Last month, the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory issued a report on its supposed “roadmap” for carbon dioxide “capture and storage” (CCS). There’s a great deal of technical analysis in the report, purporting to paint a rosy picture for the future of this technology. The problem is, in the end, it fails to actually do so.
Among the many other problems in this report are numerous, optimistic assertions, unsupported by the evidence, such as “The success of DOE research and related program activities will enable CCS technologies to overcome a multitude of economic, social, and technical challenges” and “Through these advances, the United States will continue to have access to safe, reliable, and affordable energy from fossil fuels."
In fact, any advance in CCS technology is almost certainly going to be heavily - if not completely - dependent on expanded government welfare for the coal industry, for the indefinite future. This includes a wide variety of subsidies, lax enforcement of environmental laws, and other special favors to ensure that coal “externalities” - environmental and health costs - are kept external for the forseeable future. Although it is hidden in this report, the deadly threat to the coal industry is clear to anyone paying attention: if “externalities” are factored into the price of coal, and/or if a price is put on CO2, then coal will be in big trouble, fighting to stay in business even with massive government assistance.
The bottom line is that coal's advances, not to mention its every competitiveness as an industry, are heavily dependent on large-scale government welfare, and this cheerleading paper for the coal industry can’t hide that. Which makes it all the more ironic that the coal industry’s attacks on clean energy have frequently focused on painting renewables as unduly reliant on government subsidies, even as the coal industry itself benefits from a wide variety of implicit and explicit government subsidies – turning a blind eye to its clear violations of the clean water and clean air acts, for instance – to its own industry.
The funny thing is, even this pro-coal, cheerleading report by DOE/NETL can’t really make the case for coal. Instead, if you read the report carefully, you find that “large pilot-scale field testing” of “advanced post- and oxy-combustion CO2 capture technologies” isn’t even expected until 2020 at the earliest, with the goal of the testing to “identify and develop advanced CO2 capture technologies capable of achieving the program goals and be commercially available by 2030.” That’s 20 years from now that we might - just might – have a commercially viable CO2 capture technology available.
And even then, it won’t be nearly sufficient. In fact, according to the DOE/NETL report, “a minimum of 90 percent CO2 reduction from fossil fuel power plants is required to make a significant impact on stabilizing atmospheric CO2 levels.” Good luck reaching that level of reductions; in fact, we won’t even come close, certainly not in the next decade or two. As if that’s not bad enough, DOE/NETL also “estimates that using today’s commercially available CCS technologies would add around 80 percent to the cost of electricity for a new PC plant, and around 35 percent to the cost of electricity for a new advanced gasification-based plant.” So much for CCS being economically viable, even if it ever becomes technologically viable in 20 years or so, which is not particularly likely either.
In sum, workable CCS is most likely far more than 20 years away, won’t be economically viable even then, and certainly won’t come close to heading off climate disruption disaster. So why is government pouring billions and billions of dollar into this boondoggle, instead of spending it on clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency?