Coal: The Phantom Energy Savior

>> Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Imagine the remaining reserves of oil and coal as a savings account. There’s a lot in the bank, but pretty soon income is going to decline and savings are going to get drawn down. The question before us is: how fast should we draw down our fossil savings, and what should we spend them on?

Spending on CCS [carbon capture and sequestration] poses a fateful opportunity cost. If scaling up renewables and efficiency (R&E) is difficult today, it will be doubly so when savings have been drained pursuing CCS infrastructure. According to the scenarios developed by Heinberg and the Post Carbon Institute, massive CCS investment would at best delay an energy crash by a decade or two. I’m dubious of these kinds of scenario exercises, but it’s inarguable that after all that fossil energy is spent on CCS, it can’t be retrieved. There’s no do-over. If it doesn’t work out, the energy needed to build out R&E infrastructure will only be more expensive.

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At minimum, a sustainable future requires the best possible understanding of available coal reserves and their likely cost. If “clean coal” turns out to be a phantom, chasing it will not only waste time, it may foreclose the only decent options we have left.

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