Following a decade of hype, there remains huge debate about the viability of carbon capture as a solution to carbon emissions from coal-fired power stations.
A recent article in the Financial Times lays out both sides of the argument. On the one hand, there is the one put forward by the coal lobby, broadly drawing on the work of coal miners in the form of Coal21, an industry body in Australia backed by 26 mining groups (including BHP, Anglo American and Glencore). On the other hand, there is a more disparate group of academics, research bodies and NGOs who rubbish the miners’ position as untenable.
Coal21, however, is pouring a considerable amount of money into research, lobbying and, most controversially, marketing in an effort to influence the debate in its favor.
The industry club has invested $4 million in advertising to promote the prospects for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) as a solution to coal’s carbon emissions. That comes in addition to some $400 million BHP has pledged over five years to reduce its emissions and those of its customers.
Meanwhile, Glencore, the world’s largest coal exporter, is building a pilot plant to capture and store carbon emissions from a nearby coal-fired power station in the Surat basin in Australia, funded in part by Coal21. The plan is to capture some 200,000 tons a year of carbon, but commercial projects in Canada and the U.S. are said to be running at 50% efficiency, at best (in one case, little more than 5%). Glencore will need new technology if it hopes to reach the 90% efficiency CCS plants are headlined to achieve.
Even then, grave doubts remain as to their economic viability for coal-fired power generation.
CRU research is cited by the FT estimates the technology is only viable if the carbon dioxide (CO2) can be sold to other industries as a commercial source of CO2. Generally, it is either simply stored underground or used to boost oil field production by pumping sequestered CO2 back into oil reservoirs.
Without the value generated by selling CO2 to other industries, the cost of the technology needs to fall by 50% to make pure CO2 storage economical, the Financial Times reports. Cynics suggest miners’ focus on CCS as a solution has more to do with countering what they see as an increasingly negative view of coal use as the consequences of rising CO2 levels is more widely accepted.
Coal miners may be facing a losing battle, regardless of public perceptions.
The article reports that in many parts of the world, solar, wind and battery storage produces electricity at lower cost than coal, not to mention the advantages of lower CO2 producing natural gas and the latter’s greater flexibility to provide swing production to balance renewables’ lower predictability.
Although huge sums have been poured into CCS research and multiple pilot plants have been set up around the world, the technology is still less efficient than necessary and more expensive to operate than required if it is to be economical (certainly for coal-fired power generation).
But there are other industries where large quantities of CO2 are generated. The arguments for CCS may be on a firmer footing for industries like cement, steel, and oil and gas.
If the technology can be further refined to reduce emission from these industries, that would be a huge gain — but for coal-fired power stations, CCS looks like a lost cause.