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.