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Capturing Carbon

In response to:

The Ominous New Pact from the February 23, 2006 issue

To the Editors:

In Tim Flannery’s article describing the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate [“The Ominous New Pact,” NYR, February 23] he is skeptical of technologies that would generate electricity from coal while capturing and storing the CO2. According to him, “The International Energy Agency estimates that the cost of producing power from such plants will be around three times that of conventional coal-fired power plants.”

This statement is refuted, however, by the IEA’s 2004 report on the prospects for CO2 capture and storage, which states on page 18 that this process would add 2–3 cents per kilowatt-hour today and only 1–2 cents per kilowatt-hour by 2030 to the cost of coal-generated electricity. The IEA’s cost estimate is consistent with the recent report on carbon capture and storage of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and studies at Princeton University, Imperial College, and other independent research institutes. This represents a cost increase of 30–50 percent, not 200 percent, a significant difference when considering Flannery’s conclusion that the zero-emission coal option is not a viable path for addressing the climate change risk.

Mark Jaccard

Simon Fraser University

Vancouver, British Columbia

Tim Flannery replies:

Professor Jaccard thinks I overstate the cost of technologies that would generate electricity from coal while capturing and storing the CO2.

It is of course difficult to estimate the costs of technologies that are not yet fully developed or functioning in the context being discussed. In the case of carbon capture and storage the difficulties are magnified by differences in fuel type and economic and geological contexts, which has led to widely varying estimates. The figures cited in the 2004 IEA report infer cost increases of between 50 to 85 percent for power sent out: natural gas from 3–5 to 4–6 cents per kilowatt-hour, coal from 4–6 to 5–9 cents per kilowatt-hour, and pulverized coal from 4–5 to 6–10 cents per kilowatt-hour.

In Australia, however (a situation I am more familiar with), coal power is typically bid to the market at around 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour. Capital costs in Australia are higher than in the US, while coal costs may be a bit lower. The impact of all of this on implementing carbon capture and storage is likely to increase costs for pulverized coal from 2–3 cents per kilowatt-hour to around 6–10 cents per kilowatt-hour. The cost of retrofitting carbon capture and storage to existing power plants would of course be higher.

Contrary to Professor Jaccard’s letter, I do not believe that carbon capture and storage will not prove to be viable, at least in some measure. It does, however, indisputably add to the cost of electricity production, which means that in the absence of a carbon tax or regulation (which neither the Bush nor the Howard government will countenance), it can never be competitive against existing coal technology. This makes one wonder why Australia and the US are spending billions of dollars pursuing carbon capture and storage, while doing very little to encourage renewable sources of power.

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