CCS may also be an additional tool to cut carbon emissions from existing plants. We all want to use efficiency and renewables (and, more controversially, natural gas) to back out coal and carbon pollution from the more than 300GW of existing coal plants. But that won't happen without strong policies. The reality is that we have not yet made the sale with critical members of Congress that a coal-free energy system is feasible in the near term. However, we can make the sale that CCS can become a real option, with a serious effort and supporting policies. Our community should not be afraid of having an additional tool to go after emissions from existing coal plants. If CCS is shown to be feasible for existing coal plants it will become harder and harder for those plants to justify operating without it. That helps level the playing field for alternatives to coal.
Nor is CCS just about coal. CCS may also turn out to be something we need to get more rapid reductions in greenhouse gas pollution. We all know we should have started a serious climate protection program decades ago. Instead, our "leaders" have let carbon pollution build up at an accelerating rate with a lot more in the pipeline. Most of us fear that we are in for some disastrous impacts just due to what is already in the atmosphere along with the added amounts we cannot prevent in the next few decades. We may well need to pull CO2 out of the air by applying CCS to sustainably produced biomass. Using the politics of coal to prove out CCS so it is available for broader applications may be seen in a decade or so as a smart move.
The energy penalty projected for first-generation CCS systems is a legitimate concern. But we need not worry about a future of massive deployment of high energy penalty CCS systems. If CCS designs do not achieve substantially better efficiencies than the first versions, other low-carbon options will win in the marketplace.
What about the risk that CCS subsidies will enable coal to crowd out superior energy choices? Well, the key feature of the CCS subsidy provisions in the House and Senate climate bills is that payment is tied to actual capture and disposal of CO2. This is a huge change from past subsidies, including those in the stimulus bill, where the payment is not tied to actual tons of pollution avoided. While our community still may not like these CCS subsidies, keep in mind that they are part of a package that will put in place a steadily tightening cap on carbon pollution and a CO2 performance standard for new coal plants. That is a radically different policy environment than the status quo — one that will dramatically increase the prospects for efficiency and renewables. So whether you think, as NRDC does, that pay-for-performance CCS subsidies are an appropriate hedging strategy or that it’s just the price to pay to get the US off the dime on cutting carbon pollution, the odds are that CCS can play a positive role in helping us achieve our goals of moving the US and the world to a cleaner energy future.
(Originally published at NRDC's . Reprinted with permission from the author.)