This article is from the In-Depth Report A Guide to Carbon Capture and Storage

What to Do about Coal?

Cheap, plentiful coal is expected to fuel power plants for the foreseeable future, but can we keep it from devastating the environment?


Editor's Note: We are posting this feature from our September 2006 issue in light of the Obama administration's renewed focus on how to use the most abundant--and dirtiest--fossil fuel, coal, without overloading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.

More than most people realize, dealing with climate change means addressing the problems posed by emissions from coal-fired power plants. Unless humanity takes prompt action to strictly limit the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere when consuming coal to make electricity, we have little chance of gaining control over global warming.

Slide Show: The Effects of Coal Power on the Planet

Coal—the fuel that powered the Industrial Revolution—is a particularly worrisome source of energy, in part because burning it produces considerably more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity generated than burning either oil or natural gas does. In addition, coal is cheap and will remain abundant long after oil and natural gas have become very scarce. With coal plentiful and inexpensive, its use is burgeoning in the U.S. and elsewhere and is expected to continue rising in areas with abundant coal resources. Indeed, U.S. power providers are expected to build the equivalent of nearly 280 500-megawatt, coal-fired electricity plants between 2003 and 2030. Meanwhile China is already constructing the equivalent of one large coal-fueled power station a week. Over their roughly 60-year life spans, the new generating facilities in operation by 2030 could collectively introduce into the atmosphere about as much carbon dioxide as was released by all the coal burned since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

Coal’s projected popularity is disturbing not only for those concerned about climate change but also for those worried about other aspects of the environment and about human health and safety. Coal’s market price may be low, but the true costs of its extraction, processing and consumption are high. Coal use can lead to a range of harmful consequences, including decapitated mountains, air pollution from acidic and toxic emissions, and water fouled with coal wastes. Extraction also endangers and can kill miners. Together such effects make coal production and conversion to useful energy one of the most destructive activities on the planet.

In keeping with Scientific American’s focus on climate concerns in this issue, we will concentrate below on methods that can help prevent CO2 generated during coal conversion from reaching the atmosphere. It goes without saying that the environmental, safety and health effects of coal production and use must be reduced as well. Fortunately, affordable techniques for addressing CO2 emissions and these other problems already exist, although the will to implement them quickly still lags significantly.

Geologic Storage Strategy
The techniques that power providers could apply to keep most of the carbon dioxide they produce from entering the air are collectively called CO2 capture and storage (CCS) or geologic carbon sequestration. These procedures involve separating out much of the CO2 that is created when coal is converted to useful energy and transporting it to sites where it can be stored deep underground in porous media—mainly in depleted oil or gas fields or in saline formations (permeable geologic strata filled with salty water) [see “Can We Bury Global Warming?” by Robert H. Socolow; Scientific American, July 2005].

All the technological components needed for CCS at coal conversion plants are commercially ready—having been proved in applications unrelated to climate change mitigation, although integrated systems have not yet been constructed at the necessary scales. Capture technologies have been deployed extensively throughout the world both in the manufacture of chemicals (such as fertilizer) and in the purification of natural gas supplies contaminated with carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide (“sour gas”). Industry has gained considerable experience with CO2 storage in operations that purify natural gas (mainly in Canada) as well as with CO2 injection to boost oil production (primarily in the U.S.). Enhanced oil recovery processes account for most of the CO2 that has been sent into underground reservoirs. Currently about 35 million metric tons are injected annually to coax more petroleum out of mature fields, accounting for about 4 percent of U.S. crude oil output.

