By Scott Brown
March 5, 2023 - The most recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that all realistic scenarios for reaching global warming targets will require either the closure of all coal-burning power generation facilities or the implementation of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies to clean up their emissions.
The fossil fuel industry lobbied hard to include billions of dollars of support for CCS projects in the 2021 Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IJA), and to include carbon capture subsidies in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). The industry claims that ongoing operation of coal plants is necessary to support our electric system reliability and that carbon capture technologies could allow them to do so without harmful emissions. Evidence suggests these will be wasted billions that could be better spent.
Between 2009 and 2020, the US Department of Energy spent nearly $700 million on eight CCS projects at coal-fired power plants. The coal industry spent hundreds of millions more, largely borne by ratepayers. All of the projects failed. Only one was ever built and closed after failing to achieve both environmental and financial goals. A 2021 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that without better oversight, the DOE risks “expending significant taxpayer funds on CCS demonstrations that have little likelihood of success.” A former executive in DOE’s Office of Carbon Management noted in retrospect that although CCS technology may have a “role to play” in some sectors such as cement production, where cheaper alternatives may not exist, it does not have viable role at coal-fired power plants.
The fossil fuel industry also lobbied heavily to include incentives for direct air capture (DAC) in both the IJA and the IRA, hoping that these technologies could help extend the life of coal mines and oil wells. $3.5 billion was allocated to direct air capture hubs in the IJA, and tax credits equal to $180/ton were added to the IRA. Unfortunately, the technology is both unproven and expensive. The only direct air capture project operating at modest scale — built by the Swiss direct-air-capture company, Climeworks — costs more than $500 to remove a ton of CO2, more than five times the cost of already uncompetitive CCS projects.
The cheapest way to reduce carbon emissions is to replace coal-fired power generation with renewable energy. Every ton of coal burned for electricity results in 2.5 metric tons of CO2 in the atmosphere (not to mention the quantities of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, and particulate emissions, or the dozens of coal mine deaths and injuries every year in the United States).
Why should we spend billions of dollars to remove solid carbon from the ground that has been sequestered by nature over millions of years, burn that carbon to produce electricity, and then spend billions more to remove that same carbon from the atmosphere and inject it back into the ground from whence it came?
Based on the average profitability of U.S. coal mines over the past ten years and assuming a coal mine could be purchased at a price that would reflect a multiple of 5-10 times its profit, a buyer who purchased and closed the mine would permanently sequester carbon at a price of less than $3-6 per ton, a fraction of the cost to remove that carbon with direct air capture.
The same effect could be achieved by buying coal power plants, shutting them down, and depressing the demand for coal. The transmission lines serving those generators could be productively used to carry renewable energy, and the plant sites themselves could be used for cleaner and more productive purposes, as Google recently demonstrated by converting a coal fired power plant to a renewable-supplied data center.
We can’t shut all coal mines and close all coal-fired power plants without building alternative forms of generation, but those technologies already exist. It will cost U.S. taxpayers far less to facilitate faster growth of the renewable energy industry than to slow the demise of the coal industry. Companies like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon could be buying and closing coal mines rather than spending more than $500/ton — as they are currently doing — to remove carbon from the air with costly experimental DAC technologies. Even those companies paying $30/ton to sequester carbon by leaving trees in the forest would do far better by paying $3/ton to leave coal in the ground.Carbon removal technologies may be necessary in the long run to mitigate the emissions from industries like cement and steel that can’t be replaced easily with clean alternatives. But let’s first fix the emissions we can remove quickly by replacing coal with wind and solar. A molecule of CO2 avoided today is more valuable to the planet than one avoided ten years hence.
Alphabet and Microsoft, if you really want to curb carbon now, buy a coal mine and hire the workers to build more solar.
Scott Brown is member of the board of directors and senior climate advisor for Mercy Corps and a founding member of the Harvard Negotiation Project. From 1998-2005, he was a member of the Advisory Council of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy.