Thursday, March 27, 2014

Renewables Aren’t Enough.  Clean Coal Is the Future

Global electricity sources and output (Credit: Click to enlarge.
Many energy and climate researchers believe that carbon capture and storage (CCS) is vital to avoiding a climate catastrophe. Because it could allow the globe to keep burning its most abundant fuel source while drastically reducing carbon dioxide and soot, it may be more important—though much less publicized—than any renewable-energy technology for decades to come.  No less than Steven Chu, the Nobel-winning physicist who was US secretary of energy until last year, has declared CCS essential.  “I don’t see how we go forward without it,” he says.

Even though most of the basic concepts are well understood, developing reliable, large-scale CCS facilities will be time-consuming, unglamorous, and breathtakingly costly. Engineers will need to lavish time and money on painstaking calculations, minor adjustments, and cautious experiments.  At the end, the world will have several thousand giant edifices that everyone regards as eyesores.  Meanwhile, environmentalists have lobbied hard against the technology, convinced that it represents a sop to the coal industry at the expense of cleaner alternatives like solar and wind.

As a consequence, CCS is widely regarded as both critical to the future and a quagmire. At a 2008 meeting of the Group of Eight, the assembled energy ministers lauded the critical role of carbon capture and storage and “strongly” backed an IEA recommendation to launch “20 large-scale CCS demonstration projects” by 2010.  But the number of such projects around the world is actually falling—except in China, which has a dozen big CCS efforts in planning or production.

It is perhaps appropriate that China should take the lead:  It has the world’s worst coal pollution problem.  In addition, its energy companies are partly state-owned; they can’t readily sue the government to stop its CCS program.  At the same time, they won’t be penalized, either by the government or shareholder advocates, if developing this costly, experimental technology cuts into their profits.  In any case, outsiders should be grateful that China is weighing in, says Fatih Birol, chief economist for the IEA.  Somebody needs to figure out how to capture and store carbon dioxide on a massive scale before it’s too late.

Renewables Aren’t Enough.  Clean Coal Is the Future - by Charles C. Mann / Wired Magazine

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