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My Dr. Strangelove Moment: How I Came to Love Clean Coal

I have been working on this blog post for a while, it has been a challenge to sum up my thoughts, especially since my views have shifted so radically in the last few years. Folks who know me are aware that I have been researching and writing about clean energy technologies for a few years now, and during that time I have been on a journey of discovery that has challenged me in many ways.

I recently returned from a two week barnstorming trip that took me to see the newest clean coal power plants that employ carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). CCS is the practice of physically capturing carbon dioxide molecules from the exhaust streams of large fossil fuel burners like power plants. The purified CO2 is compressed beyond liquid form into its supercritical state (sCO2) and moved via pipeline to locations where it can be injected underground permanently. This is all done to help prevent against climate change.

2015_06_30_kemper 2Kemper from a distance.

I visited the newly operational Boundary Dam plant in Saskatchewan, Canada that is now the cleanest coal power plant in the world. I also visited the Kemper IGCC plant in Mississippi that is scheduled to come online this year, though it is years behind schedule and billions over budget. I also visited test facilities in Alabama and Saskatchewan and got to see how all the technology works first hand. The facilities are big and complex and very expensive, but they work. Chemical solvents are used to extract the CO2, as well as all the other pollutants, out of the exhaust gases, leaving behind virtually no pollution at all.

2015_06_30_Kemper Kemper up close.

I used to be an enormous critic of CCS, I thought it was wasteful, needlessly expensive, and even dangerous. But I have changed my mind. I now believe that CCS is the indispensable technology for a clean energy system. As an environmentalist I now believe that clean coal is the most important technology we should be pursuing, a decade ago I never would have believed that I would have said that. My mind only changed though when I saw the value proposition that CCS offers, because it turns out that sCO2 is pretty damn useful.

2015_05_26_Boundary Dam

2015_06_30_Boundary Dam CO2 pipeThe Boundary Dam clean coal power plant in Saskatchewan, and me standing next to the CO2 pipe that exits the facility carry 3300 tons per day, over 1,000,000 tons per year.

Why clean coal? First of all, coal is not going away, energy demand is growing and we can build all the wind and solar and nuclear we want, but as long as we are still using coal without cleaning it we will not make the necessary progress towards stabilizing our environment. For all its lauded Energiewende program to promote renewables, Germany is burning as much coal as ever, so are we Americans, and the Indians, and the Chinese, and the Australians, and the British, and the Indonesians, you get the idea. Even with the recent surge in natural gas use displacing a lot of coal power generation I believe the pendulum will swing back towards coal after a while because fuel diversity is good, natural gas is historically price volatile, there is lots of demand on that gas, and coal remains cheap.

Secondly, coal resources are incredibly vast, with many stakeholders throughout society and around the world who are deeply invested, both financially and culturally, in seeing their local coal industries continue to thrive. All of these stakeholders: governments, businesses, universities, communities, would much sooner invest and invent and find a way to solve coal’s very real problems rather than let their towns and industries die. The death of coal has been announced very prematurely, necessity is the mother of invention.

For much of the world’s poor, coal is the primary resource they have available that might help them lift themselves out of poverty. I met some Navajo on my tour who were from the Navajo Nation in the southwest USA. Their reservation is the size of West Virginia, it is the largest of all the reservations in America. On the reservation they have 51% unemployment, hard to believe but true, over half the population out of work. They also have a large coal mine and some old dirty power plants that have been the source of problematic pollution for decades. The pollution raining down on the Native Americans has been held up publicly as a symbol of the social justice problems associated with industrial pollution by environmental advocates for years. Sierra Club and Earth Justice have made a campaign of shutting down these coal plants. Environmental regulations did finally succeed in forcing the plant owners to upgrade or shutdown.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the plant closure, the Navajo bought the mine and the power plants from the old owners. Why would they do that when they have endured so many decades of toxic pollution? Because the Navajo see the coal mine and the power plants as one of the few economic opportunities available to them. They want to build a new clean coal power plant that optimizes the coal resources and gives an opportunity for their community to survive. And they certainly care about the land, and intend to nurture the resources, not simply exploit them.

