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The Trouble with CCS

by nanne Thu Aug 20th, 2009 at 05:33:14 AM EST

In reply to an article finding that the cost of carbon capture and storage might be prohibitive, Magnifico writes:

Or... we could stop using coal, since Coal Is Carbon CapturedTM. Why take it out the ground, capture the carbon, and then stick it back in the ground. Wouldn't it be simpler, cleaner, and less destructive to simply just not take coal out of the ground in the first place?
Simpler, cleaner, less destructive: surely. The issue is, can we manage to leave all the cheap coal in the ground?

Cost estimates for CCS vary a lot. In the Stern Review, which favours CCS, it is assumed that there is a central range of costs that varies between $19 and $49 per ton of carbon dioxide. A NYT article quotes a researcher who assumes a cost of $60 to $65. The article cited by Magnifico uses figures ranging between $120 and $180, or (presumably) half of that 'as the technology matures'.

Diary rescue by Migeru

Carbon capture and storage may make sense if we only look at climate change. The domestic political economy on climate change legislation will be a lot easier in many countries if we can co-opt the coal lobby. International coordination will also be easier, provided that we can convince India and China to go along when the technology has 'matured' - we will not have to worry as much about a disadvantages to our energy-intensive industries.

In terms of climate change, the upside of CCS is that the technology can remove up to 80-90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions at what could be a lower cost than replacing fossil fuel plants with renewables, with the main downside being uncertainty related to sequestration. However, coal has a variety of negative effects aside of causing climate change, like emissions of heavy metals and the destruction of nature and landscape that accompanies its extraction.

What really makes CCS a misdirected research strategy, though, is that it will cause efficiency losses of at least 10% for capture, and a few more for transport and sequestration. The European Commission estimates a 35% net efficiency for a demonstration project to be launched in 2015, as opposed to a 45-47% current net efficiency for new coal plants without CCS. So, we will need a lot more coal to feed CCS plants. While coal is not yet on the brink of running out, there is less cheap coal available for extraction than has been assumed, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out this June:

Last year, the U.S. Geological Survey completed an extensive analysis of Wyoming's Gillette coal field, the nation's largest and most productive, and determined that less than 6% of the coal in its biggest beds could be mined profitably, even at prices higher than today's.

"We really can't say we're the Saudi Arabia of coal anymore," says Brenda Pierce, head of the USGS team that conducted the study.

No one says the U.S. is facing a coal shortage. But the emerging ranks of "peak coal" theorists argue that current production levels may be unsustainable and, if anything, create a false sense of security. David Rutledge, an electrical-engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology who has studied global coal production, figures the U.S. has about half as much recoverable reserves as the government says, which would work out to about 120 years' worth

Given that we will need to replace parts of the existing stock of power plants, that centralised coal power plants are built for a period of around 50 years, that we need to be able to phase out fossil fuels, and that there is a need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the current time, there is an obvious solution. Power plants need to be a lot more efficient, and power plants need to be able to run on more than one fuel. We have long had the technology for multi-fuel combined heat (cooling) and power plants. A plant of this kind run with coal will achieve efficiencies of 70% and above. The technology is highly scaleable. As the plants are generally built for a shorter period of time, there will be no sunk costs when renewables become cheaper, and local CHP using biomass or waste gas as fuel can be a good complement to solar and wind energy.

that even if it does work well, it'll be more expensive than wind or nuclear. So why even bother? I'll tell you why, it's because then people can pretend something is being done while they build new coal plants which can later be "retrofitted" (hah!) with CCS tech.

It's hydrogen fuel cells all over again, pure stalling tactic. The only question is if it'll work this time too...

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.

by Starvid on Thu Jul 23rd, 2009 at 03:06:23 PM EST
The European Commission has given cost estimates for CCS with low fuel costs at 7.5 to 9 cents per kilowatt hour in 2020 (this assumes oil at $61), whereas onshore wind is at 5.5 to 9 cents and nuclear at 4.5 to 8 cents. With high prices (oil at $100), nuclear is presumed to go up to the cost of wind; wind is unchanged, and CCS coal will cost 9.5 to 11 cents.

CCS would need some kind of technological breakthrough that makes it a lot cheaper, plus continued low fuel costs.

