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Fossil-fueled power plants are the biggest greenhouse gas emitters worldwide. Modern gas capturing methods could make them more climate-friendly. But there's a risk to it, and Germany has decided to scrap it altogether.
Fossil-fueled power plants emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air. It is, however, possible to capture harmful gases at the plant and deposit them in the ground by using "Carbon Capture and Storage" (CCS) technology. This could result in better, more climate-friendly coal-fired power plants.
But it's a highly controversial technology. Development is especially slow in Europe, according to the EU Commission. In Germany, the introduction of CCS failed due to residents and politics opposing the technology. As a result, plans to construct massive underground storage reservoirs were abandoned.
More realistic CCS scenarios needed
The EU and the International Energy Agency, however, are still convinced CCS can help limit global warming to a maximum of two degrees Celsius (35.6 degrees Fahrenheit), and are continuing with CCS projects in Europe.
A recent International Energy Agency report predicts that by 2035, "almost 30 percent of new fossil-fueled power plants will be fitted with CCS."
Professor Manfred Fischedick, from the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, argues that it would be smarter to wait for research results.
"There is a difference between wishful thinking and reality," Fischedick told DW. "For the moment, I cannot imagine that CCS technology will be widely used by 2020 or 2025, not in Europe and not worldwide. I therefore recommend to take a more realistic approach."
That view is echoed by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin): "The past five years have shown CCS to be a failure," said Christian von Hirschhausen, DIW's research director for industrial economics. "The EU scenarios are from four or five years ago, and are based on the assumption that carbon capture exists in a technically safe and economically sound environment. Both has proven to be incorrect."
Fischedick and the energy company RWE predict that power plants using CCS will accumulate additional costs of over 60 to 80 percent per kilowatt hour. In other words, power from a German coal power plant which uses CCS would cost around 13 euro cents ($ .17) per kilowatt hour. By comparison, the current price for wind and solar power costs under 10 euro cents. And according to experts the price could drop below seven euro cents by 2025.
Renewables are the future
The EU should review and update the figures it uses for its climate policy, said Claudia Kemfert, a climate expert at DIW. It should, for instance, consider falling production costs of renewable energy sources. "Renewable energy is the only option for sustainable, low-emission energy in Europe," she told DW.
Fischedick also says policymakers need to focus on renewable energy. At the same time, he also emphasizes that CCS research should not be neglected entirely.
"We might experience a time where it becomes necessary to integrate CCS technology into existing power plants for environmental reasons," Fischedick said.