Carbon Capture and Storage – merely an “Elastoplast” Technology

Lord Ron Oxburgh, formerly non-executive director of Royal Dutch Shell, now honorary president of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, today labelled the clean coal technology as an “Elastoplast” – a temporary, transient technology to use in the Energy system until Energy has all been de-Carbonised.

Speaking at the Tenalps Energy and Environment 2009 Conference in Westminster, he derided the 20th Century as profligate in the use of cheap Carbon Energy, oil, coal and natural gas. He said that in the field of Energy, optimisation has been to anything other than fuel use – in other words – the relative cost has always been the driving factor.

He said that our first priority should be efficiency in the use of Energy, and avoiding waste.

And then he went on to describe the Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology, a “solution” that would see a large increase in the use of Energy at plants where CCS would be installed.

He admitted that CCS would only be a stop-gap between now and full de-Carbonisation of Energy supply, but he didn’t make the intellectual leap to the fact that, therefore, building a CCS infrastructure that will fall into disuse is the ultimate waste of effort and Energy and materials.

What troubles me is that he saw no irony in any of that.

Lord Ron explained that the regions of the world that are the largest oil importers are also the largest coal producers : the United States, China and India. “The hard and unpalatable fact of life is that coal will be burned, whether you like it or not,” he claimed, “the present cost of Carbon Capture and Storage will have to be reduced, and the West will have to pay” to get the Chinese to adopt CCS.

In the questions section, I asked Lord Ron if he was aware of the research by David Rutledge at Caltech on coal stocks being much more limited than currently accepted wisdom. That is, that there are probably stocks for another 40 years of coal, not the generally accepted 200 years.

Lord Ron claimed that the Rutledge analysis is “deeply flawed”, but that he hoped that we would not be burning coal after another 40 years; he hoped the question is irrelevant.

He clearly has not reconciled in his mind the Energy requirements of implementing Carbon Capture and Storage, which will inevitably will require an extra 20% to 30% more Coal burning for the same electricity generation.

So, even if Rutledge is only marginally in the right ballpark on his figures, whatever the real level of coal production turns out to be, CCS will eat away much more of it for the same electricity production.

This is of course a complete waste of Energy.

Plus, CCS optimally will at best only capture 90% of emissions from a coal burning plant, for reasons of chemistry and engineering. So it’s not a total de-Carbonisation solution.

Plus, it’s not even fully developed yet, so nobody can tell if it really will be a solution to the coal problem.

What should happen is Energy Conservation, you know, cutting out Energy waste. And then we won’t need to build coal-fired power stations, and neither will the Chinese.

Once the Chinese realise they are not going to get a handout from the more developed nations for CCS technology costs, then the Chinese will see sense. The Chinese understand Climate Change. They know that unmitigated coal generation is tantamount to suicide.

As international trade drops off in the Economic “flattening”, the Chinese won’t need to ramp up their Energy production, and they won’t be waiting for CCS, so if they need to build new Energy infrastructure, they will go green. Oh look, they’re doing that already.

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