Renewables aren’t enough-clean coal is the future

coal charts

While on a plane headed to NexGen’s Rook I property this week for a well attended inaugural analyst site visit (more to come on this), I read an article, titled “Renewables Aren’t Enough. Clean Coal is the Future” in Wired Magazine that was absolutely fascinating.

The article discussed something I was familiar with on a very superficial level; clean coal.

According to the article, more than three-quarters of China’s electricity comes from coal.  In fact, they burn more coal than the rest of the world combined.  They burn coal not only for electricity but also for smelting steel (produces half of the steel globally) and for baking limestone to make cement (China also produces half of the world’s cement).

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that this trend will not slow.  Bejing plans to double its coal power plants in just 25 years.

The article is clear to state that this dependence on coal is not unique to China.  Germany, often celebrated for its green power initiatives, derives 50% of its power from coal.  Germany also opened more coal-fired power plants in 2013 than any other time in the past 20 years as they try to shut out nuclear (which releases zero carbon emissions).

The solution, the article claims, is not as intuitive as you or I may think; clean coal, or carbon capture and storage (CCS).

“Conceptually speaking, CCS is simple: Industries burn just as much coal as before but remove all the pollutants. In addition to scrubbing out ash and soot, now standard practice at many big plants, they separate out the carbon dioxide and pump it underground, where it can be stored for thousands of years.”

What about wind, solar and other green initiatives?  What about natural gas? Why clean up a naturally dirty fuel source?

Most known green energy sources are not capable of producing stable baseload power, so they are essentially always (or for the foreseeable future) going to have to be backed up with fossil fuels like coal.

At the root of the issue is the fact that coal is so abundant and cheap in the Asian countries (it is estimated that China holds the 3rd largest coal reserves in the world) that switching to natural gas in a meaningful way is simply economically impossible.   Due to the fact they have to import the cleaner fossil fuel, natural gas in the Asian markets sells for more than 4X what it does in North America.

There are hundreds of millions of people globally who are living in poverty and for them cheap sources of power is their ticket to a better life.  A life with electricity, cars, houses and electronics.

“According to the Global CCS Institute, the world has just 12 fully operational large-scale carbon-capture projects, most in the United States. Not one of them is what is most needed: a facility that traps and stores emissions from a big coal-fired power plant. Instead they mainly take in CO2 from natural-gas wells and refineries—a worthwhile task but of only secondary importance. This month, the first coal plant project, a $1.2 billion effort in Canada, is scheduled to open, but it remains true that the world has little experience with capturing and storing emissions from coal plants—so little that environmentalists charge that CCS is not much more than energy vaporware, a fantasy concocted by coal companies to greenwash an inherently dirty industry.” 

So why isn’t this process being developed on a larger scale?  The answer? Two words; Parastitic costs.  This means, in order to complete the process vast amounts of energy are needed to constantly boil large amounts of solution.  According to the article, deploying CCS in coal-fired power plants will consume 50-60% more coal.  These costs are estimated at $100 per ton of store CO2 and with a single 500 megawatt power plant emitting roughly 3 million tons of CO2 per year, that cost could be in the trillions of dollars annually.

“Unfortunately, outside of China, its prospects are dim, Yale economist William Nordhaus believes. (Nordhaus, president-elect of the American Economic Association, is probably the profession’s foremost researcher into climate change.) “CCS is caught in a vicious cycle,” he argued last year in his book The Climate Casino. “Firms will not invest in CCS because it is financially risky; it is financially risky because public acceptance is low and there are big hurdles to large-scale deployment; and public acceptance is low because there is so little experience with CCS at a large scale.”

The article gives some praise to a local Vancouver start-up, Inventys Thermal Technologies Inc., which is developing a ceramic-coated drum that rotates inside a power plan’s smokestacks.  CO2 molecules stick to the drum and then are washed off with steam and captured for an estimated $15 per ton versus the $100 per ton using the current method.

Given that there remains no viable alternative to coal, countries like China where air pollution is the biggest health risk facing the country’s 1 billion citizens, CCS must work.

Below is flowsheet on how CCS works:

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Read: Renewables Aren’t Enough. Clean Coal Is the Future – Wired Magazine

Coal pile image by Emilian Robert Vicol