“Clean Coal”: Boon or Boondoggle?

President Obama says he favors “Clean Coal.” Coal produces 49% of the electricity generated in the United States. But burning coal puts carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and that scares the politically correct and the carbon cultists, including Barack Obama and John McCain. Their solution is to capture carbon dioxide, transport it to a storage site, and bury it. That comes at considerable cost in both dollars and in additional coal burned to produce the energy needed for the process. But “clean coal” is now the political panacea, even though there is no evidencethat CO2 emissions significantly affect temperature. In fact, additional atmospheric CO2 would be beneficial by making plant life more robust.

Coal-fired plants are much cleaner than they were in 1970 when Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments. Since that time, coal-fired electrical generation increased by 180% while SO2 emissions decreased by 80% and NOx decreased by 70% (in pounds per megawatt-hour) according to the EPA. According to the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, a new pulverized coal plant (operating at lower, “subcritical” temperatures and pressures) reduces the emission of NOx by 86 percent, SO2 by 98 percent, and particulate matter by 99.8 percent, as compared with a similar plant having no pollution controls.

Carbon Capture Technology

The most promising technology for CO2 capture is called Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle. But the cost of building a power plant with this technology to capture 90% of the CO2 generated is 47% higher than that for a traditional power plant, according to a 2006 study by the EPA.

According to the Department of Energy (DOE), existing capture technologies are not cost-effective when considered in the context of sequestering CO2 from power plants. Most power plants and other large point sources use air-fired combustors, a process that exhausts CO2 diluted with nitrogen. Flue gas from coal-fired power plants contains 10%-12% CO2 by volume, while flue gas from natural gas combined cycle plants contains only 3%-6% CO2. For effective carbon sequestration, the CO2 in these exhaust gases must be concentrated and separated.

CO2 is currently recovered from combustion exhaust by using amine absorbers and cryogenic coolers. The cost of CO2 capture using current technology is on the order of $150 per ton of carbon – much too high for carbon emissions reduction applications according to DOE. Analysis performed by SFA Pacific, Inc. indicates that adding existing technologies for CO2 capture to an electricity generation process could increase the cost of electricity by 2.5 cents- to 4 cents/kWh depending on the type of process. That would about double the cost of natural gas and coal produced electricity, making it almost as expensive as electricity produced from wind energy.

The EPA, which usually underestimates costs, says that capturing CO2 imposes a cost of about $24 per ton, much less than DOE. Even at that lower estimate, however, the largest U.S. power plant which emits about 25 million tons of CO2 annually, would incur an extra cost of $600 million per year. For all U.S. coal-fired power plants, which emit a total of more than 2.2 billion tons annually, the cost would be $52 billion per year. Passing along the capital and operating costs to consumers would raise electricity prices by almost 40% according to the EPA.

Carbon Storage

The capture cost is only part of the story. The gas must be compressed, transported, and buried.

Where would it be stored? Several types of geological reservoirs theoretically provide sufficient storage capacity. According to the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), “more than 88 billion metric tons of geologic storage potential exists in 9,667 oil and gas reservoirs distributed over 27 states and 3 Canadian provinces.”

Unmineable coal seams can be drilled to collect the methane for use in energy applications. Once the methane is recovered, CO2 could be pumped into the wells, where it is preferentially stored in the coal, releasing additional methane. “More than 180 billion metric tons of CO2 sequestration potential exists in unmineable coal seams…distributed over 24 states and 3 provinces,” according to NETL.

Deep saline formations could provide another storage option. An analysis by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2006 showed that wells deep underground consisting of porous rock, such as limestone or sandstone, saturated with saltwater, would form an effective trap for injected CO2. Geologically, over time, some CO2 would react with rock minerals to form solid carbonates, further immobilizing it. Deep saline aquifers could potentially store between 3,300 to more than 12,200 billion metric tons of CO2, according to NETL.


Pipe Dreams

In theory, there appears to be plenty of potential underground storage for captured carbon dioxide, but the theoretical is different from the practical. Location relative to the power plants makes much of these reservoirs impractical to actually use.

