Henny Ray Abrams/AP Images
Chinese President Hu Jintao addresses the 64th session of the United Nations General Assembly last week. He and President Obama were criticized for not outlining solid commitments to slash greenhouse gas emissions while addressing the group.
Chinese President Hu Jintao addresses the 64th session of the United Nations General Assembly last week. He and President Obama were criticized for not outlining solid commitments to slash greenhouse gas emissions while addressing the group. Henny Ray Abrams/AP Images
President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao both were criticized because their climate change speeches last week at the United Nations lacked solid commitments to slash greenhouse gas emissions.
One reason for their reluctance to promise big cuts is that they share a huge climate change challenge. They're trying to figure out how to keep producing electricity from their abundant stores of coal without spewing the massive quantities of greenhouse gases that usually come from burning coal.
In recent weeks, Chinese officials have been visiting some projects in the United States that are experimenting with technologies to capture carbon dioxide from the exhausts of existing coal plants. So far, the costs make these technologies impractical.
Nonetheless, some companies are hoping to scale back costs as they scale up their projects. A top executive of one of those companies says that the industry could have commercially viable full-scale greenhouse gas pollution controls ready for power plants by 2015 — but only if governments move quickly to regulate greenhouse gas pollution.
It's kind of a catch-22. Many members of Congress say they're not willing to set limits on greenhouse gases yet because there isn't technology available to strip carbon from coal-fired power plants.
Small-Scale Projects In The Works
So far, there aren't any commercial-scale technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the exhausts of coal-fired power plants. But some companies are trying to change that. Like Alstom — a French corporation that's one of the world's biggest manufacturers of the boilers and other machinery for power plants. Alstom is working on small-scale projects to capture carbon dioxide.
"We have about 10 plants in six countries operating today," Pierre Gauthier says.
Gauthier is president of Alstom's U.S. operations. Alstom's technology recently started a carbon-capture project at a West Virginia power plant. The carbon dioxide is liquefied and injected a mile and a half underground.
It's a small project, but it's expensive. And if it were scaled up it would use about a quarter of a plant's electricity just to strip out the carbon. Gauthier says the company's technology would use less energy and cost less if engineers could work out the bugs on full-scale projects. But he says that will take lots of subsidies.
Gauthier thinks what would really help improve the technology — and make it cheaper— would be a new law that limits carbon emissions. "Today there is not policy with regards to carbon, which would be an incentive for customers to build these types of plants," Gauthier says. That kind of policy would make it costly to pollute and create a demand for pollution controls. Alstom is one of a growing number of power companies that support climate legislation.
Here's the irony — a big reason many members of Congress say they're reluctant to restrict greenhouse gas emissions is that technology to capture carbon dioxide isn't affordable or commercially available yet.
A Policy Catch-22
"It is a policy catch-22," says David Hawkins, head of the climate program at the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council. He says members of Congress from coal states are reluctant to support global warming legislation until they're sure carbon-capture technology will be cheap enough that it won't hurt the coal industry or send the prices of electricity sky high.
"It's a chicken and egg situation," Henrick Fleischer says. He's the founder of Sargas, a Norwegian company that's also developing carbon-capture technology. Fleischer says the same dynamic is also delaying an international climate change treaty because leaders of many countries are reluctant to sign on before the technology is ready and affordable.
"The big message for us to the politicians is that this is not something that is ready in five to 10 years," he says. "This is something that we can start to build today."
A growing number of power executives are trying to convince politicians that they might be putting the coal industry at a long-term disadvantage by stalling climate legislation. They've decided that restrictions on greenhouse gas pollution are inevitable. And carbon-capture technology is coal's only hope. Climate legislation would come with the carrots and sticks to make that technology a reality.