SCHWARZE PUMPE, Germany (Reuters) - Swedish energy company Vattenfall opened a small coal plant in Germany on Tuesday which will produce almost carbon-free power in a test of technology that could help the fight against climate change.
The project will produce enough electricity for a town of 20,000 people to pilot a process called carbon capture and storage (CCS), which supporters hope can tackle both energy security and climate change woes.
At 30 megawatts the pilot is still less than one tenth the size of a full-scale coal plant and commercial-scale tests of the technology are at least five years off, analysts say.
“We want to make electricity clean,” said Lars Josefsson, chief executive of the Vattenfall Group. “This is an important milestone. It’s going to be a marathon but we’re committed.”
Analysts welcomed the announcement.
“Everybody’s always criticizing CCS for never having a fully working model. Well here’s one fully working model,” said Stuart Haszeldine, a geologist at Edinburgh University and CCS expert.
“Maybe by 2013 you could predict a full size power station operating with CCS.”
Coal is cheap and plentiful but also produces more heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) than energy sources such as oil, gas and renewables. CCS works by trapping those gases from coal plants and burying them in porous rocks underground.
A U.N. panel of climate experts says the technology could underpin the fight to slow rising temperatures and avert more powerful storms, droughts and rising seas.
CCS also has the support of many governments. But some environmental organizations say it is a distraction which will delay a global transition to renewable alternatives such as solar power, away from fossil fuels like coal, and accuse energy companies of making token investments.
“We’re taking our responsibility seriously,” said Josefsson at the inauguration of the 70 million euro ($98.92 million) plant built over two years which sits next to a conventional coal-fired plant 100 times as large.
“We’re collecting data and hopefully within the next two years we’ll decide whether to build two or three large CCS plants. But without CCS I don’t think lignite has any future.”
Cost is another concern -- CCS will add about half again or $1 billion to the capital cost of a full-scale power plant, according to industry estimates. If passed on to consumers that would raise power prices already at record levels.
Meanwhile leaks from store wells and pipelines of the invisible, odorless gas -- which can suffocate -- are a possible concern downplayed by analysts.
“We realize we’re at the start of a long development process,” said Josefsson. “The world needs this technology, in India and in China and in South Africa.”
The plant will use an oxyfuel boiler. Pure oxygen will be injected into the boiler and a cloud of powdered lignite will be added to produce heat, water vapor and CO2. The CO2 will be separated, condensed to a fraction of is volume and stored in cylinders and buried deep underground.
-- Additional reporting by Gerard Wynn in London