Mission Possible: An Environmentalist Looks at Coal and Climate

By Armond Cohen
Executive Director, Clean Air Task Force for Cornerstone

Most of my thirty-year professional career as an environmental organization lawyer and then environmental group CEO has been focused on reducing the environmental impact of the global energy system. Yet much of the last ten years of my career has been focused on demonstrating and deploying coal power generation technologies utilizing carbon capture and storage (CCS). What’s wrong with this picture?

Nothing. It’s actually quite simple. Coal will be central to economic modernization in the developing world, where most energy supply will be built in the next three decades. Coal will also have a significant residual role in much of the OECD. Coal is not going away. We need to begin to use it without emitting significant carbon dioxide, and quickly. If we don’t, the risk to global climate is immense, and likely irreversible. It’s that straightforward. People who wish otherwise, and simply hope for the demise of coal, are not facing the facts.

“The first fact is that coal is projected to be the fastest growing electric power source on the planet from 2010–2015.”

The first fact is that coal is projected to be the fastest growing electric power source on the planet from 2010–2015, measured by actual additional energy production per year. Yes, a lot of gas-fired capacity is going to be built or utilized in the United States to displace some retiring coal plants, and in Germany and Japan to replace shut-down nuclear plants. Even Germany, however, is building a medium-sized fleet of new coal plants (in addition to gas plants) to help plug the nuclear gap. And, in the United States, announced coal retirement due to new environmental regulations amount to only about 5% of annual U.S. coal generation; the remaining coal fleet will dispatch more as gas prices return from their current unsustainable low levels.

Yet, in the end, the OECD is largely a sideshow. The real action is in Asia. Electric power demand in the developing world will grow by threefold in the next few decades, while OECD demand will grow only modestly, if at all. China already has built a fleet of some 600 GW of new coal-fired power plants in the last seven years, twice the amount of coal capacity that it took the United States seventy years to build. China’s 12th Five Year Plan calls for doubling that capacity to 1200 GW by 2035. With their capital costs sunk, none of these plants will be bulldozed anytime soon. Substantial coal expansion is planned in Indonesia and elsewhere in the region. Meanwhile, India’s coal development, although presently stymied by bureaucratic and political gridlock, could also explode if political conditions change in response to this past summer’s grid failure and the ongoing lack of reliable power.

Let me be clear: But for the environmental challenges, this expansion of coal-fired power boom is a good thing; reliable energy is a correlate of economic growth and human development. But let me be equally clear: The carbon associated with this expansion is unacceptable and puts us on a collision course with our global climate. We’ll get back to the environmental challenges in a minute.

The second fact is that the major global competitors to coal – gas, wind, solar, nuclear, and energy efficiency – are likely to gain ground but not seriously challenge coal’s market share for some time. Although North American gas is presently enjoying a “golden age” of production due to the explosion of fracking for unconventional gas, this will likely be a predominantly North American phenomenon for some time. Shale gas exploration is just beginning in Europe and China, and will probably take decades to reach maturity, even if the shale deposits prove to be as recoverable as they are in North America. For example, China hopes to be producing just a little over 2 trillion cubic feet of shale gas by 2020, or about 40% of current U.S. shale production, for a population five times larger. And this gas will almost certainly be more expensive than in the United States; the International Energy Agency projects that, even with abundant shale gas, it will still be less expensive to build a new coal plant in China than a gas plant.

Ditto renewables, energy efficiency, and nuclear energy. Despite the enormous recent growth in wind and solar, they are growing from a very small base and represent less than 3% of the planet’s power supply. Serious challenges to expansion loom in terms of cost, variability, intermittency, and land use. Even the International Energy Agency’s most aggressive climate-driven power scenario for 2035 sees less wind and solar power production than coal. And China, which presently leads the world in annual solar and wind capacity additions, projects that two thirds of its power will still come from coal in 2035.

