Maybe it was the Academy Award, or the Nobel Peace Prize or the multimillion-dollar awareness campaign — but it appears that the world is beginning to wake up to the reality of climate change.
The facts alone are startling: Average global surface temperatures are rising at an ever-increasing rate, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere today are greater than any seen in 650,000 years, and polar ice caps are shrinking at a rate of 9 percent each decade. If this trend continues, summers in the Arctic could become ice-free by the end of the century.
Top scientists agree that most of the global warming that has occurred over the past 50 years has been due to man-made greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. And the major source of carbon dioxide emissions is the burning of fossil fuels. Because of our reliance on coal and other fossil fuels for heating, power and transportation, the problem will only grow worse if we don’t act now.
And that means finding a way to deal with coal.
With the price of other fuel sources such as natural gas on the rise, Americans have looked to coal to meet their energy demands. It is likely that by 2030, coal’s share of electricity production will grow to 58 percent from today’s level of 51 percent. Our challenge is to find a way to retire old, dirty coal-fired plants and to deploy advanced coal plants that employ carbon-capture-and-storage technology.
The idea behind carbon capture and storage is relatively simple. Instead of releasing carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, power plants capture carbon dioxide and store it in geological formations deep underground. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, carbon capture technology applied to a modern conventional power plant could reduce carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere by approximately 80 percent to 90 percent.
Although carbon dioxide capture has been proved on a small scale, so far, no large-scale power plant operates with a full carbon- capture-and-storage system. It is critically important that we understand how to fully integrate carbon-capture technology into a full-scale coal-fired plant.
This challenge makes recent actions by the Department of Energy all the more baffling.
In 2003, the FutureGen project was announced by the Bush administration as a full-scale, integrated demonstration of advanced coal gasification, electricity production and carbon capture and storage. This flagship project of the president’s clean coal program recently concluded a four-and-a-half-year independent, scientifically based site selection process that chose Mattoon, Ill., as the best location for the FutureGen demonstration plant. In January 2008, one month after the site announcement selecting Illinois over Texas, the DOE inexplicably decided to abandon FutureGen and develop a new program from scratch.
This decision will likely delay a full carbon-capture-and-storage demonstration by 10 years. In that decade, advancing countries like China and India will see a dramatic growth of industry — and a similar increased reliance on coal power. China, for instance, already plans to build 500 new coal-fired plants over the next decade.
The United States — responsible for a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions — has an obligation to lead in finding solutions to global warming. Unless we face this problem, it is unimaginable that other developing countries will be serious about curbing their emissions.
From an environmental standpoint, coal presents a great challenge. But it also presents a tremendous opportunity to shape a more promising future for our children. The question is whether coal will contribute to climate change through ever-increasing greenhouse gas emission or contribute to the future of global economic and environmental stability.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) supported the FutureGen clean coal plant.