[PAST EVENT] Physics & Geology Colloquium

January 29, 2014
4pm - 5pm
Small Hall, Room 110
300 Ukrop Way
Williamsburg, VA 23185Map this location

The global debate on climate change mitigation has focused on the single tree of climate change, blinding most policy-makers to the broader forest of sustainability. Although coal is public enemy number one in the war on climate change, it will remain one of the single largest sources of global energy supply for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, a successful outcome of negotiations for a post-2012 climate change treaty framework would include a long term objective of leaving coal in the ground.

As most policy-makers believe that leaving coal in the ground is an unrealistic scenario for the foreseeable future, carbon capture and storage (CCS) has attracted significant research and development in an attempt to achieve some semblance of carbon neutrality. Commercially viable-CCS presents a potential moral hazard: solving the CO2 disposal problem will encourage greater use of coal, without addressing the upstream environmental and social impacts of coal mining, transport, and downstream waste disposal. Clean coal? as currently envisioned supercritical power with CCS bolted on is not sustainable. CCS as end-of-pipe disposal is a non-starter in the absence of a robust regulatory framework for waste management including carbon pricing.

Bypassing the dual challenges of making coal too expensive or making low-carbon energy too cheap to meter, there is an intermediate solution to render coal more sustainable. Sustainable coal - not to be confused with clean coal is possible by combining underground coal gasification (UCG, with the produced gas used in combined-cycle gas turbine power plants or other off-the-shelf systems including conversion to liquids) with carbon capture, reuse, and storage (CCR, preferably via carbonate mineralization or other utilization not involving additional hydrocarbon production). This end-to-end system is necessary to close the sustainability loop. UCG is not a new technology, having been deployed in the former Soviet Union more than 60 years ago.

There are several commercial UCG operations worldwide today, but it is not well-known even among energy specialists. UCG can remove most of the negative externalities associated with coal mining, transport, and conventional pollutant management. CCR would provide a positive market driver in place of a price on carbon. A commercially viable CCR system would also enable more sustainable exploitation of non-conventional gas resources (e.g., shale gas). An end-to-end system would facilitate the convergence of energy security and climate change objectives globally and particularly in developing countries which may rely increasingly on imported coal.

In the U.S., UCG offers the prospect of transforming the coal mining industry to a high-value added sector supporting next-generation power plants and coal-to-liquids production, at the same time facilitating exports of natural gas.