Coal industry’s carbon capture dream is a dangerous fantasy

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The dream of carbon capture and storage (CCS) continues to keep coal industry and its political backers hopeful for the future. But at what cost?

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(Photo by Eric Kayne/Invision for NRG/AP Images)
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Photo by Eric Kayne/Invision for NRG/AP Images

The dream of carbon capture and storage (CCS) continues to keep the coal industry and its political backers hopeful for the future.

But at what cost?

In the last couple of months we’ve had:

Groups call to retro-fit Victoria’s brown coal fired power stations;

The Victorian government use tax-payer money to partially finance the seismic survey of Gippsland’s Ninety Mile Beach to determine whether off-shore CCS is commercially viable;

And the federal Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications call for public submissions to federal Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg’s bill to amend the Clean Energy Finance Corporation Act to allow it to finance CCS technology.

So let’s remind ourselves of three solid reasons why CCS is not an option to reduce climate pollution and curtail climate change.

One: It doesn’t work.

Globally and at home, CCS has consistently failed to deliver on its promise to reduce future carbon dioxide emissions. These failures have come at eye-watering expense to companies and governments alike. They include:

  • Southern Company, owners of the Kemper “clean coal” plant in Mississippi, US, which spent some US$7.5 billion before pulling the plug after years of research and years of technological failure;
  • Boundary Dam CCS plant in Saskatchewan, Canada, which secured half or less than half of the CO2 it promised to capture, ran way over-budget and faced multi-million dollar payouts for failure to deliver on its contractual terms;
  • The AU$4.3 billion ZeroGen CCS project which the Queensland government abandoned after losing $96.3 million on funds to retrofit the Stanwell power station.

For communities that live around power stations, the promises of CCS are attractive because they suggest the lives of coal-fired power stations can be prolonged in a way that keeps people in jobs and reduces pollution.

The lives of power stations should not be prolonged. These are old, unreliable machines that need to be phased out to protect the climate and people’s health. These communities need certainty about their future, not false hope about propping up a technology that is past its use-by date.

Two: investors are unlikely to fund CCS because it’s more expensive to produce energy with CCS than without.

There’s basically no incentive for the private sector to invest in technology that is unlikely to provide a decent financial return in the short-mid term, if at all.

CO2CRC, the Australian CCS research organisation, which receives considerable government funding, promotes investment in retrofitting existing coal-fired power stations in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley.

Even this organisation of CCS true believers estimates that CCS retro-fits will cost anywhere from $1.48-$2.45 billion per boiler – and that’s for an existing “high efficiency” brown-coal power station. Australia doesn’t have “high efficiency” power stations and is unlikely to build them.

Even if such projects were to get up and running in Australia, you can be absolutely certain these expenses would be passed straight on to consumers, who already bear astronomical power bills.

Three: even if CCS was deemed successful in the short-term and employed economically at scale, CCS will not stop CO2 entering the environment.

In order for CCS to be successful in the long term, the storage systems that hold the carbon need to last in perpetuity to prevent leaks. To put it another way, for CCS to work, it needs to hold on to the captured pollution forever.

CCS facility or storage sites will eventually leak and release carbon pollution into the atmosphere and environment. They could fail at a time when the effects of climate change cannot be reversed.

Such leaks pose toxic air pollution risks to people and the environment.

Leakage of CO2 and increased levels oftoxic air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide, due to additional fossil fuels required for the CCS process, could cause and contribute to a range of costly adverse health impacts to humans and agriculture, including the acidification and eutrophication of land and water.

Even if the technology worked well, there’s absolutely no guarantee huge stockpiles of carbon won’t eventually cause the very problem they were designed to mitigate.

CCS fails from a technological perspective, an economic perspective, and a pollution reduction perspective.

Bronya Lipski is a lawyer at Environmental Justice Australia. EJA’s submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Communications and Environment on the Clean Energy Finance Corporation Amendment (Carbon Capture and Storage) Bill 2017, and other submissions on this amendment, can be seen here.

