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Capturing King Coal

Deploying Carbon Capture and Storage Systems in the U.S. at Scale

Executive Summary

Coal is a key fuel source for current and future electric power generation. Coal becomes even more critical when cost of electricity and security of supply issues are viewed in light of other fuel sources such as gas or uranium. Yet coal combustion produces about 1.9 billion tons of CO2 per year in the U.S., roughly equivalent to all CO2 emissions from U.S. transport per year. The burning of coal, with more CO2 emissions per unit of energy produced than any other fossil fuel, has significant adverse climate change impacts.

One way to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power is to capture and store it permanently underground, a process called carbon capture and storage (CCS), also called carbon sequestration. CCS has captured the attention of policymakers, power generators, and environmentalists because of its potential as a bridging technology that will permit the continued use of coal as a fuel source while not contributing to a further destabilization of the climate. A great deal of work is underway to develop and improve the technologies, legal frameworks, and policies required for wide-scale deployment of CCS systems.

The main reason for this interest is that several major world economies, including the U.S., China, and India depend heavily on coal as an energy source. Alternative means of moving to a zero-carbon power mix, including wind or solar (which are dispersed and have variable output) and nuclear power (which raises difficult questions of security and waste disposal) require wrenching changes to our energy systems. CCS apparently offers the prospect of staving off climate disaster while maintaining something near the status quo. Coal can remain central to the energy mix, and CCS makes this possible.

But does it? There is in fact considerable complexity involved in deploying a national CCS system at the scale necessary to achieve significant emissions reductions. Indeed, it amounts to no less fundamental a transformation of the country’s energy infrastructure than would a huge-scale adoption of wind energy, for instance. This report examines the challenges of this transformation under the four broad categories of technology, policy, legal and regulatory framework, and investment, and their implications for CCS as part of the solution to mitigate adverse climate change impacts.

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