Energy experts from MIT have released a long-awaited report on the future of coal. The report recommends that much more be done to develop technology for decreasing the impact of burning coal on global warming. The report also challenges some conventional thinking about the best way forward. It criticizes current efforts by the Department of Energy (DOE) and calls for an approximately $5 billion, 10-year program to demonstrate technology for capturing and storing carbon dioxide released by coal-fired power plants.
The report, based on a study by 13 MIT faculty members, comes at a time when growing concerns about global warming are making it increasingly likely that governments worldwide will impose a price on carbon-dioxide emissions to force a cut in the release of this important greenhouse gas. Nevertheless, coal, the leading source of carbon-dioxide emissions from electricity generation, will continue to be a major source of electricity, say the authors of the report. That’s because even with a high price on carbon, coal is abundant and probably necessary to meet fast-growing demand for energy worldwide.
Reducing the impact of continued coal use on global warming will require a massive effort to collect carbon dioxide from power plants and bury it underground, the experts say. The volume of compressed carbon dioxide that will need to be captured and transported is similar in scale to the amount of oil consumed in the United States, the report says.
Doing so is “not simply a matter of bolting on a box to capture carbon dioxide,” says John Deutch, a professor of chemistry at MIT. Indeed, retrofitting existing plants will require wholesale restructuring, even for advanced coal plants, he says. And although there are a few carbon-sequestration projects going on around the world, none of these has been put together with the sort of careful monitoring required to assure the public and energy investors that long-term, extremely high-volume carbon-dioxide storage is possible.
The report challenged the idea, argued by some energy experts, that a new type of coal plant–one that converts coal into a gas before burning it–will make it easier and cheaper to capture carbon dioxide, compared with collecting it from the smokestacks of conventional power plants. The MIT experts say that several factors make the picture more complicated. Such coal gasification doesn’t work well with low-grade coal, for example, and both the new and the conventional plants will require major changes to capture carbon dioxide, according to the MIT report.