Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) promises to make coal power green. One company says it is ready to deploy the technology, but locals are fighting plans to bury the carbon under their town.
Vattenfall says its coal plant is ready to capture and store its CO2 emissions
Energy giant Vattenfall is currently testing its procedure for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) in a part of eastern Germany known as Lausitz.
"We're working on a process to remove CO2 from waste gas. That way we're hoping to make the process of generating electricity from brown coal climate-friendlier", said Vattenfall's Lutz Picard who shows visitors around daily to explain how the company wants to make coal production green.
The company says some 55 million tons of lignite, also known as brown coal, are still produced here every year.
The pilot facility, at Vattenfall's Schwarze Pumpe brown-coal power plant, is trialing a technique which the company calls 'oxyfuel' because it involves adding large amounts of oxygen to the coal-burning process.
Oxygen is added when burning coal to extract the CO2
Half the equation
"We add oxygen when we burn the coal", said Vattenfall's Lutz Picard.
"That's how we're able to remove CO2 from the waste gas because the concentration of CO2 at the cauldron's mouthpiece is higher."
After it has been cleaned in several steps, the company says it is able to extract almost pure CO2.
At the moment, however, the CO2 that is being extracted is simply being released back into the atmosphere, because the company is still waiting for a new law which would allow it to pump the gas underground.
Germany's government is expected to give the green light to CCS technology, in line with its recently-announced energy concept for the next 40 years, which aims to promote a massive expansion of renewable energies while keeping energy prices stable through "bridge" technologies like nuclear power.
At Vattenfall's Schwarze Pumpe site, this would mean trucks and pipelines would be used to transport CO2 to the small town of Beeskow nearby, where it would be pressed 1,000 meters below the surface.
Vattenfall is confident of securing the necessary legislation, but it has since hit another snag: local resistance.
Beeskow's inhabitants are against the plans to store CO2 below their town
The inhabitants of Beeskow are against the plans and have put up big yellow crosses all along the road.
The pictures are reminiscent of the protest carried out by the anti-nuclear movement in other parts of Germany, where energy giants are planning to build repositories for nuclear waste.
Beeskow's inhabitants say there hasn't been enough investigation of the potential impact of pumping the carbon below their town, and they don't want to be used as "guinea pigs."
Many are afraid that the carbon might not be as clean as promised by Vattenfall, and that sulfur and heavy metals like arsenic could get into the drinking water via the ground water.
Even if the gas were clean, underground storage could lead to another problem, said activist Hardy Feldmann, because the liquid CO2 would be pressed into porous sand stone which contains very salty water, or brine.
"The brine would have to make space for the CO2", Feldmann said. "That would mean it would end up in the ground water. So we would have high levels of salt in the ground water."
So far, the city of Beeskow has vetoed Vattenfall's plans to conduct geological research on the brine layers, and has attacked federal authorities for allowing Vattenfall to proceed with its plans despite the absence of a law on the technology.
Will the CO2 extracted be pure enough to be stored underground?
But these concerns are not shared at Vattenfall.
Lutz Picard stresses that his company will do everything it can to purify the greenhouse gas and make the underground storage facility as secure as possible.
For him the technology is inevitable.
"In Germany you may argue about where coal ranks as a source of energy", Picard said. "But in countries like China or India you can't. There, coal is available and people will use it. And then the only question is: How do you use coal in a climate-friendly way?"
For Vattenfall, capturing and storing carbon dioxide could mean a big export opportunity – and perhaps one of it's last in the coal mining industry, considering that in 40 years' time, Germany is supposed to end to its own coal production.
Report: Dennis Maschmann (nh)
Editor: Nathan Witkop