So, yes, it's basically a pure stalling tactic in order to build large, centralised, inefficient coal power plants now which we'll be stuck with for 50 years.

See the Guardian:

Protests by environmentalists over E.ON's plans to build a coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth have encouraged Ed Miliband, the secretary of state for energy and climate change, to rule that there should be no plants in the UK without some degree of CCS, with the remainder of any plant having CCS fitted within five years of it being judged "technically and economically proven".

A very tough and precise requirement on industry, that.
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Thu Jul 23rd, 2009 at 03:53:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Also see Salon discussion about the fight over a plant in Hamburg.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Jul 25th, 2009 at 06:13:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What really makes CCS a misdirected research strategy, though, is that it will cause efficiency losses of at least 10% for capture, and a few more for transport and sequestration. The European Commission estimates a 35% net efficiency for a demonstration project to be launched in 2015, as opposed to a 45-47% current net efficiency for new coal plants without CCS.

Those ten percent being, in other words, ten percentage points, or around 22 % of the useful output at the efficiencies posted. Meaning that we'll need not another 11 % power generation capacity, but another 33 % (give or take a bit).

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Thu Jul 23rd, 2009 at 04:13:38 PM EST
According to the wikipedia link, the loss is between 10 and 40%. I've looked at a few other sites, and it seems that the minimum theoretical loss from capture alone is around 10% (for the processes we thought of so far). Then you get the energy costs for transport and injection on top of that. The EU estimates for their proposed pilot plants are indeed 22%. Considering the current state of the technology, that seems optimistic.

There's a relevant news item on the EU's CCS project in the European Voice from today:

Germany, France and the UK want say over spending, but CCS advocates fear set-back for technology.

The EU's bigger member states are seeking to wrest control over demonstration carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects worth billions of euros away from the European Commission.

The EU has already decided that it wants 12 CCS demonstration plants up and running by 2015 as part of its efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. EU leaders earmarked €1.05 billion for CCS under the EU's economic recovery plan and agreed that the proceeds from selling allowances for 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the emissions trading scheme will be available for CCS and `innovative' renewable energy projects - although it is acknowledged more funding will be needed.

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Thu Jul 23rd, 2009 at 04:40:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
With the world economy in a tizzy, I can't believe that you selfish people don't care about the power of jobs and the exchange of money that goes into these large CCS projects. The corporate overhead charges alone make the investments in your cute wind and solar toys pale in comparison, not to mention the obliging assistance of corporate donations to our representatives and the trickle-on down benefits of a brisk lobbying industry.

Some would mention the values of nationalism that are strengthened by 'home grown' alternatives that allow 'us' to pound sand up the dusky ones who provide our liquid carbons now...they'll probably be begging us to keep our bases in country so that we can protect them from the yellow hoards. And think of those military jobs - what will you do with all those extra bodies added to the unemployed numbers.

Methinks too of your shortsighted nimbyness, not even mentioning the heat from the CCS pipes that could heat the shantytowns that could be built alongside the powerplants...sure, they'll complain that they need water too, but with a few million in government subsidies some corporate can capture some condensation from those pipes and sell it to them.

I also mock those alleged forest-through-the-tree huggers who say that it is the heat of these citadels that are the problem, that carbon in the atmosphere is not the problem after all - as if CO2 is just second hand smoking...make up your minds.  

And always with the dead miners...if unions and OSHA can't save them, why are they there? Eliminate these obstructions to free flowing capitalism and you will see how well it works.

This ad was paid for by the Citizens For Recycling, and I approve of this message.

Never underestimate their intelligence, always underestimate their knowledge.

Frank Delaney ~ Ireland

by siegestate (siegestate or beyondwarispeace.com) on Tue Aug 4th, 2009 at 07:27:19 AM EST
I'm impressed that wind is almost as cheap as nookular.  Just today I read that

Wind can never deliver base power - as geo-thermal and even wave power might one day - and will always require coal-fired power stations running at near full capacity. That is, unless we discard the taboos concerning nuclear power.

(letters to the age)

Another thing that's always worried me about CCS is the possibility of a Lake Nyos type escape.

by njh on Fri Aug 21st, 2009 at 01:58:05 AM EST
Counted on a per kwh basis, wind is cheap and clean- and per kwh is all that matters for some applications.

