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More Thoughts about Receding Prospects for "Clean Coal"

Another factor casting a shadow on carbon-free coal: the revolution in "unconventiona gas"

2 min read
More Thoughts about Receding Prospects for "Clean Coal"

Readers commenting on my last post about clean coal, in which I suggested that its prospects might be a mirage, took me to task for, among other things:

• taking climate change seriously

• being anti-technology and a luddite because I see the outlook for carbon capture and storage as cloudy

• being naive about prospects for winning public acceptance of plans to store carbon dioxide in geologic repositories

• neglecting to mention some clean coal projects that are going forward

• presenting biased accounts of developments in energy generally

• not writing well and not making myself clear

For the record, let me just affirm emphatically that I am pro-technology and absolutely in favor of carbon capture and sequestration (CC&S) if methods of doing it economically can be developed. Several years ago I wrote a feature article about a clean-coal project for one of IEEE Spectrum's "winners and losers" January issues, declaring the project a winner if only because it had been undertaken at all. My message was that the company responsible for the project deserved to be praised for attempting to do something that so obviously needs to be done.

How should we measure the commercial viability of CC&S? I suggest that clean coal would be commercially competitive if carbon dioxide would be captured and permanently stored at costs that would raise the price of coal-generated electricity by no more than about 50 percent. At that level, clean coal could compete rather evenly with nuclear and wind, and it almost certainly would beat solar. Putting a stiff price on carbon emissions, so that the cost of dirty (conventional) coal is deliberately driven up, could make CC&S, nuclear and wind close competitors, if research and development in CC&S is pursued aggressively.

What my previous post on this subject reported, essentially, is that some demonstration projects unfortunately are not going well and industry seems to be losing faith in the clean-coal vision. That assessment may of course be wrong, but I frankly don't see why that would be a reason to call me biased. Perhaps I did not make myself clear, but I certainly did not say I wanted CC&S to fail.

Admittedly, I did not mention some clean coal projects that are still in the works, notably Southern Company's Kemper project in Mississippi and Duke Power's Edwardsport project in Indiana. (For the record: blog posts are not feature articles or books and do not purport to be comprehensive,) Both Kemper and Edwardsport willl be IGCC plants, assuming they are completed, which have the potential to be adapted for CC&S, though neither is specifically slated for carbon capture at this stage of the game.

Will they in fact be completed? At risk of being charged once again of bias, I feel obliged to take note of yet another shadow. The one IGCC plant currently operating in the United States, in Florida, generates the country's most expensive electricity. Kemper and Edwardsport are going to have to do a lot better if they are going to survive in an environment in which ever more abundant natural gas is driving down electricity prices. In the medium run, the U.S. revolution in natural gas may have an impact on efforts to develop alternative generating technologies analogous to the effect that cheap Chinese silicon has had on advanced solar R&D. That is to say, the impact may be devastating.
 

The Conversation (0)
This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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