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Carbon Capture and Storage is Coal's Pipe-Dream

carbon capture effectiveness

A new study released recently at the UN climate conference underway in Warsaw, Poland finds that new coal plants cannot be built if we are to keep global warming below the 2° Celsius threshold.

That is, unless the coal industry can deploy commercial-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS). 

The report, titled: New unabated coal is not compatible with keeping global warming below 2°C, finds that of all the fossil fuels, coal is the easiest to substitute with renewable technologies and that:

“The current global trend of coal use is consistent with an emissions pathway above the IEA’s [International Energy Agency] 6°C scenario. That risks an outcome that can only be described as catastrophic, beyond anything that mankind has experienced during its entire existence on earth.”

In other words, CCS better work and work fast.

Down the road from the UN conference, the Polish government (of all people) is hosting the “International Coal and Climate Summit” which heavily features CCS experts and discussion panels. 

There will likely be little talk at the coal summit of just how ridiculous the idea of commercially deployed CCS is becoming.

CCS technology has been a “future” solution for many years now, with governments abandoning experimental projects due to cost overruns and lack of progress. Governments like the United States, at the behest of the coal lobby, have pumped billions into CCS technology experiments, yet it continues to fail as a commercially viable option. 

A recent study by the Global CCS Institute found that the number of large scale CCS projects has dropped to 65 from 75 over the last year. If this was the grand solution to the urgent issue of climate change, you would think we would be seeing more projects coming on line, not fewer.

Even if we saw a breakthrough in CCS, huge issues remain. The first hurdle is finance.

As renewable energy technology prices continue to drop and reach parity with fossil fuels like coal (something we are already seeing), CCS begins to make less and less sense from a financial point of view. Coal prices will inevitably go up to cover the costs of CCS development making it uncompetitive with renewable energy. 

A second big hurdle is regulation of carbon storage. CCS can only work as a solution to climate change if the captured carbon stays safely in the ground forever. So who is in charge of ensuring that all that carbon stays underground? Coal companies? If a coal company takes on that responsibility, what happens when that company goes under? Who then is responsible? Taxpayers?

What if there’s an earthquake near a carbon storage facility? A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science concludes that,

“even a small earthquake event in the US has the potential to release stored carbon back into the atmosphere, making “large-scale CCS a risky, and likely unsuccessful, strategy for significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

In the United States, the coal industry argues that the government (read: taxpayers) should take on the responsibility and the liability for stored carbon – a convenient stance for the coal industry.

Finally there are the logistics of capturing carbon and moving it either by pipeline, train or truck to a designated storage facility.

2008 article on CCS by author Jeff Goodell describes the challenge of transporting carbon best:

“Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba, Canada, argued recently in Nature that ‘carbon sequestration is irresponsibly portrayed as an imminently useful option for solving the challenge [of global warming].’ Smil pointed out that to sequester just 25% of the CO2 emitted by stationary sources (mostly coal plants), we would have to create a system whose annual volume of fluid would be slightly more than twice that of the world’s crude-oil industry.” 

Smil’s own words, to sequester just a fifth of current CO2 emissions:

“… we would have to create an entirely new worldwide absorption-gathering-compression-transportation- storage industry whose annual throughput would have to be about 70 percent larger than the annual volume now handled by the global crude oil industry whose immense infrastructure of wells, pipelines, compressor stations and storages took generations to build.”

Any practical thinker should by now be asking themselves: Wouldn’t it just be easier to put up a bunch of solar panels and wind turbines? 

Unfortunately, the mythical distraction of ‘clean coal’ and still unrealized CCS commercialization remain a shiny penny for the technocentric crowd.

Photo Credit: Carbon Capture Effectiveness/shutterstock

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Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on November 20, 2013

Considering the Vaclav Smil references on CCS, I suppose it is only fair to also take a listen to his views on the transition to renewables. Here is a good place to start:

The issue with CCS is simply that it is impossible to deploy without a price on CO2. It does not have the ideological appeal and easy modular deployment that enabled renewables to win massive FIT support, so the relatively slow development should come as no surprise. 

About CO2 abatement, I would like to copy in a previous comment to give some perspective: 

“Current industrial projects are storing about 23 million tons of CO2 per year (source). For perspective, consider that solar PV generated 93 TWh of electricity in 2012 (0.42% of the global electricity supply). If this 93 TWh displaced load-following natural gas at 0.4 tons of CO2 per MWh, the CO2 saving can be calculated as 37.2 million tons of CO2 per year which is in the same ballpark as current CO2 cuts from CCS. Of course it must also be considered that intermittent renewables increase the carbon intensity of thermal plants, thereby reducing their actual CO2 abatement advantages and that the PV push has helped drive Germany from gas to coal, thereby increasing the country’s emissions.

