Would an 80% premium steer you away from an energy source that was low-carbon, naturally abundant in the United States, not subject to the vicissitudes of weather, incapable of nuclear meltdown and accompanied by a well-established infrastructure? Suppose the premium was only 40%?
Hearings last week before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation explored that topic in connection with the development of carbon capture and storage technology. In prepared remarks Dr. Julio Friedmann, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Clean Coal with the Department of Energy, delivered an update on the status of CCS.
Coal fuels approximately 40% of the nation's energy needs. "Because it is abundant, the clean and efficient use of coal is a key part of President Obama's all-of-the-above energy strategy." A central component of the President's program is the Clean Coal Research Program, which " is designed to enhance [the nation's] energy security and reduce environmental concerns over the future use of coal by developing a portfolio of cutting-edge clean coal technologies." To accomplish this the Department of Energy is focusing on research to capture carbon dioxide directly from the fuel stream (pre-combustion), from the stack gas (post-combustion) and from combustion in nearly pure oxygen (oxy-combustion, which yields nearly pure CO2 and water, which are easily separated).
Dr. Friedmann went on to discuss the Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnerships, which are investigating the viability of CCS projects in a variety of circumstances. "Together, the Partnerships form a network of capability, knowledge, and infrastructure that will help enable geologic storage technology to play a role in the clean energy economy. They represent regions encompassing 97 percent of coal-fired CO2 emissions, 97 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, 96 percent of the total land mass, and essentially all the geologic storage sites that can potentially be available for geologic carbon storage.”
Last, Dr. Friedmann addressed the commercialization of CCS. This has two components: the operation of CCS facilities, and the utilization of the captured CO2. The idea behind utilization in activities such as enhanced oil recovery and algae production is to "provide a technology bridge" which can smooth the " transition to the deployment of the large-scale, stand-alone geologic sequestration operations that will ultimately be needed to achieve the much larger emissions reductions required ..." As for those operations, Dr. Friedmann acknowledged dozens of projects, including 5 he listed by name, where CCS is being tested in commercial environments.
But the real interest of the committee, at least as reported in the trade press, was in cost. As reported in Power and Power Engineering International, Dr. Friedman advised that implementing CCS "looks something like a 70% or 80% increase on the wholesale price of electricity." Second generation technologies could cut that in half. But half is still a 40% increase.
Some might pull the plug on CCS right now. If it is going to raise the price by 40%, that is simply too much. To our mind, however, that is antediluvian thinking. Regulation of carbon dioxide emissions is already happening. Climate change is not taking a wait-and-see approach. Inexorably the earth warms, the oceans rise, the world of yesterday is not the world of tomorrow. CCS has a place at the energy banquet.
Further, before turning off CCS, it is useful to consider the costs of the alternatives. The Energy Information Administration has calculated the "levelized" cost of various energy sources. "Levelized cost is often cited as a convenient summary measure of the overall competiveness of different generating technologies. It represents the per-kilowatthour cost (in real dollars) of building and operating a generating plant over an assumed financial life and duty cycle." Two things relevant here come out of the EIA table. First, among dispatchable power (i.e., power that can respond when it is needed), with or without CCS, the most cost-effective power source is natural gas. Second, when non-dispatchable power is included, even with CCS, coal is more cost-effective than offshore wind and both photovoltaic and thermal solar.
In other words, if the issue is solely cost, coal loses to natural gas and the effect of CCS does not change the outcome. If the issues are non-cost values, then coal with CCS comes to the table with green credentials, high power density, dispatchable output, good jobs, national security bona fides, and installed infrastructure, many of which coal's renewable competition cannot match.