Clean coal in Canada and climate clamor

The word from Canada's most rectangular province is that Saskatchewan could soon be home to North American's first "commercial-scale, coal-fired power plants that would produce virtually no greenhouse gas emissions." The estimated $2 billion plant will capture its carbon dioxide and pump it into nearby oil wells. Sound like a good idea. But whether it actually makes environmental or economic sense hinges on the outcome of one of the most contentious debates in the climate change mitigation field.

SaskPower hasn't yet decided whether to go ahead with the project. There's a reason why no one else is leading the way: it's not cheap. As the Globe and Mail reports,

[SaskPower] is a Crown corporation, with a far greater ability to flow through additional costs to ratepayers than the privately owned utilities in neighbouring Alberta, which are also examining the feasibility of clean coal.

Still, the provincial utility has a responsibility to deliver the lowest-cost electricity to its customers, and observers say it wants to ensure it does not get saddled with a white elephant that would unnecessarily drive up power costs.

"The hurdle they've got, of course, is cost," said Malcolm Wilson, director of the energy and environment program at the University of Regina.

SaskPower has indicated that it could get the same output of electricity from a high-efficiency coal plant for half the capital cost, not including revenues from the oil companies. It must decide whether the potential revenue stream and the possible cost of reducing emissions in the future justify the additional cost now.

Mr. Wilson said it is not clear that the oil fields of southeastern Saskatchewan can handle the 8,000 tonnes per day of CO2 that a coal-fired power plant would produce.

Indeed. There's a lot that's not clear about carbon capture and storage (or sequestration). This would be an example of putting a fair bit of faith in an untried technology.

The same argument pops up in a review by Clive Hamilton of George Monbiot's Heat, an ambitious and scrupulously researched attempt to figure out how to reduce global carbon emissions enough to avoid catastrophic climate change. Monbiot reluctantly concludes that we can't rely completely on renewables to cut our emissions by 90 % between now and 2030, which is what we need to do to keep the temperature rise from global warming below 2 degrees C. Therefore we have no alternative but to capture and store carbon from natural gas and coal combustion.

Writing a rebuttal to Hamilton's review, both of which appear in the May/June edition of New Left Review, Monbiot sums up his thinking:

Unless we discover a magical new source of fuel, it comes down to an unfortunate choice between nuclear power and burning fossil fuel with capture and storage.

I am less hostile to nuclear power than I used to be. I no longer believe that uranium is about to run out or that the safe disposal of nuclear waste is impossible. But every state which has sought to develop a nuclear weapons programme since the non-proliferation treaty was signed--Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iraq and Iran--has done so by diverting resources from its civil nuclear programme. Like most of the world's people, I would like to see complete multilateral nuclear disarmament. This is almost impossible while fissile materials are still processed for use in nuclear power stations. Eisenhower's programme for beating the nuclear sword into the nuclear ploughshare has achieved just the opposite.

So I place nuclear power second on my list of preferences. My first choice is the burning of natural gas with carbon capture and storage, and my third the burning of coal with CCS.

Hamilton, executive director of the Australia Institute, a left-wing tank, takes issue with Monbiot's apparent faith in what is, after all, unproven technolgy:

As a solution to global warming this is a political ruse first and foremost--even its supporters concede that it will not make a significant difference to global emissions for 15-20 years, and it is likely to be more expensive than existing alternatives. Monbiot should know better than to give it his blessing; after all, both the Bush Administration and the Howard government in Australia have put most of their policy eggs in that basket.

To which Monbiot responds:

... the real ruse is to pretend that no ugly technology has to be selected: that a modern economy can be run on carrot juice and wishful thinking.

Monbiot's Heat is a remarkable and worthy read, and he is bang on to remind readers that there are always sacrifices to made. (I wish opponents of wind turbines would realize that there is no perfect, universal answer.) But Hamilton is correct to highlight the flaw in relying on CCS. First, even the 15-20 year period required before it comes on line is wistful. It takes almost that long to plan, review, approve, commission and build most plants. And even the most optimistic projections of the technology put it 10 years away before we've got the kinks worked out.

The problem is, if Monbiot's time-frame is accurate, we don't have that kind of time to get moving.

Second, although it might make sense in Saskatchewan (probably not, but for the sake of argument), it doesn't in most other places. If CCS is to be at all economic -- cheaper that the alternatives, like storing wind or solar-generated electricity in hydrogen fuel cells during off-peak hours to supply uninterrupted power during calm and dark period -- the plant has to be close to both the consumer and storage point. Big cities near oil wells are such sites. Most of the east and west coast of North America are not.

One must be careful not to discount the importance of transmission loss over long-distance power lines. It makes no real difference if you're generating power from hydro dams as your electricity is effectively free, once the cost of the dam is paid off. But coal-fired plants will always require coal. So efficiency decrease will cut into profits. And for the foreseeable future CCS technology will add considerably to the cost of the plant.

Finally, as has been said so many times before, there is no such thing as clean coal. Not so long as we're removing mountains to get at it. There is no more destructive, polluting and filthy a way to collect the fuel for a power plant. And no amount of fancy CO2 scrubbing gear will change that. As Hamilton notes, clean coal is just a desperate ploy by the entrenched fossil fuel industry to stay in the game.

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There are other potential CO2 reservoirs than oil fields. The advantage of using an oil field is that the CO2 helps in the process of getting more of the oil out of the field. Thus the oil company is likely to pay a significant fraction of the disposal cost. If this technology is going to available in any sort of reasonable at least a few at-scale plants have to be built and operated. The additional cost of such technology is estimated at roughly 3cents per KWhour. It is a large percentage increase in the cost of power at the power plant, but
a relatively modest cost for most end users since the cost of transmission dominates.

Short of avian flu wiping out 75% of the worlds population, there is no way we are going to reach Monbiot's target. I think this tech is absolutely neccesary, if for no other reason than the large amounts of coal which will be hard for China, and India (notwithstanding ourselves) to resist using. I wouldn't be surprised if in a few decades we begin doing CCS with Carbon derived from biomass, and having this sort of technology available would be a big step towards being able to do that.