Coal Will Still Be King

But can capturing and storing it make it climate friendly?


"Coal plants are factories of death," declared NASA climate modeler James Hansen in a letter to President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Last year, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), now chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, introduced the "Moratorium on Uncontrolled Power Plants Act of 2008." That bill would have placed a moratorium on issuing permits for new coal-fired power plants that don't have the ability to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions. Since that technology is still being tested, it means that no new coal-fired power plants would have been permitted. In early 2008, Obama told the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle, "If somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can. It's just that it will bankrupt them because they're going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that's being emitted."

Why the opposition to coal? After all, the U.S. is energy independent with respect to this resource, with 275 billion tons in proven reserves, which is more than enough to meet our energy needs for hundreds of years. The chief problem is that burning coal produces carbon dioxide emissions which are warming the planet. Burning coal emits 10 percent more carbon dioxide than oil and 60 percent more than natural gas.

Currently, coal-fired plants produce just under 50 percent of America's electricity. Renewables, other than hydroelectric, produce 3.4 percent of our electric power. So are coal's days numbered? Not at all. The Energy Information Administration's 2009 Annual Energy Outlook report projects that the U.S. will build an additional 46 gigawatts of coal-fired electricity generation capacity (about 75 new plants) by 2030. This projection is highly variable since it is down 100 plants from the EIA's 2008 projection. The U.S. currently has around 1500 coal-fired electric generation plants. Putting this relatively slow increase in the number of coal-fired plants into perspective, the EIA forecasts that coal's generation share will drop from 49 percent to 47 percent between 2007 and 2030. In other words, the U.S. will be using coal to produce electricity for a long time to come.

Some environmental activists are reconciled to this fact. In 2007 congressional testimony, Eileen Claussen, head of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change noted, "Coal is cheap and plentiful, and the United States is going to use it for the foreseeable future." Last year at a conference in China, fierce climate change activist John Holdren, who is slated to become President Obama's new science advisor, also favored "us[ing] the world's abundant coal resources," noting that that has to be done "without intolerable impacts on regional air quality, acid rain, and global climate." Even Obama, in a speech at the Detroit Economic Club in 2007, declared, "We'll also need to find a way to use coal—America's most abundant fossil fuel—without adding harmful greenhouse gases to the environment."

So how can power producers burn coal without emitting greenhouse gases? Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is supposed to be the answer. With CCS the idea is that carbon dioxide is kept out of the atmosphere by capturing it and then injecting it underground. However, CCS is still a speculative technology. Can carbon dioxide be captured? Can it be injected underground safely? And how much would CCS boost the price of electricity to consumers?

The good news is that researchers have developed a number of promising technologies for capturing carbon dioxide before it is emitted from power plants. However, CCS is not yet commercially deployed. The Norwegian oil company Statoil injects about 1 million tons of carbon dioxide annually into sediments under the North Sea. The European energy company Vattenfall has just built a test facility to pump carbon dioxide from a power plant outside Berlin into a saline aquifer 2,600 feet below the earth's surface. In the U.S., the Bush administration nixed the Department of Energy's FutureGen CCS project last year after its costs soared from $1 billion to $1.8 billion. There are rumors that the Obama administration will shortly revive FutureGen.

Coal is cheap, but CCS is not. Currently, Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) estimates suggest that the cost of electricity from new coal plants designed for CCS will be 40-80 percent higher than from conventional coal-fired electric power plants. It's not just the extra capital costs, but also the additional 30 percent of energy it takes to capture, compress, and transport the carbon dioxide emissions. EPRI analysts believe that it might be possible to cut the energy penalty from 30 percent to 15 percent eventually.

Assuming that CCS turns out to work, it will take decades to deploy in new coal-fired plants and to retrofit old generation facilities. In addition, moving carbon dioxide around from power plants to locations where it can be stored geologically will require constructing a pipeline infrastructure that rivals the hundreds of thousands of miles of gas and oil pipelines. While there might be a moratorium on new coal-fired plants in the U.S., the rest of the world will not be joining it. The International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook 2008 projects that fossil fuels will still account for 80 percent of the world's primary energy production in 2030. Nearly 90 percent of the increase in world electricity demand will be driven by the economic growth of developing countries, especially that of China and India. In other words, coal will still be fueling civilization for the next couple of generations.

Ronald Bailey is Reason magazine's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.