So can coal and coal mining really be clean? All technology is advancing and evolving, and that is just as true for fossil fuels as it is for computers and solar power. I visited a strip mine in Mississippi and what I saw was very impressive, and challenged my previously held perceptions of mining. Modern strip mines are going after low grades of coal, like lignite, that are widely abundant (1/2 of all the world’s coal is lignite) and historically cheap. And these strip mines, when properly managed, are doing their land reclamation all in the same process as the mining. Dig a hole, pull out the coal, fill it back, put the soil on top, plant grass and trees, protect the waterways. When they do it right it is a very impressive process. Of course we have lots of historical examples of it being done wrong.

2015_06_30_drag line2015_06_30_coal mine reclaimed2015_06_30_drag line bucketLignite coal mine at Kemper, Mississippi. Drag line for digging, a section of the mine already reclaimed with grass growing, and me standing next to a spare drag line bucket.

Underground coal mines are mostly uneconomic these days, all the easy coal is long gone, sending miners underground is dangerous and expensive, and modern technology does not require the high grades of coal anymore. This is why Appalachian coal mines have been shutting down for years, they been steadily losing market share to cheaper, and lower sulfur, coal strip mined in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. The Appalachian mines tried to compete with the strip miners by engaging the atrocious practice of mountain top removal, but there you can’t ever return the land to the way it was before.

2015_06_30_coal truckA coal mining dump truck.

There is a big difference in the way a clean coal plant operates and a conventional plant operates. Traditional power plants simply burn the coal to make steam which then turns a turbine to make electricity. These old coal plants extracted the heat only and wasted everything else as pollution. If there were regulations then different types of scrubbers were employed on the exhaust to limit pollution.

A modern clean coal plant employs so many scrubbers that it has evolved into a chemical refinery where every pollutant is captured and most are purified and converted into valuable commodity chemicals. I imagine a clean coal plant to be akin to a slaughterhouse where every last scrap of the animal is put to good use, nothing is wasted.  Properly done, there are hardly any emissions at all coming out of a clean coal plant.

Common products include gypsum or sulfuric acid made from the sulfur that once caused acid rain. Nitrogen compounds that form NOx and smog are now turned into ammonia, coal ash is sold for concrete, and even the CO2 is sold. A modern clean coal plant does not even need to make electricity, electricity is a low cost, low margin product. Rather than make power, coal can be turned into ultra-pure synthetic fuels that may prove to be much more profitable. And it is important to understand that all the scrubbers are integrated, CO2 is the biggest challenge to capture and it requires that all the previous steps be taken, so you cannot have carbon capture and still have sulfur or particulate emissions.

2015_06_30_Sask Power CO2 tester2015_06_30_CO2 captureSask Power’s new CCS test facility, Saskatchewan.

An additional benefit of these clean coal plants is the ability to use mixed feedstocks. Properly designed systems could blend various grades of coal with biomass and garbage. Blending biomass with coal while doing CCS dramatically improves the carbon footprint, even making possible carbon negative fuels.

So what happens to all the CO2 that is captured? CO2 emissions globally are enormous, around 33 billion tons. Industrial carbon capture could never get all of that, but for the sake of discussion let’s say industrial carbon capture can account for a third of total emissions, or 11 billion tons per year, still a huge number.

Initially most of the talk about CCS revolved around injecting CO2 deep underground into saline aquifers that can provide secure storage. The problem with this approach, and the source of my earlier criticisms is that there is no value proposition to saline injection, it is just waste disposal, no different than taking garbage to a landfill. Waste disposal creates no value for anyone, it just creates costs and long-term liabilities around monitoring and verifying the site, and there are risks that injecting CO2 can cause seismic activity similar to what we have seen from waste water disposal in Oklahoma.

2015_06_30_co2 injection_aquistoreCO2 injection well, Aquistore, Saskatchewan

Where CO2 does have value is for use in enhanced oil recovery, the practice of injecting CO2 into mature oil fields to help maintain pressure and production. It turns out that CO2 is incredibly useful in this application, and that oil fields could absorb hundreds of gigatons globally. Not only can CO2 be injected into conventional oil fields, but can also be injected into shale fields, coal beds, and undersea hydrate formations.

