Friday, 5 October 2012

Romney likes clean coal but engineers say it won't work

Mitt's full of bright ideas.
You might be excused for thinking that Mitt Romney was smoking crystal meth just prior to the Denver debate he was so animated. The Republican presidential candidate also serially ignored guidance from the compere, PBS's Jim Lehrer, by insisting on going over the time allowed by the plan, a plan set out clearly at the beginning of proceedings, making Lehrer appear to be incompetent. The word "steamrolling" was later used on the internet. But you realise of course that Romney had nothing to lose by pushing hard, and everything to gain. Polls nationwide had showed him lagging President Obama by significant margins.

The NY Times noted on its home page that the debate showed up a "clash of philosophies". Again, hardly a surprise. Romney ladled out the same tired dot points that well-paid right-wing ideologues have been foisting on the muddled American public for months and years. One of these is the promise of "clean coal". Romney segued to this item on his checklist of shop-soiled notions after telling Obama that, while it was great to support green energy, the coal industry was hurting. "I like clean coal," Romney said, optimistically, knowing that 99 percent of Americans know as much about scrubbing carbon from the emissions of coal-fired power plants as they know about what were the historical influences on Beethoven's 5th symphony. It was just another headdesk moment in a debate that saw the presidential contenders talking past each other to their core constituencies.

Look, Mitt old boy, a lot of people in the hydrocarbon industries fervently wish for clean coal but it's just not economical. I had the chance to talk firsthand with an expert in the technologies being explored when I covered an industry conference as a copywriter in August 2011 in Perth. There I met a bright, interesting young man named Rajab who began to do research on the subject while working in Singapore and went on to complete a simulation study at a university in Sydney that showed it was possible to achieve an 18 percent overall improvement in efficiency in a coal fired power plant. Such efficiencies are important because of the energy load flue (exhaust) gas scrubbing imposes on the plant. In power plants, flue gas is channelled to an absorption system where solvent is added to the stream and binds to the CO2. The solvent is then taken to a regenerator where the CO2 is separated from it, so that the solvent can be reused. The energy required to separate the solvent from the CO2 is, currently, “huge”, said Rajab.

Absorption has been used in the oil and gas industry for decades, Rajab told me, but at a larger scale it is still an emerging technology. "Emerging technology" is industry spin meaning that it is not currently practical and there are no solutions on the horizon. The reason it is not practical is that the cost in energy is too high for it to be so. Rajab's supervisor explained the reality to me. “I always use [an] analogy to make it quite simple,” he said. “It’s like a pregnant woman. The power plant is the woman, now pregnant with the baby that is the capture plant. It’s a burden. The case here is that the baby is estimated to be the same size as the mother. The capture plant is estimated to be the same size as the power plant.” Wow. If the flue gas scrubbing system in the plant uses as much energy as the entire plant produces, then it's easy to see that carbon capture is simply not feasible. See, Mitt? But such considerations are of no importance to conservative gasbags like Romney because he has hundreds of advisers telling him that CCS can be possible given enough investment in the required technologies.

Surely, Mitt, it is better to invest money in proven technologies such as solar, wind, biofuels and the other options that are waiting for free capital and market mechanisms to be put in place so that they can achieve the scale required to substitute for energy sources such as coal. Surely it is better to put in place a cap-and-trade system by way of the legislative process so that green energy companies who are waiting in the wings for just that moment and who have the technologies that are needed can help us transition from brown energy to green energy. Surely. Surely. Surely. But, no. Let's throw a few billion more dollars at clean coal so that the lobbyists and the campaign sponsors, and Fox News and the Love of Freedom Society and whoever else is still digging their heels in, can feel better just for a few more years.

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