For decades, debate has raged regarding the merits of removing carbon from the atmosphere in order to mitigate climate change. Groups supporting coal-fired power plants have held up carbon capture as a justification for their massive contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.1 They have also found support from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) who suggest it is necessary to capture amounts of carbon to prevent a catastrophic rise in global temperature.2
However, climate change activists point out that coal is particularly damaging for the environment and the current CO2 capture technologies are neither technologically nor economically capable of countering this.
Lack of Coal Carbon Capture Plants
There is strong evidence against the utility of CO2 capture. Despite billions of dollars spent researching the technology, there is just one operational coal-fired carbon capture project in the US and 19 large scale projects globally.3 This is shockingly low considering coal accounts for around a third of all global greenhouse gas emissions.1 It also requires a significant expense to build and retrofit plants with carbon capture. Further, CO2 capture exacts an energy penalty upon the plants themselves in the range of 25-40 percent. As a result, more coal must be burnt to maintain the same energy production.5 These combined factors dissuade coal-fired power plants from investing in CO2 capture technology.
Renewable Energy Alternatives
Renewable energy sources are becoming increasingly more attractive than investing in carbon capture technologies. Wind and solar power have an incredibly low CO2 footprint, much lower than coal – even with CO2 capture and storage.6
When accounting for emissions produced manufacturing, constructing and fueling renewable alternatives, they remain by far the environmentally friendlier option. Moreover, compared to carbon capture technologies, wind and solar are becoming progressively cheaper.7 Given the choice between investing in carbon capture and renewable energy, the latter seems the obvious winner if the rise in global temperature is to be curtailed.
Coal Carbon Storage
Besides capturing CO2 from coal power plants, another issue is storing it. It is commonly stored underground but this can acidify aquifers and leach heavy metals into groundwater, polluting it.5
Likewise, captured carbon is injected into geologic formations. However, this can cause fracturing and lead to earthquakes or release vast quantities of stored CO2 into the atmosphere.5 As such, even if this process was implemented at scale – which seems unlikely given the enormous costs to set it up and the energy tax caused by the technology itself – the problem of what to do with the captured CO2 looms large.
- Supekar, Sarang and Skerlos, Steve.The Latest Bad News On Carbon Capture From Coal Power Plants: Higher Costs. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/the-latest-bad-news-on-carbon-capture-from-coal-power-plants-higher-costs-51440. Published December 3, 2015. Accessed May 4, 2020.
- Cohen, Rachel M. The Environmental Left is Softening on Carbon-Capture Technology. Maybe That’s Ok. The Intercept. https://theintercept.com/2019/09/20/carbon-capture-technology-unions-labor/. Published September 20, 2019. Accessed May 4, 2020.
- Schlissel, David and Wamsted, Dennis. Holy Grail of Carbon Capture Continues to Elude Coal Industry. IEEFA. Published November 2018. Accessed May 4, 2020.
- Carbon Capture, Use & Storage. WCA. https://www.worldcoal.org/reducing-co2-emissions/carbon-capture-use-storage. Accessed May 4, 2020.
- Coal: Carbon Capture and Storage Is NOT the Solution. Green America. https://www.greenamerica.org/fight-dirty-energy/amazon-build-cleaner-cloud/coal-carbon-capture-and-storage-not-solution Accessed May 4, 2020.
- Evans, Simon. Solar, wind and nuclear have ‘amazingly low’ carbon footprints, study finds. Carbon Brief. https://www.carbonbrief.org/solar-wind-nuclear-amazingly-low-carbon-footprints. Published December 8, 2020. Accessed May 4, 2020.
- Coal industry stakes survival on carbon capture plan. Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/52552bf8-c024-11e9-89e2-41e555e96722. Accessed May 4, 2020.