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Project: The Future of Coal; An Interdisciplinary MIT Study

Research Team:
Co-Chairs: John Deutch and Ernest Moniz
Executive Director: James Katzer
Study Group Participants: Stephen Ansolobehere, Janos Beér, Denny Ellermen, Julio Friedmann, Howard Herzog, Henry Jacoby, Paul Joskow, Gregory McRae, Richard Lester and Edward Steinfeld

Sponsors: Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Energy Foundation, The Better World Fund, The Research Council of Norway and the MIT Office of the Provost; Shell provided for part of MIT's studies in China

Year: 2007

An interdisciplinary MIT faculty group examined the role of coal in a world where constraints on carbon dioxide emissions are adopted to mitigate global climate change. This follows "The Future of Nuclear Power" which focused on carbon dioxide emissions-free electricity generation from nuclear energy and was published in 2003. This report, the future of coal in a carbon-constrained world, evaluates the technologies and costs associated with the generation of electricity from coal along with those associated with the capture and sequestration of the carbon dioxide produced coal-based power generation. Growing electricity demand in the U.S. and in the world will require increases in all generation options (renewables, coal, and nuclear) in addition to increased efficiency and conservation in its use. Coal will continue to play a significant role in power generation and as such carbon dioxide management from it will become increasingly important. This study, addressed to government, industry and academic leaders, discusses the interrelated technical, economic, environmental and political challenges facing increased coal-based power generation while managing carbon dioxide emissions from this sector.

Key findings in this study:

• Coal is a low-cost, per BTU, mainstay of both the developed and developing world, and its use is projected to increase. Because of coal's high carbon content, increasing use will exacerbate the problem of climate change unless coal plants are deployed with very high efficiency and large scale CCS is implemented.

• CCS is the critical enabling technology because it allows significant reduction in CO2 emissions while allowing coal to meet future energy needs.

• A significant charge on carbon emissions is needed in the relatively near term to increase the economic attractiveness of new technologies that avoid carbon emissions and specifically to lead to large-scale CCS in the coming decades. We need large-scale demonstration projects of the technical, economic and environmental performance of an integrated CCS system. We should proceed with carbon sequestration projects as soon as possible. Several integrated large-scale demonstrations with appropriate measurement, monitoring and verification are needed in the United States over the next decade with government support. This is important for establishing public confidence for the very large-scale sequestration program anticipated in the future. The regulatory regime for large-scale commercial sequestration should be developed with a greater sense of urgency, with the Executive Office of the President leading an interagency process.

• The U.S. government should provide assistance only to coal projects with CO2 capture in order to demonstrate technical, economic and environmental performance.

• Today, IGCC appears to be the economic choice for new coal plants with CCS. However, this could change with further RD&D, so it is not appropriate to pick a single technology winner at this time, especially in light of the variability in coal type, access to sequestration sites, and other factors. The government should provide assistance to several "first of a kind" coal utilization demonstration plants, but only with carbon capture.

• Congress should remove any expectation that construction of new coal plants without CO2 capture will be "grandfathered" and granted emission allowances in the event of future regulation. This is a perverse incentive to build coal plants without CO2 capture today.

• Emissions will be stabilized only through global adherence to CO2 emission constraints. China and India are unlikely to adopt carbon constraints unless the U.S. does so and leads the way in the development of CCS technology.

• Key changes must be made to the current Department of Energy RD&D program to successfully promote CCS technologies. The program must provide for demonstration of CCS at scale; a wider range of technologies should be explored; and modeling and simulation of the comparative performance of integrated technology systems should be greatly enhanced.

The Future of Coal, An Interdisciplinary MIT Study, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, March (2007) <Full Report> <Summary Report> <MIT Press Release>

Herzog, H and J. Katzer, "The Future of Coal in a Greenhouse Gas Constrained World," presented at the 8th International Conference on Greenhouse Gas Control Technologies, Trondheim, Norway, June (2006). <PDF>

Ide, T., S.J. Friedmann, H. Herzog, "CO2 Leakage through Existing Wells: Current Technology and Regulations," presented at the 8th International Conference on Greenhouse Gas Control Technologies, Trondheim, Norway, June (2006). <PDF>

Maurstad, O., H. Herzog, O. Bolland, J. Beér, "Impact of Coal Quality and Gasifier Technology on IGCC Performance,"  presented at the 8th International Conference on Greenhouse Gas Control Technologies, Trondheim, Norway, June (2006). <PDF>

Maurstad, O., "An Overview of Coal based Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) Technology," MIT LFEE 2005-002 WP, September (2005). <PDF>