September 11, 2008
Grist understates the coal challenge
David Roberts at Grist argued in two posts today that coal is largely uneconomical - that it may play an insignificant role in our future energy supply - and that carbon capture & storage (CCS) is an unnecessary and unviable technology. In his first post, he cited evidence about peak coal production - "The Great Coal Rush (And Why It Will Fail)" - raising doubts that there will be future coal supplies. He went on in his second post:
"The [CCS] push is looking more and more hollow. In the NYT, Matt Wald paints a grim picture: cost overruns, technological uncertainty, waning support from utilities, and a mess of unanswered questions about everything from security to legal liability...
Coal isn't cheap. That's why 59 proposed plants got scuttled last year... an activity that leads to an uninhabitable planet cannot, by definition, be "cheap"... The health and environmental costs of coal are real costs. Subtract them from the societal value of coal and you get a negative sum..."
According to Roberts, not only is coal uneconomical, CCS is unnecessary. We can simply put a moratorium on coal, and renewables and efficiency will do the rest:
"If CCS doesn't work out, a moratorium on new coal plants is put in place, and we slowly begin shuttering existing coal plants, we will not be cast into economic misery and privation. New sources are rapidly developing and deploying; the energy efficiency market is exploding; both those trends will be turbo-charged by a price on carbon and a moratorium on coal. Once the horrific danger of climate change becomes unavoidably clear, there will be enormous public investment in green R&D and infrastructure."
In short, Roberts is dangerously wrong, and his understatement of the coal challenge is a disservice to the climate movement. COAL IS CHEAP - that's why even with a carbon dioxide price of $38 per ton, Europe just announced the construction of 50 new coal plants. And it's why the EIA projects global coal demand will double by 2030 and that China's total coal-related emissions will grow by 232% between 2004 and 2030.
CCS is likely to play an enormous role in achieving global emissions reduction targets. Indeed, CCS made up three entire wedges of the Socolow & Pacala wedge model, and nearly every major scenario (literature review by the Clean Air Task Force, a report by the IEA, and a major study by the IPCC) shows that the largest low-emissions energy sources may be CCS and nuclear. We cannot afford to leave CCS in the dust when there are 7,000 coal plants and counting around the globe from which we'll need to capture and store carbon.
Here's a request for Grist: stop understating the coal challenge. It's cheap, it's plentiful, and it's one of the greatest challenges the world has ever faced. CCS is just one tool that will help us overcome it. Massive and strategic investments to reduce the price of alternative and next-generation energy and carbon capture technologies is another. But imagining that we'll just institute a global coal moratorium and a carbon price - and all our problems will be solved by efficiency and renewables - is not.