A Free-Market Energy Blog

CO2-Capture Coal Plants: A Ban by Another Name

By -- February 19, 2009

The top agenda item for many climate activists (James Hansen, for example) is stopping the construction of new coal-fired power plants. Coal is the most carbon-intensive fuel, and the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from new coal plants at various planning stages could swamp by as much as 5 to 1 all the emissions reductions the European Union, Russia, and Japan might achieve under the Kyoto Protocol. Either climate activists kill coal, or coal will bury Kyoto.

Al Gore and his comrades at “We Can Solve It” go even further. They urge policymakers to “re-power” America with zero-carbon, emission-free electricity by 2018. In 2007, the favored renewables—wind, solar, geothermal, municipal waste, and biomass—produced 72.4 gigawatts of electricity in the U.S. power sector (see Table A16 of EIA’s 2009 Annual Energy Outlook Summary Reference Case Tables). In contrast, total power-sector generation in 2007 was 3,827 gigawatts. So the “We Can Solve It” crowd wants energy sources that supply less than 2% of U.S. electric generation today to supplant the coal- and gas-fired power plants that provide almost 70% of current generation–all in 10 years.

If seriously pursued, this agenda would lead to hyperinflation of electricity prices (because demand for renewable electricity, ramped up by mandates, would vastly exceed supply), turn out the lights (a transition that big and that fast would not be smooth), and crash the economy. It would also set a world record for government waste, because hundreds of coal and natural gas power plants would be de-commissioned long before the end of their useful lives.

The proposal is so cockamamie I would feel silly blogging about it were it not the brainchild of a former Vice President, Nobel Prize Winner, New York Times best-seller-list author, and Academy Award film star.

The more urbane climate activists don’t talk about tearing down coal plants or even banning them. Instead, they call for a “moratorium” on new coal plants until such time as the technology and infrastructure are deployed to capture and store the CO2 emissions.

What prompts these observations is an article earlier this week in Greenwire summarizing a study by Emerging Energy Research (EER) on the pace and funding of carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstration projects around the world. According to the study (which costs $3,750 to download in PDF, so I am relying on Greenwire’s review and a report outline posted on EER’s Web site), governments have earmarked about $20 billion for CCS projects. How much of that will actually be spent is anyone’s guess.

Neither Greenwire nor EER’s Web site provide what would seem to be the most relevant datum for potential investors, policymakers, and consumers—namely, how much it costs per ton for a coal-fired power plant to capture and store CO2.

According to the Department of Energy, carbon capture of CO2 from coal electric generating units costs about $150 per ton. That is more than twice the EIA-estimated cost of carbon permits in 2030 under the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act (S. 2191), a bill the U.S. Senate did not see fit to pass.

In 2007, EIA analyzed the National Commission on Energy Policy’s cap-and-trade proposal featuring a “safety valve” price initially set at $7.00 per ton CO2-equivalent and increasing by 5% annually above inflation. EIA concluded that the proposed carbon penalty was not steep enough to make CCS economical (see p. 16 of the EIA report). That’s hardly surprising, if CCS costs $150 per ton. So all we need to do is increase the carbon penalty, and then we’ll get lots of investment in CCS, right?

Well, maybe not. In the same EIA report (p. 11), coal generation in the reference case (no cap-and-trade) increases from 2,505 billion kWh in 2006 to 3,381 billion kWh in 2030—a 34% increase. In contrast, under the NCEP cap-and-trade program with a gradually increasing safety valve price initially set at $7.00 per ton, coal generation increases from 2,505 billion kWh in 2006 to only 2,530 billion kWh in 2030—a 0.9% increase. That’s if auctioning of carbon permits is phased in. If all permits are auctioned from the get-go, coal generation actually declines slightly—from 2,505 billion kWh in 2006 to 2,500 billion kWh in 2030.

If a relatively small carbon penalty can essentially block new coal generation, a large carbon penalty might just as well lead to capital flight from coal rather than to a surge of investment in CCS.

A recent news item may be relevant to this discussion. Just two days after EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said she would consider interpreting the Clean Air Act to require coal power plants applying for Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) pre-construction permits to install best available control technology (BACT) for CO2, “AES Corporation, one of the world’s largest power companies with almost $14 billion in revenues in 2007, announced it would withdraw an application to build a new coal-fired power plant in Oklahoma,” the Huffington Post reports.

BACT for CO2 from coal power plants would most likely take the form of process efficiency upgrades, not anything nearly as costly or experimental as CCS. Yet, apparently, the risk of potential BACT regulation of CO2 was enough to deter AES from investing in a new coal power plant.

Experts I have spoken with say it could take a decade of research just to determine whether CCS would be economical under a range of carbon penalties, another decade to build the infrastructure of pipelines and storage facilities at an industrial scale (the CO2 pipeline network would rival the U.S. natural gas and petroleum pipeline networks in size; see p. ix of MIT’s CCS study), years to work out the regulatory and liability issues, and years to overcome NIMBY opposition.

So the so-called moratorium on new coal plants lacking CCS is just a ban by another name. What are the risks?

U.S. electricity demand is growing (or at least was growing before the recession), and coal is the fuel of choice in many markets. EIA projects that between 2006 and 2030, coal will provide 42% of all new electric power-sector generation in the United States, with new coal power plants providing 8% all U.S. power-sector generation by 2030. Banning that much new coal generation would, at a minimum, drive up electricity and natural gas prices. The effectual ban could also create significant imbalances between supply and demand, increasing the risk of local or regional energy crises.


  1. Wayne from Jeremiah Films  

    Great title … Great timing, after the Stabenow Doctrine and Stimulus packages.

    I’ve linked to your post from Discerning Science – Global Warming – Debate


  2. Ed Reid  

    “In contrast, total power-sector generation in 2007 was 3,827 gigawatts. ”

    That would actually be 3,827 terawatt-hours, but who’s counting. ( Roughly 1000 GW of capacity at ~40% capacity factor.)

    “Let the bastards freeze in the dark.”


  3. TokyoTom  

    Marlo, couldn’t nuclear plants replace coal? Wouldn’t carbon taxes or cap and trade simply push the market in this direction, as well as encouraging investment in CCS, air capture and offset technologies?

    Sure we should be concerned about the costs of carbon policies, but unfortunately there is also a downside to BAU.


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