Implementing CCS at coal-consuming plants is imperative if the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is to be kept at an acceptable level. The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change calls for stabilizing the atmospheric CO2 concentration at a “safe” level, but it does not specify what the maximum value should be. The current view of many scientists is that atmospheric CO2 levels must be kept below 450 parts per million by volume (ppmv) to avoid unacceptable climate changes. Realization of this aggressive goal requires that the power industry start commercial-scale CCS projects within the next few years and expand them rapidly thereafter. This stabilization benchmark cannot be realized by CCS alone but can plausibly be achieved if it is combined with other eco-friendly measures, such as wide improvements in energy efficiency and much expanded use of renewable energy sources.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated in 2005 that it is highly probable that geologic media worldwide are capable of sequestering at least two trillion metric tons of CO2—more than is likely to be produced by fossil-fuel-consuming plants during the 21st century. Society will want to be sure, however, that potential sequestration sites are evaluated carefully for their ability to retain CO2 before they are allowed to operate. Two classes of risks are of concern: sudden escape and gradual leakage.

Rapid outflow of large amounts of CO2 could be lethal to those in the vicinity. Dangerous sudden releases—such as that which occurred in 1986 at Lake Nyos in Cameroon, when CO2 of volcanic origin asphyxiated 1,700 nearby villagers and thousands of cattle—are improbable for engineered CO2 storage projects in carefully selected, deep porous geologic formations, according to the IPCC.

Gradual seepage of carbon dioxide into the air is also an issue, because over time it could defeat the goal of CCS. The 2005 IPCC report estimated that the fraction retained in appropriately selected and managed geologic reservoirs is very likely to exceed 99 percent over 100 years and likely to exceed 99 percent over 1,000 years. What remains to be demonstrated is whether in practice operators can routinely keep CO2 leaks to levels that avoid unacceptable environmental and public health risks.

Technology Choices
Design studies indicate that existing power generation technologies could capture from 85 to 95 percent of the carbon in coal as CO2, with the rest released to the atmosphere.

The coal conversion technologies that come to dominate will be those that can meet the objectives of climate change mitigation at the least cost. Fundamentally different approaches to CCS would be pursued for power plants using the conventional pulverized-coal steam cycle and the newer integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC). Although today’s coal IGCC power (with CO2 venting) is slightly more expensive than coal steam-electric power, it looks like IGCC is the most effective and least expensive option for CCS.

Standard plants burn coal in a boiler at atmospheric pressure. The heat generated in coal combustion transforms water into steam, which turns a steam turbine, whose mechanical energy is converted to electricity by a generator. In modern plants the gases produced by combustion (flue gases) then pass through devices that remove particulates and oxides of sulfur and nitrogen before being exhausted via smokestacks into the air.

Carbon dioxide could be extracted from the flue gases of such steam-electric plants after the removal of conventional pollutants. Because the flue gases contain substantial amounts of nitrogen (the result of burning coal in air, which is about 80 percent nitrogen), the carbon dioxide would be recovered at low concentration and pressure—which implies that the CO2 would have to be removed from large volumes of gas using processes that are both energy-intensive and expensive. The captured CO2 would then be compressed and piped to an appropriate storage site.

In an IGCC system coal is not burned but rather partially oxidized (reacted with limited quantities of oxygen from an air separation plant, and with steam) at high pressure in a gasifier. The product of gasification is so-called synthesis gas, or syngas, which is composed mostly of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, undiluted with nitrogen. In current practice, IGCC operations remove most conventional pollutants from the syngas and then burn it to turn both gas and steam turbine­generators in what is called a combined cycle.

In an IGCC plant designed to capture CO2, the syngas exiting the gasifier, after being cooled and cleaned of particles, would be reacted with steam to produce a gaseous mixture made up mainly of carbon dioxide and hydrogen. The CO2 would then be extracted, dried, compressed and transported to a storage site. The remaining hydrogen-rich gas would be burned in a combined cycle plant to generate power.

Analyses indicate that carbon dioxide capture at IGCC plants consuming high-quality bituminous coals would entail significantly smaller energy and cost penalties and lower total generation costs than what could be achieved in conventional coal plants that captured and stored CO2. Gasification systems recover CO2 from a gaseous stream at high concentration and pressure, a feature that makes the process much easier than it would be in conventional steam facilities. (The extent of the benefits is less clear for lower-grade subbituminous coals and lignites, which have received much less study.) Precombustion removal of conventional pollutants, including mercury, makes it feasible to realize very low levels of emissions at much reduced costs and with much smaller energy penalties than with cleanup systems for flue gases in conventional plants.