Getting the carbon dioxide from the power plants to the storage areas is problematic and expensive. And, of course, Greenie extremists are likely to oppose construction of the many high-pressure pipelines that would be required. A report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS), entitled “Pipelines for Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Control: Network Needs and Cost Uncertainties” (Jan. 10, 2008) shows several hypothetical examples of CO2 pipelines running from the 11 largest CO2 emitters in Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia — all coal-fired electric power plants emitting over 9 million metric tons of CO2 annually — to potential regional sequestration sites.

In the least expensive scenario, it would take an estimated $66 million to build pipelines each with a capacity of 10 million tons of CO2 annually from the 11 plants to a nearby geological formation called Rose Run. Unfortunately, as the CRS points out, Rose Run may not have the capacity to accept all the CO2 produced, and injecting pressurized CO2 may cause minor earthquakes. While the earthquakes may create additional capacity for CO2, they may also produce permanent conduits for leakage.

Unmineable coal beds in the same general area as Rose Run are another option but their capacity falls far short of Rose Run’s.

The 10 largest local depleted oil and gas fields have an average capacity of 251 million tons of CO2, but the 30-year CO2 output of the 11 plants is estimated to range from 270 million tons to 491 million tons at current emission levels. Not only is their capacity lacking, but the oil and gas fields pose a significant risk of leaking.

A final option considered by CRS is piping the CO2 hundreds of miles west to a geological area in Michigan, Indiana and western Ohio known as the Mt. Simon formation. The average cost of building each pipeline would be $150 million.

That’s a bargain, however, compared to a geographically disadvantaged area like North Carolina. A Duke University study estimated it would cost $5 billion to transport CO2 from North Carolina’s electric utilities to sequestration sites in other states.

The CRS report emphasized an August 2007 decision by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to reject a 450-mile pipeline to a Canadian oil field costing over $635 million as “not in the public interest.”

According to the Business & Media Institute, Stanford Professor Ken Caldeira, an IPCC Report Author, estimates that the annual cost to capture carbon from power plants worldwide, will be $800 billion.

Another study by Xina Xie, University of Wyoming, and Michael Economides, University of Texas, The Impact of Carbon Geological Sequestration, says that carbon capture sequestration for just Kyoto Protocol-type CO2 cuts in the U.S. would require the drilling of 161,429 injection wells by 2030 at a cost of 1.61 trillion dollars — and there’s no guarantee that the CO2 would stay sequestered, much less accomplish anything for the climate.

Boon or Boondoggle

While carbon capture and storage may be technologically possible, it makes no sense either economically or scientifically. It is a solution seeking a problem; it is utter wastefulness. But bureaucrats, politically correct and stupid politicians, and industry, will suck up to the trough of public money to promote these wasteful schemes in an attempt to quell the phantom menace of carbon dioxide. Raising the cost of electricity 50% to 100% should make us feel all warm and fuzzy since “clean coal” will assuage our carbon guilt.

And just to make it interesting, the Center for Biological Diversity has just formed a new law institute in San Francisco with the goal of stopping all electrical generation from use of fossil fuels. I hope they will not be hypocrites and actually use fossil-fuel-produced electricity during their campaign.



  1. Sorry I missed this one on Monday.

    As to the cost of alternative energy – are you comparing relative costs based on current prices?  I ask because the costs of fossil-fuel energy will certainly go up in the future.  It is expected that China alone will be using additional energy sources equivalent to the current US demand in the near future.  Increased demand, decreased availability = increased price; isn’t that how it works? 

    Interesting how projected costs are used to make an argument.  I have yet to hear the right wing say, “Well, we’d really like to invade a country or two this year, but it’s just not in the budget”.

    1. The costs are current prices.  I agree that fossil fuel costs could go up in the future if the government keeps interfering with exploration and development.  The U.S. has at least a 600-year supply of coal according to the U.S.G.S.  Add to that the potential natural gas  from shale  and off-shore deposits, and off-shore oil, the U.S. is energy rich, but is hampered from exploration and development because of government policies.

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