However, the global financial support for solar PV absolutely dwarfs support for CCS. The above-linked source states that global governments currently have $20.7 billion available for longer-term CCS deployment. For comparison, Germany alone (32.6% of global PV capacity) has already committed more than €100 billion to solar subsidies. This is a typical result of technology forcing – the same result is achieved at a ten times higher pricetag.”

Finally, if we are to somehow magically ban the construction of any further coal plants around the world, what else will fuel rapid catch-up growth in the developing world? (Note that this kind of growth requires steady dispatchable power at about $0.04/kWh, cheap and reliable cars at about $10000 a piece and industrial heat at about $0.02/kWh.) 

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on November 20, 2013

Exactly. It may well be a pipe dream and turn out to have some critical hurdle but at this stage, it is no worse than solar. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on November 20, 2013

Schalk, you quote the Global CCS Institute’s claim that

Current industrial projects are storing about 23 million tons of CO2 per year.

What mechanism is in place to verify the accuracy of this claim, made by an industry advocacy group?

There are a thousand paths which put invisible, odorless CO2 back in the atmosphere, and every one is more economical than pumping it into deep storage. At neither location can it be accounted for. It seems to me that the compliance issue is a stake in the heart of CCS, and it will never make a viable environmental contribution or ameliorate the requirement of generating clean energy in the first place.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on November 20, 2013

Our last discussion on this topic was on this article. Feel free to respond to my last comment there if you want to continue the thread. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on November 20, 2013

Schalk, frankly all of the remedies you offer are less realistic than CCS itself. Flow rate at the injection well? Inject air instead. Power consumption? No dependable correlation. Monitoring of the underground storage formation? Unpredictable, impractical. Concentration monitoring at regular distances along the pipeline? Expensive. Asphyxiation? Diffusion/dissipation would be trivial, especially in remote locations where CCS might be occurring.

In theory it would be possible to ensure that CO2 is going where it’s supposed to – at great expense. Is that happening now, and if not, why not? Though the industry claims that 23 million tons of CO2 are stored annually, they could claim twice that amount and we’d have no way to prove them wrong, would we?

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on November 20, 2013

Why would anyone compress and inject air when CO2 is compressed at the source and pumped into a pipeline leading all the way to the injection well? This would probably be more costly than simply injecting the pre-compressed CO2. Surely you cannot be suggesting that people can get away year after year with faking CO2 compression at the plant or putting up a fake pipeline to the well. 

There are a range of tools available for monitoring injected CO2. Sure, they will not be 100% precise, but they will certainly be able to detect sustained fraudulent behaviour. 

Safely diluting and decompressing a CO2 stream of hundreds of tons per hour while maintaining a solid pretence of constantly injecting CO2 underground would certainly not be a trivial exercise. I maintain that, since CO2 storage is a relatively small portion of the costs involved in CCS, this will simply not be worth the trouble. 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on November 20, 2013

Baseload coal with CC&S was only ever a possibility in those locations where people were determined to burn coal (i.e. coal mining towns).

As the EIA data shows, coal with CC&S at $0.136/kWh is not competitive with nuclear at $0.108/kWh.

On the other hand, if variable renewable penetration is high, then the grid will have a great need for “flexible generation” which will usually exceed the available hydro (the flexible generation also usually exceeds the renewables!).  So this means fossil gas fired generation.  If there is a price on carbon emissions, then combined cycle gas with CC&S would be a logical choice (EIA estimates $0.093/kWh, though unlike the nuclear case, this will not drop much with plant age).

Coal with CC&S would not be used at medium or low capacity factors in the renewable backup roll due to the high capital cost.

However, much of the flexible generation demanded by a renewable-rich grid will be simple combustion turbines, operated at very low capacity factor (<10%).  In this application, post combustion carbon capture would have a capital cost which is too high.  Again if there is a price on carbon, these combustion turbines might be run on H2 or ammonia, with these carbon-free fuels made from fossil gas or coal with CC&S.  In this case, the coal equipment would run at high capacity factor, with the H2 or NH3 stored until needed.

So yes, there is a place for CC&S in a renewable-rich grid.  The goal of economiclly complimenting renewables with energy storage instead of “flexible generation” is well beyond existing technology.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on November 21, 2013

Schalk, I still don’t have an answer as to how we can verify the claim that 23 million tons of CO2 are being captured and stored annually. In aggregate, it’s possible the techniques you describe may be effective at preventing fraud; as far as I know, none of them are being used.