The prospect of linking up CCS with CO2-EOR is where things get very interesting, and governments around the world are beginning to catch on. CO2-EOR is a mature business in the USA, have been practiced since the 1970’s. The EOR industry has historically been constrained by a lack of CO2, there is much greater demand than supply. EOR operators have demonstrated sustained interest in acquiring the supplies of CO2 captured from CCS projects.

All of the commercially viable CCS projects are selling their CO2 to EOR operators. The revenues earned from the sale of CO2 are substantial and critical to the financial viability of the projects. Saline injection provides no revenues and creates liability issues, who pays the insurance? But oil drillers are quite competent at managing the CO2 injections, they have a long track record of experience and the science is well established that the CO2 will stay sequestered ultimately. It is true that much of the CO2 comes out with the oil but it is recompressed and recycled and sent back down again.

2015_06_30_Plant Barry CO2 pipeCO2 pipeline at Southern Company’s Plant Barry CCS test facility.

The size of the potential oil prize is absolutely enormous. There are hundreds of billions of barrels of oil that could be produced globally, while sequestering hundreds of gigatons of CO2. The challenge is getting the economics to line up. It still costs significantly more to capture CO2 than the market price it will sell for.  Oil company’s seem willing to pay around $25 per ton of CO2, but capture costs are at least $45 a ton if not much higher. Bridging this price gap will be critical to getting this industry to flourish.

A carbon tax of $25-$50 would probably go a long way to incentivizing CCS and CO2-EOR.

It would seem pretty ironic from an environmental point of view to address CO2 emissions by investing in the coal industry to do carbon capture which will then benefit the oil industry. In fact many environmentalists find the idea abhorrent. But I think this is where we find ourselves.

Renewables, nuclear power and efficiency will all be very useful in enabling us to sip fossil fuels rather than guzzle them. But I see no evidence that demand for hydrocarbons ever goes away, or that they can be replaced in broad swathes of heavy industry and transportation. At the same time we keep opening up new, ever larger, hydrocarbon resources like shale.

Capturing CO2 and recycling it back into hydrocarbon production in oil fields, shale, coalbeds, and hydrates might just be the counter intuitive solution we need.

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Discussions

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Jul 10, 2015 9:10 pm GMT

 

A carbon tax of $25-$50 would probably go a long way to incentivizing CCS and CO2-EOR.”

For sure, but will the U.S. have a fee on carbon in the foreseeable future? I don’t foresee it. At best, we will have EPA regulations, but we probably have to hope the price of renewables keep dropping and that the millenial generation starts choosing products from sustainable companies.We already see some of that happening with Apple, Google, and Facebook using renewable energy for data centers.

Congress, which is all but owned by the fossil fuel interests, will not act on carbon any time soon.


Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Jul 11, 2015 2:23 pm GMT

For all its lauded Energiewende program to promote renewables, Germany is burning as much coal as ever, …”

Which is a political decision not to stop burning coal.

The argument presented here that we won’t stop using coal boils down to we won’t stop, because to date we haven’t stopped. And we haven’t stopped because we haven’t seriously tried to stop.

According to this piece, CCS is doomed to fail as a path to a carbon neutral economy, because the economics of CCS depend upon its use in oil extraction, and when the oil that is extracted is burned, then carbon is emitted. So the prospectively economically viable CCS is actually CCSWOCEE … Carbon Capture and Sequestration with Other Carbon Extracted and Emitted.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jul 12, 2015 1:50 am GMT

Saying that Germany’s burning of coal merely reflects “a political decision not to stop burning coal” is disingenuous. The high penetration of wind and solar in Germany’s energy market require a high capacity of dispatchable power resources to back up the wind and solar when they’re not operating; coal was the only viable option that Germany had. They don’t have the natural gas resources that we have in the U.S.

