Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is both hailed as a “silver bullet” for the coal industry, and reviled as a pipe dream. The reality is that the U.S. needs CCS, and a comprehensive policy framework for rapid development and deployment.
Undoubtedly, CCS has many detractors. Many are calling for investment in wind, solar and other renewable energies rather than in capture technologies.
Renewable energy will undoubtedly play a critical role in addressing climate change. But renewables currently account for only 2% of the U.S. electricity mix. By contrast, half of U.S. electricity supply comes from burning coal. Technology and the energy mix may look very different in several decades, but in the near and medium term, it is technically and politically impossible to eliminate coal as an energy source. Meanwhile, we need to start reducing carbon emissions today.
Given these realities, any solution that can reduce emissions from coal use—without eliminating coal as an energy source—merits serious consideration. Thus the current level of interest on CCS. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said CCS could contribute a bigger share of greenhouse gas cuts than energy efficiency, renewable energy, or nuclear power.
Yet there are considerable challenges to CCS, and they are the focus of WRI’s report [Capturing King Coal: Deploying Carbon Capture and Storage Systems in the U.S. at Scale](node/9863) released this week.
According to our analysis, using CCS technologies to inject carbon dioxide from coal combustion into underground formations will require solutions to a host of technical, regulatory and financial challenges. And there needs to be simulataneous, rapid progress on all three of these fronts for CCS to become a feasible solution to climate change.
Among the challenges:
These challenges are not reason to abandon CCS in the fight against climate change. Significant emission reductions simply cannot occur without a feasible option to coal-based emissions. Whatever its problems, CCS is likely part of the solution.
However, if these challenges are to be overcome within the timeframe needed, there must first be a price on carbon emissions, for instance, through an emissions trading system, that is high enough to make CCS technologies cost-competitive. There must also be immediate government support for large-scale demonstration plants, far beyond current efforts.
If we can get some “steel in the ground” in the form of running demonstration plants, the investment community will follow, and CCS technology will be on the road to cutting greenhouse gas emissions on a significant scale.