Is Clean Carbon the Answer?

Nuclear energy is back. Once the pariah of energy alternatives, nuclear power has returned to the world’s energy agenda “with a vengeance” according to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. It can thank its greatly reduced impact on global warming, relative to traditional power sources, as the reason for its rehabilitation. But what does this mean for the long-established fossil fuel-generated power industries? How have they reacted to the latest threat to their long-established dominance of the energy market?

Heavily criticized by environment groups because of their woeful record on the release of carbon emissions into the atmosphere — discharges which have been blamed for a dangerous increase in the world’s climate — the challenge now for the world’s traditional fossil fuel industries is to develop technologies that will reduce the release of harmful CO2 gases from its point sources such as power plants and industry. Reducing these emissions to a safe level will not only mitigate the effects of climate change but also make the fossil fuel industries environmentally competitive with nuclear and renewable energy.

One such technology currently being developed is carbon capture and sequestration, a process that involves the capture and burying of CO2 emissions normally released into the atmosphere.

A 2005 report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) describes the process of carbon capture and storage (C.C.S.).

“C.C.S. is a process consisting of the separation of CO2 from industrial and energy-related sources, transport to a storage location and long-term isolation from the atmosphere … the CO2 would then be compressed and transported for storage in geological formations, in the ocean, in mineral carbonates or for use in industrial processes.”

The Bush administration has already thrown its support behind C.C.S. technology when it announced in 2003 the building of a 275-megawatt power plant, which it says will produce hydrogen and electricity using C.C.S. technology.

The plant — known as FutureGen — will take over 10 years to build with the estimated cost of $870 million to be shared between the government and a consortium of mining and energy companies. The project will act as a research facility into the establishment of a cleaner fossil fuel industry.

According to a press release on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Web site, “FutureGen is an initiative to build the world’s first integrated sequestration and hydrogen production research power plant.”

“The $1 billion dollar project is intended to create the world’s first zero-emissions fossil fuel plant. When operational, the prototype will be the cleanest fossil fuel fired power plant in the world.

The prototype plant will establish the technical and economic feasibility of producing electricity and hydrogen from coal (the lowest cost and most abundant domestic energy resource), while capturing and sequestering the carbon dioxide generated in the process.

The project will employ coal gasification technology integrated with combined cycle electricity generation and the sequestration of carbon dioxide emissions,” the press release said.

However, critics of the plan to make fossil fuel clean point to the expense, its environmental effects and danger of leakage into the atmosphere. Environmental groups are also critical of the siphoning off of limited resources away from renewable sources of energy such as wind power and that it may take decades before plants such as these contribute significantly toward power production.

Greenpeace Germany’s climate and energy campaigner, Gabriela von Goerne, had this to say about the I.P.C.C.’s 2005 report:

“This report confirms what we already expected; there are still far too many questions about environmental risk, safety and cost for CCS to be deployed on a scale that would make it economically viable. It would simply not be ready in time to provide us with the huge near term emissions cuts that we need in order to avoid catastrophic climate change.

CCS might be an option in the future when all the questions have been answered and problems ironed out but there is an urgent need for immediate action. That action should be the massive and widespread deployment of available renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies combined with energy conservation,” said von Goerne in a press release.

Other notable environmentalists have also voiced concern. In his book, “The Weather Makers” (Text Publishing, 2005), Professor Tim Flannery describes the risk and dangers of CCS.

“For every ton of coal burned, around 3.7 tons of CO2 is generated. If this voluminous waste could be pumped back into the ground below the power station it would not matter as much, but the rocks that produce coal are not often useful for storing CO2, which means that the gas must be transported.

Once the CO2 arrives at its destination it must be compressed into a liquid so it can be injected into the ground — a step that typically consumes 20% of the energy yielded by burning coal in the first place. Then a kilometer-deep hole must be drilled and the CO2 injected. From that day on, the geological formation must be closely monitored; should the gas ever escape, it has the potential to kill,” Flannery wrote.

However, despite the risks and costs associated with carbon capture and sequestration, fossil fuel industries are pointing to “clean carbon” as the relatively environment-friendly future of the fossil fuel industries. With carbon emissions now almost universally accepted as the main cause of climate change, and with alternative energy sources such as nuclear and renewable energy looming as potential rivals for energy market share, traditional power industries such as coal realize they must clean up their act in order to survive.

By Rich Bowden

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