The Island of Doubt

In the past week both Canada and the UK have announced a phase-out of conventional coal-fired power plants. Could this be the beginning of the end? Are we seeing the first stages of a global moratorium? Too soon, to tell of course. But it’s encouraging.

First, came the British news:

Any new coal-fired power stations built in Britain will have to be fitted with cutting-edge technology to capture their carbon emissions, the Government announced yesterday in a revolution in energy policy.

As the technology is in its infancy and still unproven, new generating stations would have to be built from scratch with demonstration plants attempting to capture emissions from about 300 megawatts of capacity, or about a quarter of a typical big plant’s output. But after 2020, as long as the technology had been proven, CCS would have to be retro-fitted to all new stations to cover the whole of their emissions, [Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed] Miliband said.

That’s just about what Jim Hansen has called for: an immediate moratorium on construction of any new plants that don’t include CCS technology, and dismantling of any plants without it by 2020.

In Canada, the news is similar:

The federal government is planning sweeping new climate-change regulations for Canada’s electricity sector that will phase out traditional coal-fired power.

Any new coal plants will have to include highly expensive – and unproven – technology to capture greenhouse gas emissions and inject it underground for permanent storage, Environment Minister Jim Prentice said in an interview yesterday.

The concept is that, as these facilities are fully amortized and their useful life fully expended, they would not be replaced with coal,” the minister said.

He added that coal would be an option if it produced near-zero greenhouse gas emissions. The minister was attending a meeting of major emitting countries in Washington.

As commercially viable CCS is at least 15 years away (and like fusion power, probably always will be), it looks like it might be time to start dumping stock in any utilities heavily invested in coal. Even if there is a breakthrough in CCS sooner than expected, it’s going to make coal far more expensive than most of the alternatives.

Note that the plants considered for demonstration CCS in the U.K. are close to depleted oil and gas beds under the North Sea, making it easy to take care of the storage part of the equation. Some U.S. plants enjoy comparable advantages, but most do not.

In both countries, we’re talking about relatively low-hanging fruit. the U.K. used to have a monstrous coal industry, but Margaret Thatcher took care of that (for reasons that had nothing to do with climate change). In Canada, most coal-fired plants are scheduled for decommissioning by 2020 or 2025, and coal only supplies 18 percent of the country’s electricity, so it’s not too difficult to imagine a coal-free Canada by 2020, regardless of CCS evolution.

In the coal-reliant American states, the political inertia is considerable, but if a way can be found to compensate the Virginias then I’d say the writing will be on the wall in the U.S., too.

Comments

  1. #1 M. Simon
    April 29, 2009

    Rolling electrical blackouts will cure the anti-coal madness. That and the fact that we are in an, unpredicted by the most accurate computer climate codes, cooling period. Not to mention that the climate models did not predict the very low sunspot numbers currently in effect. And why should that matter? A number of previous cooling episodes (including the little ice age) were accompanied by low sunspot numbers. No climate scientist can explain the correlation.

  2. #2 David Marjanović, OM
    April 29, 2009

    Simon: citations for each of your claims, or it didn’t happen.

  3. #3 Tom Blakeslee
    April 29, 2009

    There is a way to clean up coal in just a few years: Convert the plants to burn clean, carbon neutral biomass.
    If you don’t want to convert the power plants use E-coal, which is biomass that has been torrefied to make a coal substitute.

    http://www.clrlight.org/CleanCoal.htm
    http://www.newearth1.net

  4. #4 Russ Finley
    April 29, 2009

    Have you seen this from Nature?

    http://www.greencarcongress.com/2009/04/climate-crunch-20090429.html

    “…That to Limit Global Warming to 2 °C, Less Than 25% of Proven Fossil Fuel Reserves Can be Burnt Between Now and 2050…”

    I posted on this topic just this morning:

    http://biodiversivist.blogspot.com/2009/04/coal.html

  5. #5 Richard
    April 29, 2009

    James…

    If Jim Prentice is serious, it will actually be the first real announcement he’s made wearing his Minister of the Environment hat. (I gave him a Double Dumb Ass Award last week). Time will tell… So far, his government has been a disaster for Canada on climate change issues.

    When Canada’s Conservative government first announced (last year) they wouldn’t approve new coal-fired plants after 2012 without CCS, I figured it was a sly wink telling power companies to start building RIGHT NOW.

    But Obama is changing the political dynamic in Canada.

    PS: Enjoy your style; we have very similar backgrounds. I’ll add you to my blogroll.

  6. #6 Nils Ross
    April 30, 2009

    Come on David (#2). We all know climate deniers haven’t READ any of the literature. They go off what the nearest vested interest group told them.

  7. #7 Nomen Nescio
    April 30, 2009

    “clean coal” is an oxymoron. the most i would expect to see come out of such policies as these would be a few years of delay in building any new conventional coal plants, while the industry lobbies for exemptions to the policies — or to have the policies set aside entirely.

    the best possible outcome would be to have fossil-fuel plants converted to biogas or biomass burners, but i’m not holding my breath for that.

    pronouncing that any new coal power plants will have to use “clean coal” technology is sort of like proclaiming any new cars will have to run on “clean hydrogen”; a pipedream that’s more likely meant to distract attention from the real situation than it is to remedy any real-world problems. neither technology is ready for deployment, so using them for political footballs at this stage is not about deploying clean technology, it’s about something else.

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