Friday, May 18, 2007

Hastening Sequestration

A few weeks ago I expressed concern that practical carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) might not arrive in time to do much good, if the wave of new coal power plant construction crested while it was still being developed. That posting attracted some interesting feedback, and I've been thinking about this topic ever since. Although the components of this technology have been proven, and the whole concept is being demonstrated in several projects, it's still not widely viewed as ready for commercial deployment, though many generators seem interested. The more I thought about ways to speed up the process without just throwing more money at it, the more a refinement on one of my suggestions from three weeks ago resonated. A moratorium on new coal power plant construction--with some carefully crafted loopholes--might just give everyone the right incentives to accelerate the necessary R&D, while preparing new plants for add-on sequestration later.

The fundamental problem is that it's hard to envision a politically-viable energy future for the US in which our enormous coal reserves don't play a major role for at least the next two decades. However, the consequences of using that coal without sequestering the resulting CO2 emissions are very bad. So here's the basic idea: a ten-year moratorium on building new coal-fired power plants, except for those that either
  • capture and sequester at least 75% of their CO2 emissions from the first day of operation, or
  • are designed and built to deliver a high-purity, sequestration-ready CO2 stream with minimal retro-fitting.

Such a regulation would not eliminate all new coal plants, though it would raise their capital cost significantly. It would also make them more compatible with--and less vulnerable to--our pending responses to climate change. The first "offramp" would allow plant owners to proceed with CCS technology that may still require further development to become fully functional or economical, while still beating the next-best option of gas turbines on emissions. The second offramp would circumvent a primary concern of the recent MIT "Future of Coal" study, which indicated that once built, even integrated gasification/combined-cycle (IGCC) plants would require extensive and costly modifications to retro-fit CCS. A modified moratorium would provide a technology-neutral, non-prescriptive solution that allowed the industry wide latitude in meeting its baseload power generation needs using a domestic fuel, but without creating an overhang of emissions that we might never be able to work off.

Another feature of this idea is that it would automatically make renewable energy more competitive and conservation more attractive, without additional subsidies. Negawatts, green power, and gas-fired generation would have a more level playing field with coal, which must still be part of our future energy mix. Lighting a fire under the companies working to get carbon capture and sequestration ready for the big time might even alleviate some investor concerns about coal's viability and make coal power more attractive in the long term.

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