April 26, 2010

Carbon unCaptured

I've never been a fan of carbon capture and sequestration for coal plants as a solution for addressing climate change. But so called "clean coal" technologies have been an important touchstone in pretty much every climate speech Obama has given -- and the current climate legislation enshrines it as a possible way forward for coal.

Well, now it looks like this particular vision of the future of coal was a mirage (via the Guardian):

A new research paper from American academics is threatening to blow a hole in growing political support for carbon capture and storage as a weapon in the fight against global warming.

The document from Houston University claims that governments wanting to use CCS have overestimated its value and says it would take a reservoir the size of a small US state to hold the CO2 produced by one power station.

Previous modelling has hugely underestimated the space needed to store CO2 because it was based on the "totally erroneous" premise that the pressure feeding the carbon into the rock structures would be constant, argues Michael Economides, professor of chemical engineering at Houston, and his co-author Christene Ehlig-Economides, professor of energy engineering at Texas A&M University

"It is like putting a bicycle pump up against a wall. It would be hard to inject CO2 into a closed system without eventually producing so much pressure that it fractured the rock and allowed the carbon to migrate to other zones and possibly escape to the surface," Economides said.

The paper concludes that CCS "is not a practical means to provide any substantive reduction in CO2 emissions, although it has been repeatedly presented as such by others."

An underground reservoir the size of a US state for a single plant?! Yeah, that's a big ol' oopsie right there. There are about 600 coal plants in operation in the US and there are, at last count, 48 contiguous states. Something about that math doesn't quite add up.

The question now is if anyone in government or industry will admit to the possibility that CCS is a fantasy. My guess is no. Like the ascendant nuclear power trend, CCS is such a convenient fiction, among other things as a way to bribe convince industry to go along with climate legislation it's hard to imagine the administration admitting we've got a naked emperor on our hands.

Photo credit: iagoarchangel

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