Contra CSS

The coal-fired power plant of Ensdorf.
Photo: Wolfgang Staudt (Source: Flickr.com). This photo is under a Creative Commons License.

May 11, 2010
By Ingrid Nestle
In Germany, the coalition treaty between Christian Democrats (CDU) and Liberals (FDP) provides that subsidies for the extraction of coal will continue until 2018. Additional subsidies for new coal-fired power plants will come from the implementation of EU rules on carbon capture and storage (CCS) and from income generated by emissions trading. The irony is, that for years the FDP had rallied for the abolition of coal subsidies. Thus, the current German government is promoting an increase in coal-fired power plants, a policy that undermines climate protection. The idea seems to be to greenwash coal by means of CCS.

So far, CCS is nothing but wishful thinking by major energy companies who are hopeful that one day it might be feasible to have climate-friendly coal-fired power plants. Yet, there are weighty reasons why CCS technology will never be an option, neither within Germany, nor worldwide:  CCS will inevitably lead to a higher consumption of fossil fuels. To capture and store CO2 requires considerable amounts of energy, thus leading to a marked drop in the efficiency of power plants.
In order to assess how climate-efficient CCS may be, it does not suffice to look at CO2 alone; other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide are also part of the equation. If one looks at the complete chain from extraction, transport, and the processing of coal up to the storage of CO2, CCS can, according to what we know today, only capture between 67 and 78 per cent of greenhouse gases emitted by coal-fired power plants.

Unwieldy power plants are incompatible with renewables produced in fluctuating amounts by wind and solar power stations. Coal-fired power plants, especially those burning lignite, are slow in powering up and down. To operate them becomes only efficient where there is a high annual utilisation – and CCS technology will further increase such inflexibility. New coal-fired power plants using CCS will nothing but obstruct the turnaround in energy policy and hamper the expansion of renewables.
CO2 storage requires geological formations, which at least in part are necessary for forms of sustainable energy production such as geothermal power, compressed-air energy storage, biogas storage etc. Such storage facilities are important to balance the fluctuating energy production of wind and solar power. We thus face a clash of two incompatible modes of usage.
In Germany, main locations for CO2 storage would be geological formations in the Northern Lowlands. It is an open question whether they are suitable for the long-term storage of CO2. There is always the danger that today’s CO2 stores will be tomorrow’s sources of CO2 emissions. Money invested in CCS technology will be taken from other projects; there is a risk that other strategies to fight climate change will be thus neglected or obstructed.

Germany needs no commercial CCS technology. We should not burden future generations with CO2 storage, which would come on top of other legacies such as nuclear waste. In order to keep global warming below the threshold of two degrees centigrade, CO2 may not exceed the level of 350 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere. Presently, we have already reached a level of 385 ppm, and each year two ppm are being added. This means that global emissions will have to peak between 2015 and 2020 – and then decrease rapidly. On this, all politicians concerned with the environment agree. The quarrel is about whether or not to use CCS technology. In this regard, it is interesting that the opponents of CCS focus mainly on Germany and Europe, while its proponents look at the increasing number of coal-fired power plants in the newly industrialised countries.

Green New Deal / Great Transformation