Captured carbon dioxide can be transported by pipeline up to several hundred kilometers to suitable geologic storage sites and subsequent subterranean storage with the pressure produced during capture. Longer distances may, however, require recompression to compensate for friction losses during pipeline transfer.

Overall, pursuing CCS for coal power facilities requires the consumption of more coal to generate a kilowatt-hour of electricity than when CO2 is vented—about 30 percent extra in the case of coal steam-electric plants and less than 20 percent more for IGCC plants. But overall coal use would not necessarily increase, because the higher price of coal-based electricity resulting from adding CCS equipment would dampen demand for coal-based electricity, making renewable energy sources and energy-efficient products more desirable to consumers.

The cost of CCS will depend on the type of power plant, the distance to the storage site, the properties of the storage reservoir and the availability of opportunities (such as enhanced oil recovery) for selling the captured CO2. A recent study co-authored by one of us (Williams) estimated the incremental electric generation costs of two alternative CCS options for coal IGCC plants under typical production, transport and storage conditions. For CO2 sequestration in a saline formation 100 kilometers from a power plant, the study calculated that the incremental cost of CCS would be 1.9 cents per kilowatt-hour (beyond the generation cost of 4.7 cents per kilowatt-hour for a coal IGCC plant that vents CO2—a 40 percent premium). For CCS pursued in conjunction with enhanced oil recovery at a distance of 100 kilometers from the conversion plant, the analysis finds no increase in net generation cost would occur as long as the oil price is at least $35 per barrel, which is much lower than current prices.

CCS Now or Later?
Many electricity producers in the industrial world recognize that environmental concerns will at some point force them to implement CCS if they are to continue to employ coal. But rather than building plants that actually capture and store carbon dioxide, most plan to construct conventional steam facilities they claim will be “CO2 capture ready”—convertible when CCS is mandated.

Power providers often defend those decisions by noting that the U.S. and most other countries with coal-intensive energy economies have not yet instituted policies for climate change mitigation that would make CCS cost-effective for uses not associated with enhanced oil recovery. Absent revenues from sales to oil field operators, applying CCS to new coal plants using current technology would be the least-cost path only if the cost of emitting CO2 were at least $25 to $30 per metric ton. Many current policy proposals for climate change mitigation in the U.S. envision significantly lower cost penalties to power providers for releasing CO2 (or similarly, payments for CO2 emissions-reduction credits).

Yet delaying CCS at coal power plants until economy-wide carbon dioxide control costs are greater than CCS costs is shortsighted. For several reasons, the coal and power industries and society would ultimately benefit if deployment of plants fitted with CCS equipment were begun now.

First, the fastest way to reduce CCS costs is via “learning by doing”—the accumulation of experience in building and running such plants. The faster the understanding is accumulated, the quicker the know-how with the new technology will grow, and the more rapidly the costs will drop.

Second, installing CCS equipment as soon as possible should save money in the long run. Most power stations currently under construction will still be operating decades from now, when it is likely that CCS efforts will be obligatory. Retrofitting generating facilities for CCS is inherently more expensive than deploying CCS in new plants. Moreover, in the absence of CO2 emission limits, familiar conventional coal steam-electric technologies will tend to be favored for most new plant construction over newer gasification tech­no­logies, for which CCS is more cost-­effective.

