One is a commodity facing collapsing prices and an existential threat as a result of its contribution to climate change. The other is a clean coal technology which until now has lacked a powerful sponsor. Are coal and carbon capture and storage made for each other?
Recent U.S. withdrawal of funding for a flagship project to demonstrate carbon capture and storage (CCS) shows how the technology is labouring to get off the drawing board.
CCS is expensive, consuming energy to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) from the waste gas of factories and power plants, while depending on an extensive infrastructure to pipe the greenhouse gas out of reach underground. There is only one project up and running anywhere, operated by SaskPower in Canada.
No wonder that the coal industry has been slow to support it. By increasing the cost of coal-fired power generation, CCS could suppress coal demand. But the industry now faces new pressures, including a growing divestment movement.
In theory, the case for public support of CCS remains strong.
First, global efforts to cut carbon emissions have failed to match the scale of the climate problem. Future emissions cuts will have to be much tougher.
Second, while low-carbon renewable energy is making great strides in adding new capacity, this is against a small base. Notwithstanding a sharp slowdown in coal consumption growth in China, even falling last year, fossil fuels remain the dominant energy source. Wind and solar power only account for about 3% of global power generation, and about 1% of total primary energy demand. To cut emissions dramatically, therefore, it may be necessary either to close coal-fired power plants, or retrofit them with CCS.
Third, there are few alternatives for cutting carbon emissions from steel and cement, which have no obvious zero carbon substitutes.
Fourth, CCS can in theory drive negative emissions, by operating alongside biomass-fired power plants. Growing calls for net zero greenhouse gas emissions later this century may require bioenergy with CCS (BECCS).
Why has public support for CCS fallen short?
The fossil fuel industry has dithered over whether to support it, and so has comprehensively failed to craft a convincing narrative for the technology. That contrasts with environmental groups’ relentless backing for renewable energy.
As a result, there is almost no public awareness of, much less broad support. By failing to find a powerful and committed industry backer, CCS has fallen short of the kind of government support enjoyed by the renewable energy industry, for example under a decade of feed-in tariffs in Europe.
CCS now needs a new approach. That could be a new drive for public support. A Projects of Common Interest, an existing 6-billion-euro energy infrastructure programme. CCS would also need big sticks against carbon emissions, such as rules which banned new unabated coal plants, and forcing existing ones to retrofit CCS technology. Or else big carrots, such as renewable energy-style feed-in tariffs, or much higher carbon prices. Or a combination of all these.proposed that CCS could be made eligible for the EU’s
But these may all require greater global ambition on climate change.
Pending that, CCS might see a great breakthrough in cost cutting as achieved by solar power over the past five years. In this regard, Harvard University said last week it had found a promising new approach, based on baking soda.
Alternatively, and perhaps simplest of all, the fossil fuel industry could fund CCS itself. That would be a huge step, given the “War on coal” rhetoric in the United States and elsewhere, where mining companies reject CCS-style emissions curbs on coal plants. But coal companies now face a large, even existential threat from a growing divestment movement. Investing in CCS may be just the kind of PR opportunity they need, to differentiate and cast the coal industry in a new light.