Improved energy efficiency is a good thing, but is unlikely to do more than moderate an otherwise expected twofold energy demand growth in the world by 2035. Indeed, a decades-long trend toward lower energy intensity has reversed and global energy intensity has increased. California, which is perhaps the world’s leader in energy efficiency policy, chopped off about 15% of its business-as-usual electric demand after two decades of work, but still sustained 40% net growth. Faster industrializing countries will experience much higher net growth even with aggressive efficiency policies.

And, finally, nuclear energy is far from dead – with more than 30 new units under construction or planned today – but also faces cost and public acceptance challenges. Moreover, the planet’s existing nuclear fleet is aging, and much of it will be either forcibly retired (as in Japan and Germany) or age out naturally – making it likely that net nuclear generation will grow modestly. A new generation of advanced reactor technologies – pebble bed, thorium, and small modular units – promises safety and cost improvements but will probably take a decade or two to be fully commercial.

So we are left with coal as the planet’s electric backbone, with possibly 2100 GW of installed capacity worldwide by 2020. These plants will put out about four billion tons of carbon each year if nothing is done to control them. This puts us on a direct collision course with climate stability. The best recent models suggest we may be able to emit only 500 billion tons of carbon this century if we are not to go well beyond temperatures experienced by human beings, which means effectively getting to zero carbon emissions from our energy system by mid-century. How can we square this limit with expanded coal use?

There is only one way: to scrub the carbon out of coal. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a combination of technologies which have been proven over the last two to three decades. The challenge is to move forward with the dozen or so global demonstration projects that integrate these technologies and that are in early stages or in planning, expand that number by tenfold, and begin the process of managing costs down through in situ learning and further technical innovation. Examples of current demonstration projects that show great promise in the United States alone are the Kemper project in Mississippi now under construction, a 582 MW coal plant with 65% carbon removal, and the Texas Clean Energy Project, a 245 MW project with 90% carbon removal. In both cases, the projects will garner revenue by selling the CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (EOR). The increasing understanding of the favorable economics of using CO2 for EOR may give a boon to other new projects of this type. Meanwhile, projects around the world are injecting millions of tons per year of CO2 to demonstrate the stability of carbon sequestration deep underground in a different way, using saline aquifers. Many more such CCS projects stand in the wings, waiting government funding.


Visualization of Texas Clean Energy Project to be built in Odessa, Texas.
The plant will use integrated gasification combined cycle technology to produce 200 MW of power,
with 90% carbon capture; the captured carbon will be injected into nearby oil fields for enhanced oil recovery.

There is plenty of physical room globally for carbon storage (Florida disposes of more wastewater brine each year than the CO2 that U.S. coal plants put out); the principal barrier is the cost of removing and injecting carbon in the absence of a requirement or incentives to do so. In April 2012, the U.S. EPA proposed a first-ever rule requiring new coal plants to sequester at least 60% of their carbon; eventually, CO2 emission limits would be applied to existing coal plants as well. And a coalition of U.S. business, labor, and environmental organizations recently proposed a tax incentive to cover the difference between the cost of carbon capture and the value of EOR revenue – resulting in a positive flow to the U.S. Treasury as a result of tax revenue from additional oil recovery. Meanwhile, China is currently demonstrating its version of retrofit CCS technology that may be able to remove carbon at considerably below the cost of current Western technology. Finally, underground coal gasification (UCG), a process that gasifies coal in the seam, avoiding the need to mine and burn it, holds promise for lower CCS costs, potentially making a new near-zero carbon coal plant competitive with a new uncontrolled coal plant. UCG projects are now underway in China and South Africa.

Can we reconcile the irresistible force of coal power and the immovable object of climate limits to CO2? We can indeed, if we apply our technological innovation capability and political willpower to deploy the commercially available technology we have today, and improve upon it – just as we began to do with sulfur scrubbers in the late 1980s, which are now widespread on the planet only two decades later. Environmental groups such as the Clean Air Task Force – and a growing number of our peers around the world – are willing to work with the coal and power industries and governments to make this happen. Let’s get on with it: There is no time to waste, and we have a planet to protect.

This article is republished by permission from cornerstonemag.net  All rights reserved.

The content included in Cornerstone is based on the opinion of the authors, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the World Coal Association or its members.

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