New money must provide stimulus to get carbon capture and storage up and running.
There is good news about carbon capture and storage (CCS), the technology that is intended to slow global warming by capturing industrial carbon dioxide emissions and injecting them underground. Last week, US energy secretary Steven Chu outlined plans for using some $2.4 billion in economic stimulus money to research aspects of CCS. These efforts will join important research already under way. Several European nations are looking at technical issues in partnership with industry; Australia has a cutting-edge research programme; China has entered the game; and the United States has a number of existing pilot projects across the country.
Unfortunately, none of the current work translates into the rapid deployment required to prove this technology in the commercial arena. The different CCS technologies need to be demonstrated on power plants new and old, and industry must show that the CO2, once injected into old oil and gas fields or saline aquifers, will stay put. Although Australia, China and Britain are working on such demonstrations, there is widespread agreement that many more are needed. Last year, the G8 leaders rightly called for upwards of 20 demonstration projects around the globe. Without that kind of commitment, no one will ever know what the true potential of CCS could be.
Chu seems to recognize the problem. The energy department is in talks to restart the United States' flagship CCS project FutureGen, a projected coal-fired power plant that would capture CO2 and store it underground. The Bush administration shut down FutureGen last year after a dispute over rising costs, signalling to the rest of the world that the United States might not be serious about this technology. But now that Chu has so much stimulus money for CCS at his disposal, FutureGen would be one good place to put it.
On Capitol Hill, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources also took a welcome step forwards last week by unveiling legislation that would remove regulatory hurdles for up to ten large-scale CCS projects. The bipartisan bill lays out a mechanism for the energy department to help shoulder the burden of risk and then eventually take over responsibility for long-term monitoring of the injected carbon.
The situation in Europe is similarly encouraging. The European Commission last year called for upwards of a dozen CCS demonstration projects, without explaining who would pay for them. That question was partly answered in December, when the European Union dedicated the revenues from 300 million of the allowances in its carbon-trading system. That could provide several billion euros at current carbon prices.
The United Kingdom took things a step further last month by announcing that it will require all new coal-fired power plants to have at least partial CCS. This sends a powerful signal that the days of unfettered coal burning are coming to an end. Other nations would do well to follow suit.
Some environmentalists have been hammering home the point that there is no such thing as clean coal, and they may be right. Even if operators did somehow manage to bury 90% of the CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants, that would still leave all the emissions and other environmental impacts from mining and transporting the coal itself.
Indeed, in an ideal world, burying CO2 wouldn't be necessary. Civilization would instead rely on carbon-free energy resources such as solar, wind and nuclear power, and would reserve CO2 for feeding algae and making carbonated beverages or, better yet, cement. But getting there will take time, and that is what carbon storage could provide. It's worth the effort.
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Can coal be clean?. Nature 459, 299–300 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/459299b