The US government has been urged to increase support for research and development into carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies for coal-based power stations by a major new report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which argued that CCS represents the "critical enabling technology to help reduce CO2 emissions".
The study, entitled "The Future of Coal – Options for a Carbon Constrained World", argues that with coal proving one of the most cost effective sources of energy in both the developing and developed world it will prove easier to develop technologies for capturing the carbon dioxide released from burning coal than transition economies away from coal altogether.
It also argued that as the world's biggest user of energy the US has a duty to lead the development of the technology and that major policy changes are required if this is to happen.
"As the world's leading energy user and greenhouse gas emitter, the U.S. must take the lead in showing the world CCS can work," said Professor John Deutch, Institute Professor, Department of Chemistry at MIT and one of the co-chairs of the report. "Demonstration of technical, economic, and institutional features of CCS at commercial scale coal combustion and conversion plants will give policymakers and the public confidence that a practical carbon mitigation control option exists, will reduce cost of CCS should carbon emission controls be adopted, and will maintain the low-cost coal option in an environmentally acceptable manner."
Ernest J. Moniz, the other co-chair of the report and a Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems at MIT, said that there were many viable means of reducing the CO2 emissions from coal power stations, including "higher efficiency generation, perhaps through new materials; novel approaches to gasification, CO2 capture, and oxygen separation; and advanced system concepts, perhaps guided by a new generation of simulation tools". However, he warned that "an aggressive R&D effort" was needed that "will yield significant dividends down the road, and should be undertaken immediately to help meet this urgent scientific challenge."
The report concluded that government should underpin much of this R&D effort, arguing that "several integrated large-scale demonstrations with appropriate measurement, monitoring and verification are needed in the United States over the next decade with government support".
It also claims that a new regulatory regime is required for the sector as a matter of urgency and criticises the government's current Department of Energy R&D programme claiming that it "must provide for demonstration of CCS at scale; a wider range of technologies should be explored; and modeling and simulation of the comparative performance of integrated technology systems should be greatly enhanced".
In particular, it recommends that the current energy industry-focus on clean Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) systems is diversified, observing that "it is not appropriate to pick a single technology winner at this time, especially in light of the variability in coal type, access to sequestration sites, and other factors". The report recommends that the government should address this problem by providing assistance to several "first of a kind" coal utilisation demonstration plants.
Most controversially given the present US administration's historical stance on climate change legislation, the report argues that China and India can not be expected to invest in CCS systems until the US demonstrates their viability and claims that "a significant charge on carbon emissions is needed in the relatively near term to increase the economic attractiveness of new technologies that avoid carbon emissions and specifically to lead to large-scale CCS in the coming decades".
Writing at the Cleantech Blog, Richard T. Stuebi, Founder and President of NextWave Energy welcomed the report claiming that it was essential that a cleaner method of generating energy from coal is developed. Like it or not, coal is going to be a huge part of our energy future," he wrote. "We need to figure out how to use it in an environmentally-sustainable manner, and right now we're mainly paying lip-service to our intentions for clean-coal research."
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