A new MIT Energy Initiative report outlines clear steps the nation must take to develop cost-effective options for cutting carbon emissions at existing coal-fired power plants. According to the report, there is “no credible pathway” toward stringent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide without addressing coal-fired plants, according to the report. The recommend that any proposal must pass the “China test,” meaning its cost must be low enough “that China and other emerging economies can afford to implement it. The report reinforces the need to quickly start a cap-and-trade program; concludes retrofit technology is feasible but not enough is being done to implement it on a large scale; and provides action steps for policy makers.
U.S. coal-fired power plants are responsible for one-third of the nation’s carbon emissions, and the number of China’s coal plants continues growing and may reach double the size of the U.S. fleet in the coming years. China and other developing countries also have resisted talk of imposing hard limits on its carbon emissions
Some of the key findings of the report include:
* Relatively large, high-efficiency coal plants already equipped with desulfurization and nitrogen oxide emissions controls are the best candidates for post-combustion capture retrofit. Such plants make up less than half of the existing fleet. However, specific retrofit projects will need to pass various site-specific screens, such as available space, increased water supply, and CO2 off-take options. A fleet-wide, detailed inventory of plants and sites is urgently needed to determine which plants are suitable for retrofitting, rebuilding or repowering or for partial CO2 capture solutions tailored to the current plant configuration. This inventory should inform policy makers about the range of options for significant reduction of CO2 emissions from operating coal plants in different climate policy scenarios.
* The primary focus of research and development for existing coal plants should be on cost reduction of post-combustion capture. This is essential if retrofits are to be affordable in developing countries. An expanded R&D program should also include efficiency upgrades, rebuilds, repowering, poly-generation and co-firing with biomass. Consideration should be given to including a component for research on CO2 capture from natural gas power plants. A robust U.S. R&D effort with this scope requires about $1 billion per year for the next decade (not including support for commercial scale demonstration).
* The federal government should dramatically expand the scale and scope for utility-scale commercial demonstration of coal plants with CO2 capture, including demonstration of retrofit and rebuild options for existing coal power plants. New government management approaches with greater flexibility and new government funding approaches with greater certainty are a prerequisite for an effective program.
* The world cannot achieve significant reductions in CO2 emissions, avoiding the most disruptive impacts of climate change, without commitments to reduce emissions from existing coal-fired power plants in the United States and China. Bilateral approaches on climate change should be encouraged and supported as a matter of U.S. policy. Joint R&D programs between the United States and China should be supported and funded.
© 2009, Tracey de Morsella. All rights reserved. Do not republish.