MIT’s Energy Initiative has released a summary of options for cutting carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal plants, which it says is “the only credible pathway toward prudent greenhouse gas stabilization targets.”
The report is based on the findings of a major MIT symposium on retrofitting coal-fired power plants, and identifies a range of possible next steps for the consideration of policy makers, industry and others engaged in CO2 emissions mitigation.
Once built, coal plants are, in most cases, the cheapest source of base load power generation and will not be phased out absent very high CO2 prices.
Some of the key findings of the report include:
Relatively large, high-efficiency coal plants already equipped with desulfurization and nitrogen oxide emissions controls are the best candidates for post-combustion capture retrofit. Such plants make up less than half of the existing fleet. However, specific retrofit projects will need to pass various site-specific screens, such as available space, increased water supply, and CO2 off-take options. A fleet-wide, detailed inventory of plants and sites is urgently needed to determine which plants are suitable for retrofitting, rebuilding or repowering or for partial CO2 capture solutions tailored to the current plant configuration. This inventory should inform policy makers about the range of options for significant reduction of CO2 emissions from operating coal plants in different climate policy scenarios.
The primary focus of research and development for existing coal plants should be on cost reduction of post-combustion capture. This is essential if retrofits are to be affordable in developing countries. An expanded R&D program should also include efficiency upgrades, rebuilds, repowering, poly-generation and co-firing with biomass. Consideration should be given to including a component for research on CO2 capture from natural gas power plants. A robust U.S. R&D effort with this scope requires about $1 billion per year for the next decade (not including support for commercial scale demonstration).
The federal government should dramatically expand the scale and scope for utility-scale commercial demonstration of coal plants with CO2 capture, including demonstration of retrofit and rebuild options for existing coal power plants. New government management approaches with greater flexibility and new government funding approaches with greater certainty are a prerequisite for an effective program.
The world cannot achieve significant reductions in CO2 emissions, avoiding the most disruptive impacts of climate change, without commitments to reduce emissions from existing coal-fired power plants in the United States and China. Bilateral approaches on climate change should be encouraged and supported as a matter of U.S. policy. Joint R&D programs between the United States and China should be supported and funded.