Energy giant Vattenfall has launched an emissions-free coal-fired test plant near Berlin using a technology touted as a huge potential breakthrough in the fight against global warming. But critics aren't convinced.
Swedish energy utility Vattenfall sees carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a revolutionary answer to global warming which is largely blamed on carbon dioxide released when fossil fuels burn.
"This technology will become more important than offshore wind farms," said Vattenfall boss Lars Josefsson.
"Our project at Schwarze Pumpe puts us at the forefront of this technology in the world," said Tuomo Hatakka, the chief executive of Vattenfall Europe, referring to the the 70-million euro plant in eastern Germany.
Vattenfall, one of Europe's largest energy companies, hopes the project will help provide energy security through plentiful coal supplies while avoiding the CO2 emissions that are blamed for global warming.
Vattenfall underscores "clean technology" aspect
A Finnish-born executive who heads the Swedish group's Berlin-based subsidiary, Hatakka told German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung the process was viable because companies will have to buy EU allowances for every ton of carbon dioxide they release into the air.
The CCS test plant has drawn prominent visitors including Chancellor Merkel
"In tandem with EU-wide trading in emission rights, CCS will be economic. At 30 to 35 euros per emission certificate, the technology breaks even," he said.
The 30-megawatt pilot plant at Schwarze Pumpe in the Lausitz region of eastern Germany is very small compared to conventional power stations. But it's the first coal-fired power plant in the world ready to capture and store its own carbon dioxide emissions -- a so-called CCS plant.
Carbon dioxide emitted when lignite coal burns will not be vented up a chimney but piped away, compressed to a liquid and pumped into deep, porous rock. The concentrated carbon dioxide will then be injected "for permanent storage" in a gas field in northern Germany.
Vattenfall plans to build two "demonstration plants" 10 times that size in Germany and Denmark by 2015 at the latest. Hatakka said the company aimed to commission its first "large-scale CCS power station" in 2020.
The outcome of this new plant will be heat, water vapor, nine tons of CO2 per hour and a milestone in clean energy technology, according to Markus Füller, a spokesman for Vattenfall.
“This process is necessary if we ever hope to continue using soft, lignite coal, he says. We need to get a handle on the CO2 problem, and we think this technology is the way to do it," Füller said.
Critics aren't convinced
But environmentalists say the technology uses far more energy than existing power generation and warn that there are no secure long-term storage facilities for the gas.
German conservation group BUND on Monday denounced the project as simply a cover allowing Vattenfall to expand its network of conventional coal-fired power stations in Germany.
Some critics say the focus should be on expanding cheaper renewable energy rather than on polluting coal
Thorben Becker of BUND said it was still uncertain if CCS worked on a large scale. CCS power stations would obtain 10 per cent less power from the coal than conventional plants did, and it was not clear if there were enough suitable sites to dump the CO2.
"Instead of concentrating on far cheaper renewable energy, Vattenfall is locking itself in for decades to converting climate-damaging brown coal into electricity," he said.
The European Union wants to have 10 or 12 full-scale CCS power stations within the next few years, but it is not clear who will pay the high costs of building and running the plants.