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Coal New World

The Guardian reports a bold step forward in the race to find clean and abundant energy for our swiftly tilting planet: A demonstration of carbon capture technology—the first of its kind—is upon us. Starting next week, a power plant in Germany will serve as guinea pig for a $100 million project that will take thousands of tons of CO2 and drive it almost two miles underground, beneath a spent natural gas field just off-site.

The pilot plant will use an oxyfuel boiler, one of three types of CCS technology. This involves burning coal in an atmosphere of pure oxygen—the resulting waste gas is almost pure CO2 and this can be buried, preventing it from entering the atmosphere and contributing to global warming. The other CCS methods are pre-combustion, involving the removal of CO2 before burning by pre-treating the coal, and post-combustion, which scrubs the exhaust gases from a power station. ...

CCS is seen as a potential solution to the projected increased use of coal in power stations around the world. At its best, it would trap up to 90% of a plant's carbon emissions and, though each element of the capture, transportation and storage process is already proven and in use, until now no one had demonstrated a full-cycle system, even at the small scale of a pilot. A full-scale system remains years away, largely because developing such a system is likely to be very expensive. As a result, many leading power companies have been reluctant to fund CCS individually, arguing that governments should also shoulder some of the financial risks.

One CCS expert noted that the pilot "shows what can be done if the state and company are aligned and have confidence in each other." This is a key consideration. The U.S. Department of Energy has its own plans for clean coal storage, but the kind of investment to which the article alludes is not even close to being on the table. President Bush has pledged only $2 billion over ten years. And the "all-of-the-above" mix that the two candidates for President espouse (with key differences) puts less of a premium on this kind of initiative--probably because the cost-benefit ratio remains high, and the prospect of shoving CO2 underground can't fail to elicit fears of slow leakage or a major burp that could render the whole gambit moot. (A fine primer here.) And I think there are other, more assured bets when it comes to investing in a green economy.

But I think a harmonic committment from the public and private sector is critical for even this more high-risk technology. I've written before that major capital investments are a critical component of any forward-looking American energy strategy. Happy then, that priorities are shifting toward the right place. Private/public partnerships may be easier in Germany, but the United States should strive to share best practices on CCS with Germany and other nations that have fast-tracked this (I won't say promising) technology. Or in other words, no pain, no gain.

--Dayo Olopade