysis.

    However, cracking using fossil power creates more CO2 than it cracks. So renewable power should be used to crack coal emissions. That would provide a form of energy storage for wind and solar, which otherwise would go to waste because they are too intermittent to rely on for baseload power. Carbon recycling, by simultaneous electrolysis (syntrolysis) of CO2 and H2O to produce syngas (CO + H2), could be the solution.

  9. Jim Bullis says:

    I am pleased to note in the second bullet of the article, the argument is put forward that:

    “CCS is not just a potential waste of money. It might also create a false sense of security about climate change, while depriving potentially cheaper methods of cutting emissions of cash and attention-”

    A similar argument applies to plug-in electric cars. That currently popular answer is also a potential waste of money that could mislead about the CO2 reduction benefits while delaying work on much more promising approaches. Connecting cars through the utility grid to coal fired power plants is less effective than simply implementing hybrid technology as represented by the Prius, and that hybrid technology is well proven. Then we could go much further by seriously addressing the aerodynamic effects.

  10. David B. Benson says:

    Wilmot McCutchen — Another way to dispose of CO2 is via enhanced mineral weathering.

  11. Nuclear power plant should demand the right to set monitoring sytem to lower dose and contaminated rate.

  12. Theodore says:

    I believe some CCS R & D must be subsidized before it can be required for all new coal-fired power plants. So go ahead, subsidize it a little (not too much) and then require it. Cost will become a non-problem. The higher it goes, the better solar energy will look in comparison. The CCS subsidy will be money well wasted.