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47 Comments
  1. john 1 year ago

    Regardless of the cost and the fact no one can get this to work, I bet we will be hearing about clean coal shortly from one of the political leaders in some interview or in some material published by the not so bright news.

    • RobertO 1 year ago

      Hi John, us taxpayers are unlimited pits of money, freely available to all pollies, even the RWNJ whom think coal is the only answer. The COALition is so named because of the RWNJ’s. Also remember clean coal is moving the goal posts from 37% overall efficient to 42% – 44% overall efficency.
      see http://reneweconomy.com.au/does-best-ccs-power-station-in-world-provide-model-for-australia-72476/

      • john 1 year ago

        Reading some of the submissions as listed at end of the article gives some gems. For instance this.
        b. I have worked for many years in the extractive and power industries and in the financing of both.
        c. I was a founder member of the Global Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) Institute
        (under a former engagement).
        2. Submission
        a. I object strongly to the proposed amendment.
        b. With the substantial learned scientific resources available to the Global CCS Institute and it’s well-resourced members strong arguments can be presented to justify CCS technically and geologically.
        There however can be no certainty that re-injected CO2 will remain in situ in perpetuity.

        • Alex Hromas 1 year ago

          Then why is there no carbon capture plant up and running?

          • john 1 year ago

            Becaue.
            1 It is hideously expensive.
            2 even in my cut and paste from a person who worked in the setup of a system it is not reliable.
            3 the consumers have to pick up the cost which is unacceptable.
            So i guess that is why there are none to my knowledge up and running.
            It was a good idea but has proved to be difficult to put into practice even where it was to pump CO2 into oil reserves to enhance the recovery it has proved a dud idea.
            I would have thought this may have worked especially as more oil could be harvested.
            It is a bit like going nuclear once again hideously expensive and do not even look at the long term decommission costs.
            Both ideas have proven to be duds frankly.

          • RobertO 1 year ago

            Hi John, In your reply the Alex Hromas, Australia has already spent close to $500 million, and we have nothing to show for it. In the article they list some power stations that have spent a hell of a lot more and they now only have the bills to show for their CCS projects. One issue is that big business has a habbit of covering up the facts when it comes to grants and subsitutes lies for altering the true facts of where the case is upto.

  2. Catprog 1 year ago

    However some form of Atmospheric Carbon Capture is needed to match the model for 2 degrees by 2050

    • RobertO 1 year ago

      Hi Catprog, Australia has been doing it’s part. Abbott called it “Direct Action Plan” and it seems to be working perfectly (as a transfer of money only to companies that can not prove what their doing is working and what they are do is not something new (or were going to do anyway). Tim Flannery seems to be promoting a thing call Seaweed Carbon Capture which seems to be a very interesting idea given that we have lots of space available to Australia.

      • john 1 year ago

        I laughed at the definition of “Direct Action” very good.

      • Joe 1 year ago

        On David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series on Channel 9 last weekend kelp / seaweed was a feature. Apparently kelp is a bigger storer of CO2 than the tree, so Tim F. is onto something. The COALition’s ‘Direct Action’ is one of the biggest frauds ever perpetrated. Some $2.5 billions of our / taxpayer hard earned has been pissed away as Australia’s CO2 emissions have gone up and up and up ever since the COALition repealed Labor’s ETS. We taxpayers should be asking for a refund of our $2.5 billions!

        • RobertO 1 year ago

          Hi Joe I saw Tim F about seaweed on Catylist so time ago. It seem that CO2 dissolves in water (sea or rain) and that the weed grows best in the top 100 meters of the sea using sunlight as the driver. The person that he was talking to was saying that it rate of CO2 removal was higher that any other plant life, but it need to in less that 100 meter depth so floating platforms seem to be the best answer and the area required was in the order of sq kilometers (not thousands of). The other side of the coin is that removing the CO2 also stop the chemical process of Calcium Carbonate (lots of animals are at risk of losing the Calcium from their seashell (Krell have dropped about some 25% of their shell thickness and if we lose them we run the risk of losing the food chain at sea and also making the sea toxic.

