Clean coal

The most plausible argument put forward by opponents of immediate action to mitigate global warming is that some form of ‘clean coal’ technology will emerge that will obviate any need for costly changes in our current way of doing things.

The term ‘clean coal’ is sometimes used to refer to ‘ultra-supercritical’ or ‘high efficiency, low emissions’ (HELE) coal-fired power stations. Despite these impressive sounding description, HELE plants provide only a 30 to 40 per cent reduction in emissions relative to standard coal-fired power plants. They aren’t as clean as gas-fired fossil fuel plants, let alone renewables (or nuclear power, though this isn’t a viable solution for other reasons).

‘Clean coal’ is also used to refer to the idea of ‘carbon capture and storage’, (CCS) in which the carbon dioxide produced in coal-fired power stations would be captured before being emitted into the atmosphere, then pumped into underground storage, or captured through ‘biosequestration’ into products such as biochar.

CCS was an appealing idea for a coal producing country like Australia. Enthusiasm for the idea led to the establishment of the Global CCS Institute in Melbourne. However, the Institute’s own website shows that CCS is not a viable option. After decades of work, there is exactly one operational power plant using CCS, the Boundary Dam project in Canada. Two more, both deeply troubled, are under construction in the United States.

Even if all the coal-fired CCS power plant projects anywhere in the world that are listed by the Institute as possibly happening by 2030 are included, the total amount of CO2 captured would be less than 20 million tonnes a year. That’s about what Australia generates in two weeks.

To sum up, what’s usually called ‘clean coal’ isn’t clean. The real thing, cost-effective coal-fired power stations with CCS, is never going to happen.

18 thoughts on “Clean coal

  1. It is next to impossible to get a new coal power station built now due to low cost competition from wind and solar. It would be completely impossible to get one built with carbon capture and storage which will increase both the initial cost and operating costs.

    The surge in coal prices since June, while helping Australian coal mining companies, has probably reduced the likelihood of new coal power stations being built by making it clear that low coal prices can’t be relied on, even with worldwide demand falling.

    Both China and India have committed to eventually ending coal imports. India apparently will build no new coal plants but only finish those already underway. This is still a huge amount of capacity, but hopefully a considerable number won’t be completed. Those that are completed are expected to operated at under 50% of capacity.

  2. Certainly the Chinese are taking CCS very seriously – although, yes, the consensus is that CCS is not yet commercially viable. Of course when I visited China in 1986 solar was non-viable. But now you see panels everywhere – in villagers, on motorways. Given the stakes probably worth continuing to explore CCS possibilities.

  3. one should never say never…but, restricting output interests only to power generation and not negative emissions, then the probability of that last sentence being correct is as close as you can to 1 without being 1. If a sufficiently high carbon price is required to drive gas from the power input mix globally over the coming decades, that would lower that probability of that forecast.

    So we’re all hoping storage technology R&D activities achieve desired outcomes I guess.

    still, in the absence of other sufficiently advanced contenders (and there are technological alternatives to CCS for industry – continuing R&D will keep them moving along), CCS remains in 100 year projections for complete decarbonisation of industry and in the role of negative emissions to bring future temperature increases back down to 1.5-2 degrees.

    (who always wonders about arguments of ‘but there’s only one working’…as it could have been said about solar, or large-scale wind for a long time too)

  4. “Cost-effective coal-fired power stations with CCS, is never going to happen.”

    I said this at the start of the debate when CCS was first mooted. I was right.

    I said an Emissions Trading Scheme would never work in practice. I was right.

    I said solar power would never provide a good enough EROEI. I was wrong.

    Two out of three ain’t bad.

  5. hc and Christopher, once wind and solar are cheaper than conventional new coal power stations it is all over for carbon capture and storage, and we are at that point now. Since it involves extra stuff and burning extra coal to power the process, it can never be cheaper than conventional coal.

    Coal is also expensive to use for load following and very expensive for meeting meet peak demand, so other methods will be used.

