There’s no such thing as “clean coal”!

It was recently reported that the European Union will additionally invest € 50 billion in energy technology research over the next ten years. Unfortunately, a closer look at the actual numbers reveals that 40% of the funds will go into the technologies of the past (nuclear and coal), with € 13 billion for carbon capture and storage (CCS) being the seccond-biggest investment. In my opinion, the EU sets the wrong priorities as CCS is no sustainable solution to the challenges of climate change. In fact, each euro that goes into CCS research is a euro that doesn’t go into solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, biomass or other renewable energy research and thereby further diverts us from the vision of 100% renewable energy production!

Let us take a look at the facts: CCS aims at reducing CO2 emissions by capturing CO2 from coal power plants and burying it in the ground. Thereby, coal should transform itself from the dirtiest source of energy to “clean coal” and become a measure to mitigate climate change. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as “clean coal” as the CCS technology entails several risks and uncertainties regarding its technological feasibility, economic viability and environmental impact.

(1) CCS is not technologically mature: In fact, CCS still lacks technological development and there are no commercial-scale CCS plants to prove a secure and long-term underground storage of CO2 under different geological conditions. In contrast, we already have great technological solutions such as concentrated solar power or off-shore windmills for producing huge amounts of renewable energy.

(2) CCS has no economic advantage compared to other sources of energy: Estimated costs for CCS demonstration plants range from £ 1 billion for four plants in the UK to € 10 billion for twelve plants in the EU. It doesn’t surprise that there’s pressure from the Treasury to scale back the UK’s CCS plans and that E.ON recently stopped plans to build the new Kingsnorth coal power plant. Apart from high infrastructure costs, it is also expected that CCS plants will considerably increase the costs of energy from coal as the technology will need approximately one third more energy and water. This will both increase the price for coal energy and decrease resource efficiency! In contrast, due to rapid technological progress, free resources (sun, wind) and economies of scale, renewable energy sources will soon achieve grid parity and cost less than “clean coal”.

(3) CCS hinders the achievement of short-term and medium-term emission reduction targets: Apparently, CCS is not able to rapidly capture sufficient CO2 emissions as only 25% of CO2 emissions have to be captured at the beginning in the UK. This means that 75% of emissions still get into the atmosphere and thereby contribute to climate change. Even if the share of captured emissions will rise in the future, it is clear that these low requirements at the beginning make it impossible to achieve a significant reduction of CO2 emissions by 2020. Moreover, only new coal plants have to deploy CCS in the UK whereas there is successful widespread resistance against regulations for existing coal plants.

(4) CCS impedes investments into renewable energy sources: As already said above, every euro that goes into CCS won’t go into renewable energy sources, innovative smart grids or energy efficiency measures. The funds for the technological development of CCS as well as for the actual operation of the plants could be better used for renewable energy investments. CCS is simply a measure of the fainthearted fossil energy lobby to avoid a comprehensive, clean and sustainable energy transformation.

(5) CCS is an environmental burden for future generations: Common sense and scientific research tells us that no one can guarantee that the CO2 can be securely stored for tens, hundreds or even thousands of years. But this would be the essence of long-term solutions for climate change. Imagine that we manage to achieve the necessary structural changes until 2050 and then suddenly realize that the stored CO2 leaks into the atmosphere! Or what about the dangers of earthquaes or to underground water? Who takes responsibility towards our children and grandchildren that they don’t inherit a CO2 time bomb in the ground? Apparently no one can take this responsibility as German energy companies want to put the responsibility for a secure CO2 storage 20-30 years after the closure of a plant on the government and therefore on all citizens. In my opinion, these plans of energy companies are the evidence that they can’t guarantee a secure long-term storage of CO2.

So, I think that CCS is technologically insecure and economically unviable as well as a risky step into the wrong direction in terms of climate change and energy transformation. Therefore, we shouldn’t follow the political and economic hesitators like Miliband and Merkel or E.ON and Shell but instead set the right steps to a sustainable energy future!

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Note: This blogpost was also published on the TH!NK ABOUT IT website.

Posted on October 11, 2009 in Climate Change

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About the Author

Andreas Lindinger is a Vienna-based business consultant, sustainability expert and urban thinker passionate about livable cities, sustainable transportation, renewable energy and civic engagement. Andreas offers a transdisciplinary business, finance and sustainability background, industry expertise in energy, mobility and environmental consulting and broad international experience gained in Vienna, Vancouver, Berlin and Dublin. Make sure to also check out Vienncouver.com and to follow @lindinger on Twitter.

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