Germany might have built pumped hydroelectric plants to provide the necessary dispatchable power for backing wind and solar resources, but that option was blocked by environmental opposition to building the new dams and reservoirs that would have been needed. They might have produced and stored large volumes of hydrogen by electrolysis and then run fuel cells to provide the dispatchable power capacity, but the industrial infrastructure to produce electrolysis and fuel cells at the scale required does not exist. Even if it did, the capital cost per kilowatt-hour of dispatchable energy would have been an order of magnitude higher than a dispatchable coal-fired plant, and the round-trip efficiency for delivered energy would have been only around 50%. There’s still interest in that approach, but it’s ongoing research. It will be decades before it can seriously challenge the economics of coal.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jul 12, 2015 3:14 am GMT

Well, Ed, I have to say you’ve got guts. Posting in favor of clean coal in this den of dueling advocates for renewables vs. nuclear is a sure way to get attacked from both sides. We don’t award much credit here for being realistic.

That said, and even though I’m generally on your side of the CCS issue, there are some important points, both pro and con, that you didn’t address. On the “con” side, the particular CCS technology used in the Boundary Dam project (amine scrubbing, if I’m not mistaken) takes a high toll on the plant’s power output. It increases the specific consumption of coal by about 33%. The good news is that there are somewhat better technologies coming along. However none are quite ready for commercial deployment.

Also on the “con” side, the total market for CO2 for EOR is small compared to the amount of CO2 emitted by current coal-fired plants. To tap even that market will require enormous capital investment in CO2 pipeline infrastructure. So even disregarding the issue that Bruce raises about increasing oil production, CO2-based EOR can never provide a basis for reaching zero carbon emissions. The good news: there’s another promising technology that you didn’t mention that might get us there. It’s CO2 plume geothermal. There’s a popular article about it here. Not the best from a technical point of view, but very accessible.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Jul 12, 2015 7:07 am GMT

Saying that Germany’s burning of coal merely reflects “a political decision not to stop burning coal” is disingenuous.”

Where did I say it was a “mere” political decision? If we collectively allow our industrial economies to commit suicide … and note that the proposal in this piece is that we commit suicide more slowly rather than more rapidly … it will be a political decision to do so. There is no “merely” about the fact that our societies may be incapable of doing what they must do in order to not self-destruct.

Germany might have built pumped hydroelectric plants to provide the necessary dispatchable power for backing wind and solar resources, but that option was blocked by environmental opposition to building the new dams and reservoirs that would have been needed.”

Or, in other words, made a political decision not to do so.

The fact that a political decision was made because of the political power mustered by various entrenched political interests does not change it into an issue of physical feasibility.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 12, 2015 7:42 am GMT

Ed, here we go again. You write:

The Boundary Dam clean coal power plant in Saskatchewan, and me standing next to the CO2 pipe that exits the facility carry 3300 tons per day, over 1,000,000 tons per year…

The facilities are big and complex and very expensive, but they work. Chemical solvents are used to extract the CO2, as well as all the other pollutants, out of the exhaust gases, leaving behind virtually no pollution at all.

What is the source of these claims/statistics? Do we have any way to verify them – independently – or are we forced to rely on corporate public relations to believe something totally at odds with economics is inducing the free market to act in an environmentally responsible manner (if so, it would likely be the first time)?

The unsolveable problems of CCS are manifold: 1) Compared to emitting waste CO2 to the atmosphere, CCS is a ridiculously expensive and elaborate process with an uncertain revenue stream; 2) Detecting the emission of an odorless, colorless waste gas to the atmosphere is virtually impossible, making CCS virtually impossible to enforce; 3) Even carbon captured for “enhanced oil recovery” purposes ultimately contaminates the environment with 2.7 times as much CO2 as it ultimately sequesters:

In the well-monitored Weyburn-Midale project, carbon dioxide from a Beulah, North Dakota coal gasification plant is pumped into Saskatchewan’s Weyburn and Midale oilfields. 34.5 million tonnes (net) of injected carbon dioxide had enabled recovery of an extra 222 million barrels of oil by 2008, according to the Regina-based Petroleum Technology Research Centre.37 When that oil was burnt, it will have resulted in the emission of about 95 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Hence, for each tonne of carbon dioxide injected into the oilfield, about 2.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide are eventually emitted from combustion of the oil recovered.

https://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publicatio...

More confirmation that CCS is nothing but the fossil fuel industry’s latest PR weapon to confuse/distract a gullible public, a cynical deception with the sole purpose of buying decades of additional viability for a dead-end, environmentally-irresponsible product.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Jul 12, 2015 10:07 am GMT

 

CO2 emission isn’t the only problem with coal. Even if you scrub out the CO2 and the particulates, and can pump the CO2 underground, having to burn 33% more coal means 33% more coal ash to be dumped somewhere.

Just leave it in the ground.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jul 12, 2015 2:49 pm GMT

Thanks for a great article, Ed. CCS is finally becoming a reality and it is great to read about your positive first hand experiences of this reality. 

I think many people will be very surprised at how quickly CCS scales when a technology neutral clean energy policy framework is finally put into place. The range of concentrated point sources at which CO2 can be captured is vast and the range of technologies available for both retrofits and new installations at sources of varying concentrations are continuously expanding and improving. 

Simultaneously, the CO2 utilization aspect that you often highlight is certainly gathering momentum. I also think it is safe to say that, under a technology-neutral clean energy policy framework, the rapidly rising CO2 supply will spark many new innovations. Currently, EOR is the leading candidate, but there are many other possibilities for utilizing the unique properties of CO2. Applications using CO2 as a working fluid in turbomachinery (geothermal cycles for extra storage capacity), as a physical or chemical agent in various energy storage schemes, as a carbon source in the broader chemical industry, and as a carbon source in biological applications are all showing great promise with much potential for synergies among each other and within the broader economy. 

Other classic points also deserve additional emphasis: 1) CCS is the best option for CO2 reduction in many direct industrial applications, 2) CCS is the best option for reducing emissions from existing long-lived infrastructure and 3) CCS is the only option for achieving negative emissions. According to the latest IPCC report, achieving recommended greenhouse gas concertation targets will be twice as expensive if CCS is removed as an option and possibly not even possible.

 

Let’s hope this year’s El Nino helps to speed progress towards a technology neutral climate policy…

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on Jul 12, 2015 3:26 pm GMT

Roger, the vampiric load for doing amine scrubbing is significant, but it is much lower than 33%, closer to 25%. But it is important to remember that these clean coal plants are not strictly power plants, they have evolved into chemical refineries that sell a variety of products, sCO2 is a value added product not waste. At Kemper, the expectation is that 60% of their revenues will come from chemical byproducts, only 40% from power.

I don’t believe that CCS will be the sole solution for resolving climate change issues, but I do believe that there is no solution for climate change that does not include a significant amount of CCS. The mitigation numbers simply do not add up without CCS. 

CCS will ultimately require an extensive pipeline network at continental scale, similar in scale to existing oil and gas pipeline networks. This network will link carbon sources with carbon sinks, most of those carbon sinks will be oil and gas production because that will provide revenue. There are many CO2 sources with much lower capture costs than coal plants such as ethanol plants, chemical refineries, and oil refineries that will be able to plug into the network.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jul 12, 2015 4:46 pm GMT

Fair enough. Not a “mere” political decision. But the fact that no viable alternative was seen is still significant. Advocates for shutting down nuclear plants and relying on renewables remain largely in denial about the consequences and costs of dealing with intermittency.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jul 12, 2015 5:06 pm GMT

25% of plant output for the scrubbing system equates to 33% increase in specific fuel consumption per net energy output.

For the newest and most efficient supercritical steam plants with 50% thermal efficiency before scrubbing, the numbers would be better. Less CO2 to scrub, and a lower fraction of plant output required to run the scrubbers. The parasitic load for an integrated (designed in) amine scrubbing system might be more like 18% of plant output, for a 22% increase in specific fuel consumption. Other technologies might be able to reduce the parasitic load by as much as 50%, but carbon capture is never going to be free.

I agree with your other points about the need for CCS as part of an overall solution, and the need for an extensive CO2 pipeline network.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 13, 2015 4:15 pm GMT

Schalk, what evidence do you have that environmentally-effective CCS is “finally becoming a reality” – the only kind which doesn’t make it cheaper to extract more oil/gas at the expense of climate – other than the unverifiable claims of the very companies which stand to profit from it?