Finally, rapid implementation would allow for continued use of fossil fuels in the near term (until more environmentally friendly sources become prevalent) without pushing atmospheric carbon dioxide beyond tolerable levels. Our studies indicate that it is feasible to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels at 450 ppmv over the next half a century if coal-based energy is completely decarbonized and other measures described in the box at the left are implemented. This effort would involve decarbonizing 36 gigawatts of new coal generating capacity by 2020 (corresponding to 7 percent of the new coal capacity expected to be built worldwide during the decade beginning in 2011 under business-as-usual conditions). In the 35 years after 2020, CO2 capture would need to rise at an average rate of about 12 percent a year. Such a sustained pace is high compared with typical market growth rates for energy but is not unprecedented. It is much less than the expansion rate for nuclear generating capacity in its heyday—1956 to 1980—during which global capacity rose at an average rate of 40 percent annually. Further, the expansion rates for both wind and solar photovoltaic power capacities worldwide have hovered around 30 percent a year since the early 1990s. In all three cases, such growth would not have been practical without public policy measures to support them.

Our calculations indicate that the costs of CCS deployment would be manageable as well. Using conservative ­assumptions—such as that technology will not improve over time—we estimate that the present worth of the cost of ­capturing and storing all CO2 produced by coal-based electricity generation plants during the next 200 years will be $1.8 trillion (in 2002 dollars). That might seem like a high price tag, but it is equivalent to just 0.07 percent of the current value of gross world product over the same interval. Thus, it is plausible that a rapid decarbonization path for coal is both physically and economically feasible, although detailed regional analyses are needed to confirm this conclusion.

Policy Push Is Needed
Those good reasons for commencing concerted CCS efforts soon will probably not move the industry unless it is also prodded by new public policies. Such initiatives would be part of a broader drive to control carbon dioxide emissions from all sources.

In the U.S., a national program to limit CO2 emissions must be enacted soon to introduce the government reg­ulations and market incentives nec­essary to shift investment to the least-polluting energy technologies promptly and on a wide scale. Leaders in the American business and policy communities increasingly agree that quantifiable and enforceable restrictions on global warming emissions are imperative and in­evitable. To ensure that power companies put into practice the reductions in a cost-effective fashion, a market for trading CO2 emissions credits should be created—one similar to that for the ­sulfur emissions that cause acid rain. In such a plan, organizations that intend to exceed designated emission limits may buy credits from others that are able to stay below these values.

Enhancing energy efficiency efforts and raising renewable energy production are critical to achieving carbon dioxide limits at the lowest possible cost. A portion of the emission allowances created by a carbon cap-and-trade program should be allocated to the establishment of a fund to help overcome institutional barriers and technical risks that obstruct widespread deployment of otherwise cost-effective CO2 mitigation technologies.

Even if a carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program were enacted in the next few years the economic value of CO2 emissions reduction may not be enough initially to convince power providers to invest in power systems with CCS. To avoid the construction of another generation of conventional coal plants, it is essential that the federal government establish incentives that promote CCS.

One approach would be to insist that an increasing share of total coal-based electricity generation comes from facilities that meet a low CO2 emissions standard—perhaps a maximum of 30 grams of carbon per kilowatt-hour (an achievable goal using today’s coal CCS technologies). Such a goal might be achieved by obliging electricity producers that use coal to include a growing fraction of decarbonized coal power in their supply portfolios. Each covered electricity producer could either generate the required amount of decar­bonized coal power or purchase decarbonized-generation credits. This system would share the incremental costs of CCS for coal power among all U.S. coal-based electricity producers and consumers.

If the surge of conventional coal-fired power plants currently on drawing boards is built as planned, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will almost certainly exceed 450 ppmv. We can meet global energy needs while still stabilizing CO2 at 450 ppmv, however, through a combination of improved efficiency in energy use, greater reliance on renewable energy resources and, for the new coal investments that are made, the installation of CO2 capture and geologic storage technologies. Even though there is no such thing as “clean coal,” more can and must be done to reduce the dangers and environmental degradations associated with coal production and use. An integrated low-carbon energy strategy that incorporates CO2 capture and storage can reconcile substantial use of coal in the coming decades with the imperative to prevent catastrophic changes to the earth’s climate. 

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