    Carbon capture and storage could be used with biomass to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, but that only makes sense if the price of electricity is high enough to make it worthwhile. Due to the low and falling cost of solar and wind power this doesn’t seem likely to me. I expect it would be both cheaper and safer to sequester the carbon in biomass directly.

  6. Unfortunately Clean Coal has been remarkably successful as a way of soaking up research dollars and functioning as a decoy. It’a hard not to see the last two decades as suffering a total lack of leadership in almost ever sphere of human endeavour.

    It occurred to me today after reading a few articles that part of the problem stems from a paralysing relativism that is dominate in mainstream economic thought. The idea that any profitable endeavour is equal.

  7. Ronald, Is that claim supporting wind and solar with or without an externality-internalizing carbon tax?

  8. hc, rooftop solar is the lowest cost source of electricity in Australia. Even without the STCs that lower the cost of installing systems it would still be cheaper than solely relying on the grid for many people. Of course, if the Renewable Energy Target support were suddenly removed instead of being gradually phased out as it currently is, the amount of rooftop solar currently being installed would be greatly reduced. And more people would die from the effects of fossil fuel pollution and global warming.

    In a variety of sunny locations around the world utility scale solar has been bid in at around or under 3 US cents a watt. Wind in the US is being built for under 3 US cents a watt. Offshore wind, usually vastly more expensive than onshore, is now being built for as low as about 10 Australian cents a kilowatt-hour in Europe.

    Coal has a lot of difficulty in competing. Note it is not enough for wind and solar to currently be more expensive in a region for a new coal power station to pay for itself. Wind and solar would have to be more expensive for years to come for new coal power to turn a profit. This has put a damper on investment in coal power.

    Generally, you’ll only find coal plants being built where they can get a guaranteed price. That is, no merchant plants, as they call them in the US, that just sell their output to the local electricity market.

  9. The CC magical thinkers and their PR geniuses are still working hard on it.

    Guardian from 4 January:

    ” Indian firm makes carbon capture breakthrough

    Carbonclean is turning planet-heating emissions into profit by converting CO2 into baking soda – and could lock up 60,000 tonnes of CO2 a year

    A breakthrough in the race to make useful products out of planet-heating CO2 emissions has been made in southern India.

    A plant at the industrial port of Tuticorin is capturing CO2 from its own coal-powered boiler and using it to make baking soda.

    Crucially, the technology is running without subsidy, which is a major advance for carbon capture technology as for decades it has languished under high costs and lukewarm government support.

    The firm behind the Tuticorin process says its chemicals will lock up 60,000 tonnes of CO2 a year and the technology is attracting interest from around the world.

    Debate over carbon capture has mostly focused until now on carbon capture and storage (CCS), in which emissions are forced into underground rocks at great cost and no economic benefit. The Tuticorin plant is said to be the first unsubsidised industrial scale example of carbon capture and utilisation (CCU).

    There is already a global market for CO2 as a chemical raw material. It comes mainly from industries such as brewing where it is cheap and easy to capture.

    Until now it has been too expensive without subsidy to strip out CO2 from the relatively low concentrations in which it appears in flue gas. The Indian plant has overcome the problem by using a new CO2-stripping chemical.

    It is just slightly more efficient than the current CCS chemical amine, but its inventors, Carbonclean, say it also needs less energy, is less corrosive, and requires much smaller equipment meaning the build cost is much lower than for conventional carbon capture.

    The new kit has been installed at Tuticorin Alkali Chemicals. The firm is now using the CO2 from its own boiler to make baking soda – a base chemical with a wide range of uses including glass manufacture, sweeteners, detergents and paper products.

    The firm’s managing director, Ramachandran Gopalan, told BBC Radio 4: “I am a businessman. I never thought about saving the planet. I needed a reliable stream of CO2, and this was the best way of getting it.” He says the plant now has virtually zero emissions to air or water.

