Big Bad Coal Isn't Going Anywhere

Coal Crop We, the world, are burning more coal — and it’s dirty. Accounting for 25 percent of the global energy supply in 2006, coal was responsible for approximately 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, according to a report released this week by The WorldWatch Institute. The study in particular highlighted China’s phenomenal growth, noting that the country added more than 1.5 GW of coal power per week (roughly what the U.S. and India, combined, added all year) for a total of 90 GW of growth in 2006.

The world burned 3,090 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) in 2006, according to the report, and projections for 2050 range from a green 2,900 Mtoe to a black 10,700 Mtoe. The study pins great hopes on the ability of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) to reconcile coal’s importance as an energy source and its contributions to CO2 emissions, joining OPEC, Midwestern Governors, and BP in hoping CCS will prove to be an economically viable solution for cleaning up fossil fuel emissions. It’s still an extremely expensive proposition, however, that has yet to be proven at scale.

CCS would allow for the continued exploitation of coal still underground. The study estimates that at current extraction rates, China has another 50 to 70 years of coal production, while the U.S. and India have 200 years left. The dangers of coal, however, remain high. The emissions from coal power plants inflict billions of dollars of health problems and while in the U.S., 47 coal workers died mining coal in 2006, China suffered 100 times as many fatalities — 4,746 in total.

Coal Crop 2

WorldWatch considers CCS a very viable solution, devoting over half of the report to exploring its potential. Successful CCS would require isolating a relatively CO2 stream, pressurization and storage, injection into a reservoir, and then constant monitoring.

Citing the technical success of the Great Plains Synfuels plant in North Dakota at incorporating all four key elements, WorldWatch thinks that “the technical feasibility of CCS [is] largely proved.” Still, cost is extremely prohibitive. Currently they estimate that adding CCS capabilities to a coal-fired power plant would increase the price of the electricity produced by upwards of 60 percent, without including the cost of CO2 transportation, injection or monitoring. It seems odd to cite the key parts of CCS and then give a price estimate for implementing it without including three of the four steps.

It would be folly to pretend that the answer to dirty is new clean energy, in the form of solar or wind. Coal simply plays too large a part in the growing economies of China and India to be replaced out of hand. Trying to cut global CO2 emissions by investing in the likes of solar and wind will be moot if we can’t somehow get coal emissions under control. A lot of investment announcements in the last few weeks have been aimed at research and development in CCS but until carbon has a monetary value, the cost of capture and sequestration will prove prohibitive.