          • Joe 1 year ago

            Yes, the oceans are a carbon sink but there is the problem of ocean acidification that is harmful to all the shell creatures. The answer is of course to stop CO2 pollution in the first place instead of chasing after the problem with desperate solutions.

          • Crankydaks 1 year ago

            We must stop referring to CO2 as pollution. It is a gas that makes up part of the atmosphere and is essential for plant growth. The concentration that we currently have, approx 350ppm, is barely above the minimum to sustain plant growth. If the concentration of CO2 were to double plant life would thrive, which is why it is pumped into many greenhouses to promote growth. Before you bash me do a little research.

          • Joe 1 year ago

            Please spare us your CO2 pollution ‘defence spin’. You are way behind the times with your ‘350ppm’ CO2 concentration number. The world is already past 400ppm, I guess a little bit of research on your behalf would have informed you of that.

        • RobertO 1 year ago

          HI Joe, Thanks I watch DA Blue Planet (Green Seas episode) and DA made the statement that the Sea Grass is able to remove 35 times the amount of the best Rain Forest in the world. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that Rain Forest expire CO2 at night time and Sea Grass stops growing at night time. The Sea Grass covers an area of 8000 sq. Km. I suspect that Kelp may be better as it grown in a wider range of both Temperature and Areas, south of Tasmania to northern Queensland and I think the person was saying it removes about 25 times the best forests in the world.

  3. Joe 1 year ago

    Now that the Marshall is in charge over in SA I see that the idea for a Nu Clear Waste dump in SA is being given some more life. All we need now is for the Marshall to build a CCS Coaler. The Marshall can holler..” give us all your nu clear waste as well as your CO2 waste…we’re gunna bury the lot”.

    • rob 1 year ago

      I will disengage him from the planet first!

  4. RobertO 1 year ago

    Hi All, The Fed Gov will do all it can to stop RE. What a few (close to $500 million Australian dollars so far) more millions from the taxpayers. We can afford it. Taxpayers are not poor people, there people whom pay taxes so they are rich.

  5. phred01 1 year ago

    Even billionaire Describes CCS as BS

  6. Chris Jones 1 year ago

    > Southern Company, owners of the Kemper “clean coal” plant in Mississippi, US
    Yes I’ve been talking about this fiasco for a while now. According to a Sierra Club analysis, Kemper is the most expensive power plant ever built, based on its generating capacity.

    The plant was supposed to have worked through the use of integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) and carbon capture technologies. The Kemper Plant was planned to have 60 miles of pipeline to carry its captured CO2 to neighboring oil reserves for enhanced oil recovery.

    Of course the unfortunate residents of Mississippi are paying for this in their bills. It could take a while. The cost overrun was $5.1 billion USD (more than double the original price). It was 3 years late before they gave up & made it a gas plant.

    • Alex Hromas 1 year ago

      And the CO2 was used to extract more oil and gas from an aging field to produce you guessed it more CO2 wonderful technology.

  7. Ken Fabian 1 year ago

    2.86 times as much CO2 is produced as high quality coal burned is the maths that makes the pointlessness of CCS clear. Almost 3 times as much by weight!

    It’s a gaseous waste product that needs it’s own complex infrastructure to separate, compress, transport and pump into a great number of drill holes – which themselves must be in areas that do not have prior drill holes (which would be sources of leaks). It all has to be done at greater scale than the mining and transport used for the coal. There is no way it can ever be cheap. It would add enormously to the cost of coal burning.

    It’s “promise” is a way to defer coal plant closures and make new coal plants appear more palatable, not a viable means for reducing emissions.