    Carbonclean believes capturing usable CO2 can deal with perhaps 5-10% of the world’s emissions from coal. It’s no panacea, but it would be a valuable contribution because industrial steam-making boilers are hard to run on renewable energy.

    The inventors of the new process are two young chemists at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur. They failed to find Indian finance and were welcomed instead by the UK government, which offered grants and the special entrepreneur status that whisks them through the British border.

    The firm’s headquarters are now based in London’s Paddington district. Its CEO, Aniruddha Sharma, said: “So far the ideas for carbon capture have mostly looked at big projects, and the risk is so high they are very expensive to finance. We want to set up small-scale plants that de-risk the technology by making it a completely normal commercial option.”

    By producing a subsidy-free carbon utilisation project, Carbonclean appears to have something of a global lead. But it is by no means alone. Carbon8 near Bristol is buying in CO2 to make aggregates, and other researchers are working on making plastics and fuels from waste CO2.

    At last, it seems, the race to turn CO2 into profit is really on.”


  10. Better hope that those looking to use baking soda to store co2 never let any moisture near it. And that they’ve got access to some very large storage facilities for the volumes required as a mitigation technology (as opposed to ‘small scale’ commercial market needs)

  11. More than three times as much CO2 by weight is produced than the coal burned making it – I keep circling back to those numbers. Purely on that basis I just can’t see how it can ever be a low cost process.

  12. @hc
    Take a look at Lazard’s LCOE 10.0 report for 2016 (Google for “lazard lcoe 10.0” to find the link). On-shore wind is now the cheapest technology in the US and utility-scale solar PV is now narrowly cheaper than combined cycle gas (even assuming a $3.50/mmbtu gas price). Everything else is left in the coal dust.

  13. Does that descrive the costs of base load power generation? Wind power works when the wind blows and solar power is ineffective at midnight? I know batteries can store power but they are expensive. I use solar at home and it is a good deal during the day.

  14. @hc
    These are levelised costs of energy only. Every generation technology has limitations and integration costs — LCOE doesn’t attempt to include this. Wind power integration costs (for example) have been shown in some grids to be quite low.

  15. hc, when wind and solar penetration increase high enough, coal generation goes bust. This has happened in South Australia with the state’s 2 coal power stations permanently shut and there are now no generators operating in baseload mode. This is because, while gas and hydroelectricity can shut down and conserve their “fuel” for later when wind and solar power push wholesale electricity prices down. But most of the cost of coal power is capital, which means less money is saved by shutting down when prices are low, and on top of that, turning coal power stations on and off is bad for their lifespan and increases maintenance costs.

    When power that needs to be dispatched to meet demand, other types of generation such as gas and hydroelectricity and pumped hydro will do it. Presumably in the future batteries will also play a role. Grid operators are looking at battery storage to reduce transmission costs and while battery storage doesn’t really pay for itself yet unless your household is very weird, it is getting close.

  16. I think fossil fuel plant will have to linger for some time as backup to renewables, with the costs of doing so at ever increasing rates of sitting idle making ever greater incentives to improve and introduce other solutions, including grid scale and distributed (household) storage. It may be a leap of faith to push intermittent RE past the limits of the existing networks and storage technologies, ready or not, but it’s less of a leap of faith than persisting with fossil fuels and hoping the economic costs of climate change won’t be that bad.

  17. “Even if all the coal-fired CCS power plant projects anywhere in the world that are listed by the Institute as possibly happening by 2030 are included, the total amount of CO2 captured would be less than 20 million tonnes a year.”

    The latest issue of “The Chemical Engineer” (December 2016 / January 2017) quotes the IEA Report “Global Status of CCS: 2016” with 15 large-scale plants in operation capturing 30 Mt/y and 6 more plants due in 2017. The Summary Report (downloadable for free!) gives the total of these 21 at 40.3 Mtpa (end of 2017). Our own Gorgon plant is mentioned.

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