Intermittency just mean that we cant switch society over to it wholesale. -
CCS is a daft idea, because a coal fired plant with ccs is going to be at even more expensive and difficult to build than a nuclear powerplant, and the potential failure modes make chernobyl look harmless - imagine what happens if the geological storage ruptures after 15 years of operation? - Everything above the storage point will chocke to death.
So its simply worse than nuclear plant in every possible way. and to top it off, we dont know how to actually build them. Replacing replacing coalfired plants with reactors will be cheaper and safer both..

by Thomas on Fri Aug 21st, 2009 at 10:19:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Welcome to European Tribune, Thomas!

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet
by Melanchthon on Fri Aug 21st, 2009 at 10:36:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yep.  I am now wondering whether baseload is merely a positive spin on a disadvantage: large thermal plants can't cycle up and down easily, so let's instead say that baseload is in fact an essential part of the design.  This is clearer when you look at the subsidies that go towards off peak usage.  Some industries actually get paid to use off peak electricity perhaps so that they provide a load dump capability to these inflexible generators (if you generate electricity you can't use the voltage and frequency change instead).
by njh on Fri Aug 21st, 2009 at 01:09:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That what that leter-writer wrote is, simply said, idiocy.

  1. You don't balance intermittency by running balancing power plants at full power.

  2. Coal power plants are NOT used for balance: just like nuclear, they aren't well suited for variable power output. It's gas, oil, hydro (and pumped storage) that can be used for this.

  3. That intermittency would be a problem for baseload provision comes from an antiquated and over-simplifying notion of power provision, helped by having only two categories ("base load" and "peak load") in the English language.

    It would be closer to reality to divide power provision in three (as is done in German): "base load" consisting of plants running at full capacity, a "medium load" providing scheduled variable power; and finally a "peak load" compensating unplanned positive and negativew spikes in generation and demand on short order.

    Now, what is the second of these for? In the pre-windpower system, it is usually said to compensate the well-known periodic daily change in demand. However, it does another thing too: when a big baseload plant is stopped for maintenance, or stops because of an accident, the medium load plants also compensate for this foreseeable variability in baseload production.

    Now, what if we introduce intermittent wind power into the system? Well, wind power output, especially if there are lots of wind farms in the system, can be predicted. Thus, in fact, in Denmark or North Germany, the bulk of the variability of wind power production can be fed into the schedule of the "medium load" plants! While only the deviations from that need to be compensated by the peak load plants. Thus, in effect, wind power is base load.

  4. What's more, if you think about the above, neither coal nor nuclear is able to replace medium and peak load plants that use other fossil fuels. (This is true even for nuclear France, where some of the balancing is 'done' by exporting the surplus to Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.) That whole argument (whether used for nuclear, or, less frequently, CCS) is bollocks.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Aug 21st, 2009 at 01:12:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Aug 21st, 2009 at 01:24:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Wind has the problem that it increases the need for loadbalancing if you use it to meet "Grundlast" demand, since it can, and will, go to zero across the board on a regular basis - Up to a certain percentage of total power supply, you can simply use it to let you run your gas turbines (for mittlelast) less, which isnt entirely nuts, economically, but it doesnt really let you stop burning gas, either.
If you want a 100% co2 free grid, wind wont do it, because there is no way to build enough pumped storage for a week of dead wind, which will happen far to often. - nukes will, but you are still going to need either pumped storage enough to turn that graph  entirely flat, or a use for umpteen thousand kilowatt hours of surplus nighttime electricity you wind up with if you just build enough plant to meet peak demand.  - I think everyone recharging their cars while they sleep would just about do it, but that really needs to be checked with math..

Other solutions: Solar actually follows the middlelast curve fairly well, if you stick the plants in the sahara.

by Thomas on Fri Aug 21st, 2009 at 03:06:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Up to a certain percentage of total power supply

So far this threshold has been a mirage - it's kept going up every time it's been seriously approached. At least in those countries that have a competently (read: State-) run power grid. There is no serious reason to expect that wind cannot replace coal for baseload entirely.

there is no way to build enough pumped storage for a week of dead wind, which will happen far to often

Wind going to zero for a week? Yeah, right. On Mars, maybe...

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sat Aug 22nd, 2009 at 05:56:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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