Yesterday I attended the rollout of MIT's new study on the future of coal at the offices of Resources for the Future in D.C. The study's impressive multi-disciplinary team was co-chaired by John Deutch and Ernest J. Moniz, both professors at MIT but also formerly high government officials, including Dr. Deutch's stint as Director of Central Intelligence from 1994-95. As they describe in a lengthy op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal, they concluded that without a practical and affordable means of capturing carbon dioxide from coal power plants and storing it for an extended period, the use of coal will decline dramatically from present levels, because of the level of carbon pricing necessary to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century. While that may not surprise those who have been following the issue for some time, it is nevertheless a profound finding, since it would undo most of the existing trends and planning for the coal and utility sector.
In addition to this headline result, the team discussed the implications of this finding for the leading coal power plant technologies, including pulverized coal (PC) and integrated gasification/combined-cycle (IGCC.) Dr. Deutch made it very clear that, although IGCC can produce power with lower emissions than PC, and provides a simpler platform for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), that does not necessarily make IGCC the best candidate for new power plants today. The reason for this somewhat counter-intuitive conclusion is the difficulty of retrofitting either technology for CCS, once a power plant is built and running. For PC or IGCC, adding CCS would be expensive, and it would entail more than "bolting a box on the back of the process." Drs. Deutch and Moniz stressed that it was premature and inappropriate to pick a technology winner, at this point. They also strongly recommended additional R&D spending on proving out all the aspects of CCS, including demonstration projects that are adequately instrumented to confirm the science of sequestration.
Furthermore, even with coal plants equipped with CCS, Dr. Deutch admonished that this could not provide the entire solution to our energy and climate problems, nor could any other single technology or strategy. That will require contributions from wind, solar, biofuels, and nuclear power, along with efficiency and conservation. He also made a strong point about the importance of these responses not being confined to the US and Europe, but including the large developing countries, especially China and India. He expressed great skepticism about bringing China on board any time soon, particularly without a US commitment to tackle our greenhouse gas emissions more aggressively than we have.
The MIT study highlights the incompatibility of energy policies that explicitly rely on coal for a growing share of our future energy needs, and the steadily increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Even the availability of a viable CCS technology to manage coal's emissions would only stabilize global CO2 emissions by mid-century, but would still not stabilize atmospheric CO2 concentrations at the 450-550 ppm level that might avert the worst consequences of global warming. One study from MIT won't change the world, but its conclusions are all the more significant coming from such a pragmatic and credible group of physical scientists and engineers, who would hardly be expected to jump on the latest environmental bandwagon. When they tell us that carbon sequestration needs to be a much higher priority, it's time to listen and act.