I’ve had a lot of confidence in your analysis in the past, because it’s shown a remarkable amount of balance, logic, and references. Here, you write:

I think many people will be very surprised at how quickly CCS scales when a technology neutral clean energy policy framework is finally put into place…

Other classic points also deserve additional emphasis: 1) CCS is the best option for CO2 reduction in many direct industrial applications, 2) CCS is the best option for reducing emissions from existing long-lived infrastructure and 3) CCS is the only option for achieving negative emissions.

Possibly a grammatical error, but no one knows how quickly CCS “scales when a technology neutral clean energy policy framework is finally put into place” – until it happens. Maybe we’ll all be surprised at how quickly it “will scale”, but this comfortable substitution of present tense for future, of untethered hope for actual accomplishment, is a hallmark of disingenuous promotion (aka, hype). As are all three of the thoroughly unproven and hypothetical CCS sales pitches you label as “classic points”.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 13, 2015 6:10 am GMT

Edward, I think a good case can be made that CC&S will be important for cost effectively achieving very low CO2 emissions, especially in applications like concrete and steel production, and perhaps also for low-capacity factor peak electrical generation or syn-fuel production.

But in electrical generation, coal is used primarily as a baseload source.  Worse yet, the EIA estimates for electricity costs from new power plants leave little hope for coal with CC&S (for the 30% CF, Capacity Factor costs below, I have scaled the EIA data for the 85% CF levelized capital cost component and left the other cost components unchanged):

  • coal, baseload:  9.5 ¢/kWh
  • coal, baseload w/ CC&S: 14.4 ¢/kWh
  • nuclear: 9.5 ¢/kWh
  • gas combined cycle, baseload w/ CC&S: 10.0 ¢/kWh
  • gas combined cycle, 30 % CF w/ CC&S: 15.7 ¢/kWh
  • coal, 30% CF w/ CC&S: 32.3 ¢/kWh

I suppose an argument could be made that retrofits to existing coal-burning baseload plants might be feasible, but the above numbers suggest that in the enormously important developing nations, coal with CC&S is simply too expensive to be considered when coal is part of diversified portfolio (since coal tends to run at reduced capacity factor when either nuclear or especially renewables is included, which makes the economics even worse).

Even in wealthy nations like Germany, how can coal-fired peaking plants include CC&S?  Because of the high capital cost, coal with CC&S seems fundamentally incompatible with high penetration variable renewables.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Jul 13, 2015 2:17 pm GMT

 

Chemicals, heck, look at all that steel and concrete that had to be created — coke in the blast furnaces, CO2 from concrete includes both heating the carbonates and the CO2 driven off. Then both have to be hauled to the construction site by heavy truck. And you need a steel pipe to move the CO2 to the sequestration site, which in the case of EOR is not nearby. In fact, you probably have to truck the CO2 to the site.

Geez, what a loser!

 

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on Jul 13, 2015 3:01 pm GMT

Nathan,

You need to look at the political drivers and local resource cases that drive investment decisions on a local, case-by-case basis. There is no one single price for any type of power generation, they all vary depending on location. For instance natural gas prices fluctuate dramatically, Boston and New York City routinely pay much higher prices for gas than the Henry Hub price that is generally used in energy statistics.

Saskatchewan is a perfect example of why a regional government would make the decision to invest in CCS. Saskatchewan has coal and it has mature oil fields, but they don’t have natural gas in the province, nor good solar resources, they do have good wind though. For the regional govt it makes complete sense to invest in CCS and CO2-EOR because it supports two major industries in their province with significant employment and tax revenues, while helping to mitigate carbon emissions.

For Saskatchewan to invest in wind, and they do have wind farms, they must import natural gas from outside the province to match up with the wind. In this scenario the natural gas is fired in simple cycle turbines which are less efficient than combined cycle turbines (that are suited for baseload), and hence have higher CO2 emissions than combined cycle. In this scenario, CO2 emisssions are lower by doing 90% carbon capture on coal, than doing wind + simple cycle gas, plus two important local industries continue to stay in business. 

