Friday, May 30, 2008

Hard Landing for Clean Coal

They're latter day Alchemists, the scientists of the Dark Ages who promised to turn base lead into gold. Today they've returned to tantalize us with dreams of "clean coal," an abundant, non-polluting and virtually limitless supply of cheap energy that lies, not in the Middle East, but right here under our own feet.

Like all dubious schemes, the clean coal idea is delightfully simple. Burn dirty coal to produce electricity but, instead of releasing all that toxic greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, you "sequester" it. In other words, you capture the CO2 before it leaves the smokestack, compress it until it liquifies, and then pump all that nasty stuff into subterranean chambers where it can be stored, out of sight/out of mind, forever. Or so the story goes.

The Devil, of course, is in the details.

The first detail is where do you store this stuff? The next is what happens if, Heaven forbid, the stuff leaks back out to the surface? Then there's the detail about making this technology work and at an affordable price. Don't forget to work out who'll be on the hook when we have those unfortunate accidents, other than nearby surface dwellers who'll be dead.

You see, to make this work, you have to find a way to secure CO2 at a high-enough pressure that it's compressed enough to liquify it. High pressure, like high water, is always looking for a way out. Stick a pin in a balloon and you'll get the idea. In terms of subterranean caverns, a seismic event substitutes nicely for the pin.

Now my own Vancouver Island has coal resources. Yet this big tectonic plate subduction zone I call home isn't an ideal candidate. When the "Big One" hits (and we keep getting reminded that could be any day) it's been predicted by some that the entire island could be shifted eastward up to 15 feet.

But surely there are better places, aren't there? There must be places that are absolutely seismically stable, eh? Hmmm, maybe not. The reality is that you don't need a scale 9 or an 8 or even a 7-Richter event to pop one of these underground, high-pressure balloons. But earthquakes are only part of the equation. You see, ground moves even without earthquakes. There's a whole bunch of things going on under your feet every day. There are gases and liquids down there. There's heat down there, a lot of it. You've got things like underground rivers upon which our groundwater resources rely.

So, carbon sequestration brings an inevitable risk of failures and leaks, so what? Well that all depends on a number of factors such as the size of the gas escape, whether it's detected quickly, how many people are in proximity to the leak and, of course, whether you're one of them. The stuff is colourless and odourless so... well, just sayin'.

Harper latched on to a long underway carbon capture experimental plant in Saskatchewan, slapped his picture on it and presented it to the gullible national press corps as "his" sequestration initiative. Yippee, we're saved! Stevie came through after all! A few problems. It's an experimental operation, an experiment. It's but one plant, just one. It assumes that the storage part (the hard part) is viable. It ignores the reality that, even if all the problems are solved and we do manage to find a means of truly secure sequestration, transforming our coal plants into clean coal plants will take decades to accomplish - time we haven't got - and a lot more money than we imagine.

But what about the United States? Surely if there's one country that ought to be pursuing clean coal technology it's America, right? Of course it is. American wealth is bleeding out to buy foreign oil to feed its fossil fuel dependency. The US sits on enormous coal reserves. Switching from Islamic oil to domestic coal energy is so obvious, it's a no brainer. Everyone's on side - Bush, McCain, Obama, Congress, even Oprah (although it's rumoured that tool, Dr. Phil is, predictably, waffling).

However, according to the New York Times, America's clean coal initiative is faltering:

"...the nation’s effort to develop the technique is lagging badly.

In January, the government canceled its support for what was supposed to be a showcase project, a plant at a carefully chosen site in Illinois where there was coal, access to the power grid, and soil underfoot that backers said could hold the carbon dioxide for eons.

Coal is abundant and cheap, assuring that it will continue to be used. But the failure to start building, testing, tweaking and perfecting carbon capture and storage means that developing the technology may come too late to make coal compatible with limiting global warming.

“It’s a total mess,” said Daniel M. Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

Plans to combat global warming generally assume that continued use of coal for power plants is unavoidable for at least several decades. Therefore, starting as early as 2020, forecasters assume that carbon dioxide emitted by new power plants will have to be captured and stored underground, to cut down on the amount of global-warming gases in the atmosphere.
Yet, simple as the idea may sound, considerable research is still needed to be certain the technique would be safe, effective and affordable.

Scientists need to figure out which kinds of rock and soil formations are best at holding carbon dioxide. They need to be sure the gas will not bubble back to the surface. They need to find optimal designs for new power plants so as to cut costs. And some complex legal questions need to be resolved, such as who would be liable if such a project polluted the groundwater or caused other damage far from the power plant."

It's becoming obvious that the miracles of carbon capture and carbon sequestration are an awfully long way off. This ought to be the technological challenge for America for the 21st century, something on the scale of the Manhattan Project.

It's much too important and far too early to write this off. Perhaps a genuine president willing to invest funding equal to a small hunk of America's warfighting budget could make this a reality. There are so many unknowns, neglected opportunities. However what is apparent is that we can't rely on carbon capture technologies as a solution to our GHG problems. We can't bank on it at all because the clock is running and it may just be too little, too late.


LeDaro said...

Bubbling back to the surface is indeed a potential problem. However leakage into the ground water could be even more serious problem and people may be drinking water without knowing that they are poisoning themselves or skin diseases from washing and bathing - out of sight, out of mind and it may take a while to find out what is happening.

The Mound of Sound said...

I hear you LD. I've only read passing references to groundwater contamination, not nearly enough to grasp the extent of the problem. thanks.