Even in the short term, R&E is a better choice than clean coal for developing nations
OK, if you’re just joining us in this apparently interminable series, here’s where we’ve been:
- Jeremy said the power players in China and India (C&I) "care about money, not climate." But if that’s true, they’re not going to go for clean coal either — it’s more expensive. Happily, I think it’s not going to be true for long. Developing countries are going to work to reduce their emissions; they have to.
- There are indeed compelling reasons to think that C&I will opt for clean coal over R&E. Immense social and economic power has gathered around coal; it would take extraordinary efforts to dislodge it.
- Nonetheless, C&I are going to have to make the shift to R&E sooner or later; coal won’t last forever. There are reasons to think it will run out sooner than most people know, and there are reasons to think social, economic, and environmental factors will conspire to kill it well before it runs out. So the question for C&I is really when to make the shift away from coal, not whether.
Believe it or not, all that was just prelude to this post, which will try to offer some arguments for the position that C&I should make the shift now rather than later. And while I won’t try to predict the future — what’s going on in China alone is beyond my (or I suspect anyone’s) feeble powers of prognostication — I do think there’s a good chance that C&I will see it the same way within a few years. Moreover, I think there’s a great chance they’ll see it the same way if the U.S. uses its power and influence to a) strongly discourage continued coal use, and b) offer financial assistance to ease the transition to R&E. That’s what this dispute is ultimately about.
Here are some reasons I think clean coal is a poor route for C&I:
It may not work at all. What clean coal technology needs to demonstrate is not merely that CO2 can be separated and sequestered. That’s already happening in certain niche applications. It needs to demonstrate that:
- a massive, nationwide infrastructure for separating, capturing, transporting, and burying billions of metric tons of CO2 a year can be designed and built
- with real-world security features and protocols that ensure it will remain safe from accident or sabotage indefinitely
- with effective systems for preventing cheating in the far-flung, loosely controlled provinces
- in time to save us from the worst of climate change
- at a cost that is not flatly prohibitive relative to its clean-electricity competitors.
Color me skeptical. And color me doubly skeptical of the confident projections and predictions that float around CCS these days. (Recall, if you will, the projections and predictions of yore, around the cost and scalability of nuclear power.) It’s like a guy who just figured out how to tune his flute telling you he should be ready to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in about, oh, nine, ten years. Well … maybe. But would you bet your planet on it?
In short, clean coal is an unproven theory.
It is intrinsically more expensive that the status quo. No matter how cheap scrubbers get, no matter how efficient IGCC plants get, no matter how scaled up and commoditized CCS gets, clean coal is always more expensive than dirty coal. Why? Because coal contains a shitload of carbon. Burning it sets CO2 free. Anything that captures and sequesters the CO2 is an add-on: additional capital cost up front and less efficient operation for the life of the plant.
I expect that the costs of fuel transportation and water will rise in coming years too, raising the price of coal altogether, but the point is, whatever the cost of coal power, the cost of clean coal power is substantially more and will always be so.
In contrast, the cost of renewable power has been steadily falling. That’s with a renewables as a negligible fraction of the world’s electricity generation; who knows what economies of scale will come when it hits 5%, 10%, 50%. Even without technology breakthroughs — and they’re coming, in solar, storage, grid tech, green building, etc. — the cost of R&E will steadily fall, reaching parity with and eventually undercutting coal. It may not happen in 10 years, but if not that, 20.
In short, betting on clean coal means betting on permanently higher costs; betting on R&E means betting on temporarily higher costs.
The economic growth numbers coal produces are deceptive. Comparisons between the price of clean coal and the price of R&E rarely take into account the fact that coal is grossly overvalued.
Even if clean coal can eliminate CO2 emissions entirely, coal still means intensive water use in an era of freshwater shortages; rising particulate pollution that could cost China alone up to $39 billion a year by 2020 in healthcare costs; pollution of already devastated rivers; growing social and political unrest.
In 2005, the China Sustainable Energy Program (CSEP) of the Energy Foundation did a comprehensive study of coal’s social and ecological costs. In results CSEP emphasized were not comprehensive and probably underestimated, it found that coal’s true cost was 56% higher than its market value.
Yes, coal generates enormous gains for GDP, but they are deceptive, since a substantial portion of the wealth created is plowed back into healthcare costs, environmental remediation, and social control.
The true comparison is between clean coal, accurately valued, and R&E — and in that comparison R&E wins already.
Best cast scenario, it won’t be ready for ten years. That’s when the (I’d be willing to bet optimistic) projections say CCS will be commercialized and ready to implement. That’s ten more years of skyrocketing emissions. Climate scientist James Hansen is well-known for saying we only have about 10 years to reverse emissions growth before the climate enters irreversible changes. Even if you don’t buy that, how long are you willing to wager we do have? 20 years? 50? Feel like gambling the world on it?
Meanwhile, solar thermal and geothermal are up and running, available around the clock for baseload power, carbon free, and cost competitive with coal. Recycled power is woefully untapped and could probably displace as many coal plants as scrubbers could clean up. Wind is closing in quick. Solar PV is dropping. Not to mention the suite of negative-cost efficiency measures that have already been well-tested.
Clean coal is an optimistic projection of possible future technology. R&E is now.
It ratifies the centralized hub-and-spoke model of electricity. Not everyone will find this argument convincing, but I do. Truly sustainable development — of communities resilient enough to weather the coming, um, weather — means distributed, appropriately scaled electricity generation: Lovins’ “soft path.” For the U.S., and increasingly for urban China and India, the infrastructure-heavy, politically and economically centralized hard path is already fait accompli. But rural China and India, not to mentioned less-developed nations, could leapfrog that model and skip directly to the soft path. We should be doing everything we can to encourage them. The sooner C&I can show the way the better.
Does this mean I am stamping my feet and demanding that coal disappear? That I want to shut down all C&I’s coal plants tomorrow? No. Obviously there’s going to be some mixed approach. The question facing us here in the U.S. is how we can influence the path C&I take. More on that in the next post, which, God willing, will be the last in this series.