    • JWW 1 year ago

      Exactly. I have visited a coal power station once with my physics class at high school. I was very impressed by the massive scale. The huge mountains of coal stored, and the train loads that were shipped to the plant – a massive operation.
      A decade later I heard about the idea of CCS, and I had exactly the realisation that you described above. It seems obvious that if you have to scale up the existing material transport efforts by three to get rid of the CO2, and you have to seperate (somehow) and compress the gas, it must be a hugely expensive exercise.

  8. Ian 1 year ago

    Please, please turn this CCS thing around. It has always been used as a method of kicking the coke can down the road to allow coal power stations the justification for ongoing operation. The time has come to demand that any existing or future coal – and other FF generators install effective CCS for all their emissions, or close down.

    A time frame of say 5 years to retrofit fully functioning and effective CCS locally or have their operating licence rescinded.

    • itdoesntaddup 1 year ago

      Take a look at that NEM widget top right on this page. Now work out what you’ll do if you shut down all the brown and black capacity. I assume you have a Stone Age economy in mind?

      • Nick Kemp 1 year ago

        5 years may be a little too soon but 10 might do it if we are smart about what we do and aggressive in building the alternatives.

        • Alex Hromas 1 year ago

          More than 1/2 of the coal plants will be shut down in 5 years time anyway so why bother just make sure the federal knuckle draggers get out of the way of developing renewable technology

      • Lachie 1 year ago

        I keep looking at it, and seeing SA exporting power. And 2/3 of their power is coming from renewables. SA is 2018. VIC is 2005, NSW and QLD are retards like you stuck in a 1950 that never actually existed.

        • itdoesntaddup 1 year ago

          Remind me – SA has really cheap electricity?

      • Barri Mundee 1 year ago

        Renewables will obviate the need for coal. That will take time but it will happen. Your “Stone Age” economy jibe is nonsensical in that long term context.

    • JWW 1 year ago

      Absolutely. CCS was nothing but a lame excuse to delay any action all along. An excuse to dig up more coal, and to develop more mines. On the argument that because of climate change, the coal needs to stay in the ground, they could always answer that there would be CCS, and everything will be sweet.
      If the general public in Australia (and many other countries) had a bit more basic chemistry and physics education, they would not be as gullible and would understand that for each ton of coal burnt, you need to get rid of about 3 tons of (liquefied) CO2 somehow. People would also understand that separating the CO2 from the nitrogen in the exhaust gas will always require a s##tload of energy, no matter what clever way the researchers can come up with.
      And of course, as was pointed out in the article, you need make sure that the liquefied CO2 stays in that reservoir in the ground for a couple of hundred years (at least). How can you guarantee that?? With zero past experience??
      With the cost of wind and solar power as low as they are today, it seems clear that CCS is “dead, buried and cremated”, to use the wise words of our former Prime Minister. We should not spend one more dollar on CCS.

  9. Hettie 1 year ago

    I have written before about Soil C Quest, an Australian agricultural project to develop and commercialised a simple process that has the potential to draw down and sequester *Gigatonnes* of CO2 every year.
    Researchers at Uni NSW have discovered a micorrhizal fungus that facilitates the inherent property of plants to draw CO2 from the air and into the soil. The fungus then converts excess CO2 to melanin, which is stable on soil for at least 200 years. It also increases the waterholding capacity of the soil. The now carbon and moisture rich soil almost doubles crop yields.
    Like the fungus that helps legumes fix N2 in soil, this new one can be innoculated onto crop seeds, just about any crop seeds.
    The benefits to crop farmers are obvious – high yields at little cost. The climate benefit is also clear.
    Even zero CO2 emission energy will not bring global temperature down, because CO2 persists in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Drawing down and sequestration of CO2 is vital.
    If the soil’s vast capacity for, and desperate need of carbon storage can be so simply accessed by broadacre farmers, even lawns and parklands, there is hope for us all.
    Field trials near Dubbo proceed, aimed at getting the best match between various strains of the fungus and the different crop and soil types. Closed greenhouse trials are quantifying the amount of CO2 per hectare that can be removed from the air.
    The increased yields are expected to far exceed the cost of treated seeds.
    However, the resistance of farmers to change is legendary. Gov’t incentives to use treated seed may be needed.
    So forget clean coal, and get behind the Soil C Quest program.
    Just imagine the impoverished soils of the world being restored to productivity and saving us from famine and climate change at the same time.
    If anything should be all over the news, this is it.

