Why solar creams clean coal

The coal industry is getting really desperate in its response to the China-US climate deal - it's talking up clean coal. Meanwhile, it belittles solar - yet just two weeks of 2014 solar production will avoid more CO2 than all clean coal projects ever built.

Having succeeded in stopping a sensible and rational policy response to climate change via a nationally legislated emissions trading scheme in the US and Australia, Western coal companies now find themselves bombarded by an array of more unpredictable but far more focused attacks on them personally.  

With China now in retreat as a market for coal exporters and the US market threatened by a combination of cheaper gas and government environmental controls, and now with the Indian energy minister talking about phasing out coal imports, it’s time to get desperate – yes, it’s time to talk up clean coal.

Apparently, according to the Minerals Council of Australia, the China-US climate deal is good news for coal. MCA chief and ex-Peabody Coal executive Brendan Pearson told The AFR:

“The announcement by the US and China on their future climate change targets puts technology, and particularly low emissions coal technologies, at the centre of efforts to reduce global CO2 emissions.”

According to the, ahem, cheerleader of progressive policy to lower Australia’s emissions, Rio Tinto, coal is the answer, not the problem. Harry Kenyon-Slaney, chief executive of Rio’s energy division and chairman of the World Coal Association, says:

“It is becoming increasingly clear that despite the organised campaign to destroy Australia’s coal industry by activist groups, it is indeed possible to have a coal-fired energy sector and a lower emissions economy.”

He then, of course, he went on to belittle solar:

“There are now 13 CCS [carbon capture and storage] projects in operation across a range of different fossil fuel uses … with the capacity to store 25 million tonnes of CO2 annually. This has the same effect on global emissions as installing 13.6 billion watts of photovoltaic solar panels. To underline the scale of this, that was the solar power capacity of the United States, the United Kingdom and France combined in 2012.”

Wow, they must be kicking a lot of goals cleaning up coal emissions, eh?

Let’s delve into the numbers a little more.

These 13 CCS projects are across the entire globe – not just the US, UK and France – so maybe we should look globally in making our comparison with alternative options. Also, rather than a snapshot in time we probably want to consider how things are trending into the future.

Oh, and by the way we might want to consider that not all of the CCS projects actually permanently store their CO2, instead using it to help pump out more fossil fuels from oil fields that are then burnt in a motor car to release CO2. And not all of them are cleaning up coal but, rather, involve oil and gas projects or fertiliser plants where CO2 is far easier to separate and capture.

So of those 13 projects the CCS Institute’s Global Status Report details that just two permanently store the CO2. There was a third project (In Salah, Algeria), but CO2 injection was suspended after it was discovered the project was leaking CO2 back into the atmosphere because of an unanticipated excessive build-up of pressure in the storage reservoir.

So the two functioning projects manage to capture and permanently store not 25 million tonnes of CO2 annually but, rather, just 1.6 million tonnes. And by the way, neither of them involve coal. The one single coal-fired power project that is capturing its emissions sinks them into an oil field to pull out more oil.

So that’s zero CO2 permanently stored for clean coal, so far, but let’s give them credit for the 1 million tonnes they manage to capture at Boundary Dam in Canada.

What about solar?

The chart below lists the global cumulative installed capacity of solar PV over the last 13 years. Until recently it was basically a bit of a joke, but never underestimate the power of an exponential growth curve (something CCS is yet to demonstrate). This year is missing from the curve but NPD SolarBuzz's assessment of solar companies’ order books says it will hit about 50GW of installations. This one single year of production would roughly have delivered 25 million tonnes of CO2 abatement per annum – all that Kenyon-Slaney is claiming over the entire history of CCS developments stretching back to 1972.

Source: International Energy Agency

If we were to consider CCS involving solely coal and assume all the CO2 captured resulted in permanent abatement, rather than just more oil, then solar PV managed to deliver the same amount of CO2 abatement over just two weeks of 2014 production.

So what of the future?

According to the CCS Institute there are another eight projects in the ‘execute’ phase which suggests they are committed to proceed. One of these involves coal power generation which will capture 1.4 million tonnes of CO2 – again to be used to extract more oil.

All up by 2018 these new CCS projects will be capturing another 14 million tonnes of CO2 on top of the existing 26 million (most going into extracting more oil to burn in cars to release CO2).

Meanwhile, NPD SolarBuzz expects global solar production capacity to have reached 100 gigawatts per annum. Just six months of 2018 production will permanently avoid more CO2 per annum than all of these CCS projects installed over the space of 40 years can manage.

If we considered the cumulative capacity of solar PV installed since 2000, it will stand at something close to 500 gigawatts by the end of 2018. This would permanently avoid all the CO2 captured by CCS projects over 2018 within the space of eight weeks.

Of course, even this miraculous growth of solar is still far, far short of what’s necessary to make a serious dent in the emissions coming from all those coal power stations (bar two) that don’t capture their CO2 emissions. If we could solve all the numerous cost and performance issues afflicting CCS, that would be absolutely brilliant.

But judging by these numbers if we really want to reduce CO2 emissions it seems vastly more likely that we’ll be replacing coal with solar (and wind and gas and nuclear and energy efficiency and bioenergy) rather than cleaning it up. 

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