The false hope of 'clean coal'

September 13, 2009

Carbon capture and storage (CCS), often touted as "clean coal", has been promoted by the coal industry and governments such as Australia and the US as a way to cut emissions from coal-fired energy generation, in order to avoid dangerous climate change.

Billions of dollars are being poured into developing CCS to make it commercially viable. But it's mostly taxpayers, not the coal companies, footing the bill.

The big coal industry is loath to put much money into CCS for a very good reason. It is not so stupid as to fall for its own propaganda.

But maintaining the "clean coal" fiction is an increasingly expensive job. In Australia, the Rudd government has given $2.4 billion for research into CCS — outstripping the $1.5 billion given to build new solar power plants.

In the US, the cap-and-trade climate bill currently before the Senate gives CCS a whopping US$60 billion from the Barack Obama government.

The problems for CCS backers include: CCS is unproven; appropriate storage sites are few; leaks from underground storage are probable; and it is prohibitively expensive.

It also wastes a huge amount of energy. In a 2008 report, Greenpeace estimated CCS plants would use 10% to 40% of a coal-fired power plant's total energy output just to keep running.

In 2007, Carl Bauer, the director of the national energy technology laboratory in the US energy department, told a government committee CCS could add "from 81% to 86% to the cost of electricity for a new pulverized coal plant".

According to some estimates, CCS would make power from coal more expensive than solar thermal and wind power. However, as the Sydney Morning Herald said on September 7, "it's not a reasonable comparison […] because solar thermal and wind power actually exist".

Of the handful of demonstration CCS plants built, the results are stupendously bad.
The largest pilot plant attached to an operational power station in Australia is at the Latrobe Valley's coal-fired Hazelwood power plant — the most polluting in the industrialised world.

The SMH pointed out that its $10 million CCS plant captures only 25 tonnes of CO2 a day — a trifling 0.05% of Hazelwood's emissions
Despite this, world leaders at July's G8 summit in Italy held up CCS as central to a pledge to cut global emissions by 50% by 2020, including 80% cuts for the developed nations.

In a September 7 Four Corners program, reporter Liz Jackson spoke to Howard Herzog, the principal research engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and expert in CCS technology.

Jackson asked, given the progress of the technology, what were the chances CCS would achieve the G8 target. "Zero", Herzog said.

The clean coal myth is useful to the wealthy elites because it provides an excuse to governments and the big polluters to avoid real action on climate change. Every dollar spent on CCS is funds that could be spent on renewable energy, public transport and energy efficiency programs.

However, some corporations are still searching for ways to turn the dud technology to their advantage. US energy giant and Fortune 500 company NRG Energy has found one way to turn a profit out of CCS.

Its plan is to ditch the irritating "storage" bit altogether.

NRG Energy has asked the US government for a subsidy to build a CCS plant. It intends to sell the captured gas to oil companies who will use it to pump into oil wells to boost extraction rates. Clean coal becomes ... more oil.

This will create "a revenue stream to offset a portion of the cost of the project", allowing it to prove "the technology's viability on a larger scale", the company said on September 1.

It's a good example of how capitalist responses to climate change so often turn into the opposite. To make CCS profitable, it may become necessary to use it to increase emissions from fossil fuels.

It's a similar, ghastly logic as once expressed by an unnamed US army major during the Vietnam War, who famously told correspondent Peter Arnett: "It became necessary to destroy the village to save it."

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