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Can Capturing Carbon Become a Reality?

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 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:

  • CCS is an extremely complex string of processes, each with its own technologies, having to operate in concert on a large scale. Massive amounts of CO2 have to be captured, compressed, transported by ship or rail and sequestrated in underground formations. This would require a fundamental transformation of our country's energy infrastructure, BUT no more than would be required by a huge scale adoption of wind energy for example.
  • On the regulatory front, there are questions around long-term liability for underground sites where carbon dioxide will be stored. Since the gas must stay underground for centuries, there are liability issues around potential leakage 100 years into the future or more. This means we need to make sure that CCS is done right. To that end WRI is developing guidelines that will help ensure that CCS projects are safe and effective in the long term.
  • Unique financial and investment challenges will also have to be overcome in order to create a CCS infrastructure in the U.S. In addition to the large capital investment that will be required, a more immediate concern is that construction firms, already facing rising costs, may be reluctant to extend performance guarantees to coal plants built with untested technology.

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.

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