    • Alex Hromas 1 year ago

      Nice work at last a glimmer of hope for carbon sequestration when will it become commercially available and is there a type suitable for paddock grasses

      • Hettie 1 year ago

        Not at all sure about commercial release. Sti in field trials.
        From what I understand, a very wide range of plants could be suitable.
        Haven’t Googled it recently, and the triallists, after an early and poorly promoted crowdfunding appeal to support their field trials, have been very quiet.
        I will google again now, and suggest you do the same. Aspects of the program that I find interesting may leave you cold, and vice-versa. I can tell you that the amount sought for the research was only $40,000. Clearly, the program is very low cost. Perhaps that means it is not sexy enough to attract interest, which could be a tragic mistake.

    • Miles Harding 1 year ago

      Soil quality (and quantity) is a very serious issue that should receive far more attention than it gets. Through land clearing and farming practices, we are losing soil at a rate brtween 10 and 100 times it’s rate of replenishment. Additionally, productivity of almost all western farm land is dependent on fertilisers, especially nitrates and phosphorous. Developed nations’ sewerage systems result in an almost total loss of phosphorous to the sea.
      Wikipedia estimates ‘peak Phosphorous’ to occur around 2030, after which time, we can expect to see agricultural output decline. This points to a forced change of practise in sewerage processing to recover Phosphorous without also recovering all the toxins and drugs in the effluent stream.

      In many areas of the world, the remaining soils are moderately to severely degraded, so additional carbon in these soils would be welcome.

      The principal issue I have with soil C sequestration is the large mismatch between emissions and the realistic potential for it to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Promoting this as a panacea simply gives C polluters a license to increase pollution.

  10. Chris Fraser 1 year ago

    Believing in CCS is more fun if you’re one of only a few.

    • Hettie 1 year ago

      See above for Carbon capture and storage that has nothing to do with coal.

  11. itdoesntaddup 1 year ago

    CCS is surely a a green fantasy. No-one elese would be insane enough to insist on trying to develop it, given the basic laws of thermodynamics.

    • Nick Kemp 1 year ago

      You won’t find the greens backing CCS but you will almost certainly find the coalition backing it

      • itdoesntaddup 1 year ago

        Then Aussie greens are missing a trick: there is no faster way to close coal capacity than to insist it add CCS.

        • Lachie 1 year ago

          My god, you are such a tool. You are completely blind to facts. Show me a Green who is proposing this technology, just one. The only people pushing it are LNP shit like you.

          Your ideology makes you completely blind to reality.

        • Barri Mundee 1 year ago

          Trolling again I see. Posting bullshit allegations.

    • Barri Mundee 1 year ago

      More crap from you.

      It’s the Coal industry which has pushed for CCS as the saviour of polluting coal, not the Greens or the left.

      A lot of resources that could have been more usefully employed have gone into this non starter.

  12. Alex Hromas 1 year ago

    The article omits one important point a carbon capture system utilizes about 30% of a coal fired station’s output to operate it. The process can capture about 98% of CO2 emitted. It should capture 99.96% to be carbon neutral so with an additional 30% of carbon burnt the plat’s capture efficiency is 99.66% a long way off carbon neutral and we have not included pumping costs to get it sequestered.
    The carbon capture plant is expensive to build and operate and the carbon has no commercial value so power prices must rise by at least 30% and probably 45% when all the costs are included. This makes even the most expensive renewables cheap

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