Other regional governments are starting to make the same argument. In England they see the opportunity to marry up their fading North Sea oil with their coal industry through CCS and CO2-EOR. The Western Governers Association in the USA also released a memo making the same case.

If your region has coal resources that you do not wish to see go out of business, and you have appropriate oil fields nearby, it is perfectly logical to invest in CCS and CO2-EOR. Of course other regions will make different decisons based on their local resource case. And none of these technologies are mutually exclusive options, you can have renewables and clean coal together. 

Here in New York where I live we could be using our own domestic gas in state to help lower prices and put New Yorkers to work, but the environmental lobby would rather shut the drilling industry down and force the state to import gas from elsewhere.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on Jul 13, 2015 3:12 pm GMT

I believe that CCS will scale quickly once the value proposition becomes clear, and that partly requires policy that forcibly limits carbon emissions. Canada has regulations now limiting CO2 emissions from coal power plants, and that drove the CCS investment decision in Saskatchewan. Canada is not a big coal country so the regulations were not as politically contentious there as they are in the USA.

If investors see that they can make money investing in CCS capital will pour in and infrastructure will get built. We have very elaborate infrastructures for rail, oil and gas, telecom, etc, which is largely built with private money (a lot of public money too). But there needs to be a solid business case for each link in the chain, every capture project and pipeline link needs to make financial sense or else it will never get done. But on the other hand if the business case is good, stuff will get built quickly and we need policy to push the needle or else business as usual will persist. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 13, 2015 6:39 pm GMT

Roger, the “CO2 plume geothermal” concept is an interesting one, but because it purports to recycle CO2 over and over again its value in terms of sequestration appears to be minimal/greenwashing.

From a standpoint of realism, that leaves the value of the phrase “clean coal” entirely bankrupt, except for its real potential for exploitation in fossil fuel public relations.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jul 13, 2015 6:59 pm GMT

Sorry if my comment came across as unbalanced, Bob. About the initial grammatical issue, I of course meant to say that it is my opinion that CCS will scale faster than most people expect when we get a sizable carbon price. This opinion is based on my current understanding of the matter as more elaborately detailed in my five-part CCS series here on TEC: (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

If you want to refute the three “classic points” I mentioned, please do so. According to my understanding of the matter, they are factually correct. Full CCS value chains have been demonstrated both for industrial applciations and retrofits. There is also little doubt about the technical feasibility of BECCS. 

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on Jul 13, 2015 7:19 pm GMT

Just to add a point. BECCS works perfectly with clean coal. Plants designed for lignite coal can readily take biomass at up to roughly a 30% blend (depending on the specific facility). Lignite has a very high moisture content, similar to biomass. The challenge on blending biomass with coal is mainly on the upstream side, getting the fuel handling equipment to work right (conveyors, grinders, storage, etc.).

Both Kemper and Sask Power reps told me they had done analysis on blending wood chips with their lignite and they believe it would work fine. Both regions have extensive timber resources.

I have seen some interesting analysis that shows that biomass-coal blends with CCS could produce carbon negative synfuels (instead of power).

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jul 13, 2015 7:22 pm GMT

Bob,

By your logic, forests are useless for sequestering carbon, because they only hold carbon for a short time. After that, it gets burned in one way or another — metabolism of animals that eat foliage or decay microorganisms, plus the ocassional forest fire — and the carbon sequestered goes back into the atmosphere.

What actually matters is movement of carbon between reservoirs, and the size of reservoirs into which we can move atmospheric carbon. CO2 plume geothermal creates new CO2 reservoirs. Once the reservoirs have been filled, the CO2 within them cycles. But filling them would “consume” large amounts of CO2.

Not to mention that the power generated replaces power that might otherwise be supplied by burning fossil fuel. Also, it’s dispatchable power, and can be used to back intermittent renewables.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 13, 2015 10:46 pm GMT

Roger, from a climate change standpoint, forests are essentially useless for sequestering the carbon we’re generating from consumption of fossil fuels. And not because they only hold carbon for a short time, because in aggregate they don’t – the earth’s biomass has sequestered on the order of 500 billion tons of carbon for eons.