This is reminiscent of renewables advocacy talking of bulk energy storage being just around the corner; of implementation being a minor hurdle; of wind and solar complementing each other to create, in sum, a replacement for fossil fuels. They’re unverified projections, none of which have come to pass.

Injection is only one phase of CCS where CO2 could be “escaped” and profits collected, and the €hundreds of billions at stake are certainly worth the trouble. Yet you seem entirely satisfied to accept the unverified claims of industry sources as authorization to write a check. While your explanation relies heavily on “would” and “will” – the CCS industry can do itself a big favor if verification techniques are demonstrated, and circumvention addressed.

Henry KB's picture
Henry KB on November 21, 2013

Carbon capture and storage can be unnecessary by now because most of the CO2 emissions can be reduced by just increasing conversion efficiency of current thermal power stations.—y5E2c

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on November 22, 2013

Monitoring CO2 storage is an important topic in the CCS field. A quick search on the Compendex academic database results in 150 publications about “CO2 storage monitoring”. Granted, most of the monitoring techniques being investigated and tested today are aimed at understanding the way in which the CO2 behaves once it is injected, but it can just as well be used to check whether the contracted amount of CO2 has actually been injected. Given these technologies (and all the other methods that can be used for CO2 accounting) I really don’t think the the risk/reward ratio for fraudulent releases of captured CO2 is anywhere near low enough to incentivise such behaviour. 

Sure, I cannot say that I am 100% sure that the entire reported 23 tons have actually been injected, but one can be sure that, should this issue ever become a problem, it will be quite easily contained via relatively simple regulation. Currently, I don’t think people are really thinking about this. To be honest, these conversations with you was the first time this thought ever crossed my mind.

But then again, can we really know the exact CO2 avoidance through any low-carbon energy technology? Intermittent wind and solar reduce the efficiency of thermal plants and influence electricity markets to make gas uncompetitive against coal, thereby resulting in substantial indirect emissions. Even gas and nuclear may have limited CO2 mitigation effects by lowering the price of coal so that it can be more cheaply burned in the developing world. For example, US coal exports are rapidly rising due to the shale gas revolution. 


Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on November 22, 2013

All the efficiency in the world is not good enough… unless clean sources are brought online, because of the massive ramping up of developing nations.

Replace coal with molten salt reactors coupled to the Brayton cycle and add NG for peaking (no inefficient cold starting, either). This set up allows the anticipated major expansion of solar and wind without the need for expensive storage. Should be cheaper, and easier to do than CCS.

The MSR can be used to make ammonia fuels, as wellas power the machine automation required for solar panels, batteries and excess CO2 clean up.

Henry KB's picture
Henry KB on November 23, 2013
Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on November 23, 2013

PV will be cheap but it does NOT need storage… that’s what the MSR is for because it is a high enough temp to be coupled with a typical Brayton engine so as to deal with all the variables associated with the grid. NG would also be used but not nearly as much as with the “normal set up” of renewables without nuclear.

Eventually, battery storage can be machine made for cheap to use in EV’s but it might be cheaper to use the nuclear to make NH3, despite the lower efficiency of the ICE engine.

Bty, nice to see another of Rod’s posts. I only “go for solar” (also) because PV will be cheap and can theoritically supply large amounts of power when machine made storage becomes cheap (in about 20 years).

Roy Wagner's picture
Roy Wagner on July 15, 2014

Here is one possible and defietly critical hurdle you will not find coming from Solar.

It’s not the storing of CO2 that’s the issue it’s the possibility of leakage afterwards.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on July 15, 2014


John Miller's picture
John Miller on July 15, 2014

Roy, sequestering carbon dioxide is definitely not without its environmental/safety risks.  Unfortunately your referenced BLM link does not appear to work.  What is the title and date of the BLM report?  The report I am familiar with (EISA 2007 Section 714 Compliance) also does a good job of covering some of the sequestering issues of concern; on Public/Federal lands.  

Roy Wagner's picture
Roy Wagner on July 15, 2014

Thanks John sorry about the link try this one.

Roy Wagner's picture
Roy Wagner on July 15, 2014

Something not working when posting this link whole thing below




Roy Wagner's picture
Roy Wagner on July 15, 2014

I will try one more time if this does not work (Google toxicity of CO2 ) basically fatal if over 5% of local atmosphere,

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