The proposed British Columbia policy, however, could have unintended consequences. John Thompson, director of the Coal Transition Program for the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit environmental consulting firm based in Boston, says that British Columbia’s seemingly IGCC-friendly policy may be too ambitious because it would force IGCC operators to find a place to store their captured carbon dioxide. In Thompson’s view, carbon-dioxide sequestration technology is not as mature as IGCC. “There’s a tendency to think that geological sequestration from coal plants can emerge in one fell swoop. But [carbon capture and sequestration] are really two distinct technologies,” argues Thompson. Sequestration is under way at several sites in Europe and the United States. (See “Carbon Dioxide for Sale.”) Still, Thompson says that more testing is needed to see whether deep geologic formations are capable of absorbing the carbon dioxide from multiple power plants and safely holding it long term. “Who’s liable if, God forbid, some of this carbon dioxide comes up?” he asks.
British Columbia’s policy poses an immediate dilemma for the two coal-power projects currently pending in the Canadian province. Proponents of one project, a pulverized-coal plant proposed for Tumbler Ridge, are exploring the feasibility of adding carbon capture and storage, Neufeld says. The other project, in Princeton, has found an entirely different way around the new policy: dumping coal from its plan. The plant was originally designed to burn a fifty-fifty mix of wood waste and coal. Neufeld says the developers are now talking about burning 100 percent biomass.
The new plans for Princeton are a reminder of the coal-power industry’s stake in IGCC technology. If it doesn’t find a means of reducing coal’s greenhouse-gas emissions, coal power may eventually be legislated out of existence. Neufeld says British Columbia will need 25 to 45 percent more electricity within 20 years, and that alternative forms of electricity such as wind power and new hydro power, which tend to be intermittent, can’t completely replace baseline power sources such as coal-fired plants. “We need firm energy,” says Neufeld, “hard, firm electricity … to make sure that the lights stay on.”