Despite all the deforestation occurring contemporaneously, there is more biomass on earth now than there was 10 years ago, corresponding to 4 billion tons of additional carbon. But we’re currently spewing fossil carbon into the atmosphere at a rate of 10.9 billion tons per year – twenty-seven times as fast. So yes, I agree – what matters is the movement of carbon between reservoirs, and right now that net movement is overwhelmingly from Devonian fossil beds toward the atmosphere and the oceans.

The concept of CO2 plume geothermal makes sense to me, but the idea we could permanently sequester 11 GT carbon annually (~40 GT CO2, which in theory we’re going to be reusing) doesn’t add up, and makes it sound like another tool in the American Petroleum Institute P.R. bag.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 14, 2015 5:21 am GMT

Ok, good point.  We do need to have enough solutions on the table that every community accepts the conversion to low CO2 emissions.

But I think that the local jobs issues is really only relevant for products that get exported or imported.  When we are talking about local consumption (e.g. for energy), local productions is best for the local economy, and within that constraint, the lowest cost is best, and this implies the smallest total payrole, which implies less job creation is best.

So a dollar spent on power made from local coal is not more valuable than a dollar spent on local sustainable energy. In fact, the nuclear industry offers better quality jobs (better work environment, better worker health, etc).

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Jul 14, 2015 1:43 pm GMT

I’m just glad that biomass is finally getting good consideration in these discussions. The reason for me is simple: we have too much of it and we must manage it.

Basic geometry shows that a forest of many young, small trees will grow to a forest of few mature, large trees. Most of the trees in a growing forest will die and create fire and disease problems.

Yesterday morning I had to clear a healthy mature poplar tree that fell across our township dirt road after a storm the night before. A second large poplar fell the other way into the forest. Now an even larger basswood is the happy survivor. Only so many large trees fit in a given area. Basic geometry.

I don’t care how it is done. Argue about cellulosic ethanol, heating pellets, coal co-firing electric power, or any other concept. Biomass is not a singular solution, but it is a certainty that not managing biomass properly will be to our environmental detriment.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 15, 2015 4:10 am GMT

Regarding EOR (enhanced oil recovery), this TEC article says that EOR using methane injection is important for Iran already.

Presumably CO2 injections could be used instead, once the capture technology is matured.  This would start with CO2 captured from Iran’s power plants fired with fossil methane, and could conceivable grow to include CO2 resulting from hydrogen and ammonia production (either of which Iran could export via pipeline).

rex gaisford's picture
rex gaisford on Jul 17, 2015 9:43 am GMT

Great article! Its odd though that the one place in the world where the technology is forging ahead, investment capital is available and CO2 EOR is regarded as standard, is also the place where climate change denial is rampant.

Europe craves climate friendly energy, lothes and mistructs CO2 EOR and has saddled itself with an unworkable and illogical policy for CO2 emission control which can never work.

At the very least, in place of the current chaotic situation requiring the price of EUA to reach a stable tipping point to incentivise investment, Europe needs to issue time stamped emission control permissions on an annual basis, defined by a required emission tollerance (such as the IPCC), auction their sale to potential emitters and so directly control CO2 emission. Let the price of these coupons be what the market determins because the decline in CO2 emissions is then determined entirely by regulated supply and their price will not have any direct influence on the pace of investment. 

Bob Bingham's picture
Bob Bingham on Jul 17, 2015 11:51 pm GMT

The main comment here is ‘expensive’. All these plants are expensive to build and opperate and are using up billions of tax payers dollars to chase a myth. While the taxpayers money is being spent the coal companies can claim that new technologies are going to transform the industry and somehow burning a substance that is 80% carbon and full of tar and methane is going to become clean and cheap. There are cheaper and cleaner ways of making electricity and the burning of coal to make it is over. Bury it and get on with new industries. 

Spec Lawyer's picture
Spec Lawyer on Aug 4, 2015 4:26 pm GMT

I love unicorns.

 

But neither unicorns nor ‘clean coal’ exist without a lot of economically impractical special effects.  I wish that was not true but wishful thinking does not make something true.

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