The following article is from our November 2008 issue.

Fig Leaf Or World Salvation? The major utility companies are working on a carbon dioxide-neutral coal power plant. Critics distrust the technology - By Nick Reimer

If you believe Vattenfall, planetary salvation begins in Schwarze Pumpe, a small town in the eastern state of Brandenburg. Germany's third largest utility company has built the world's first emissions-free coal-fired power plant.

Carbon capture and storage"- CCS for short - is the name of the new technology used to separate the climate killer from the power plant's waste gas and store it underground in liquid form. The expectations from this technology are huge: Vattenfall is promising nothing less than the salvation of humanity.

"The world has a climate problem and as a company producing electricity from lignite Vattenfall is part of the problem." This statement doesn't come from Greenpeace but from Vattenfall boss Tuomo Hatakka. "For the protection of the climate, the corporation has to cut its emissions in half by 2030," Hatakka said. "That is only possible through CCS."

Politicians also have huge expectations from the technology. "Today, coal provides about 25 percent of world energy consumption," German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared when she laid the foundation stone for a new RWE coal power plant in Hamm in late August. "We will have to expect that coal power plants will continue to be built worldwide during the coming decades." The Essen-based corporation is also working on the CCS process. "It could be an export hit as well of course," said the chancellor. There is little doubt that an exciting race for the new technology has begun. Vattenfall wants to become world market leader and has already made $1 billion available for the next stage of development.

Starting in 2014, the company is planning to build a 500-megawatt power plant in Jänschwalde that will use the so-called "Oxyfuel process." It involves burning coal in a pure oxygen environment, which creates significantly lower emissions - composed primarily of carbon dioxide and water. The water vapor is condensed out leaving a carbon dioxide gas with a concentration of up to 90 percent that is then liquefied under pressure.

Competitor RWE is betting on a different technology. In the "Pre-Combustion Process," coal is converted into carbon monoxide and hydrogen in a gasifier before combustion. The energy source is hydrogen. The carbon monoxide is transformed into carbon dioxide with water vapor.

A gigantic market awaits the winners of this race. In China, for example, a new coal power plant goes online every six days as the country moves to cover the swiftly growing energy demand. And given the political pressures to increase climate protection, the day will come when utility companies can only get power plants approved if they separate out the carbon dioxide from their emissions.

But taking the carbon dioxide out is only one part of the equation. The other element - underground storage is currently being investigated in Ketzin, near Potsdam. A team led by Frank Schilling, a professor at the German Research Center for Geosciences in Potsdam, is conducting research (with the help of a $26 million grant) into the behavior of carbon dioxide during end storage underground.

"People will only accept the underground storage if we can prove that it doesn't involve risks," said Schilling. In Ketzin, his team has drilled into a saline aquifer, a 650-meter deep porous sandstone formation, into which the researchers want to pump 60,000 tons of carbon dioxide. And even though the experiments in Ketzin are far from completed, Schilling is already convinced that "from a scientific perspective nothing speaks against a subterranean storage - here in Ketzin."

However, that is where a part of the problem begins: Schilling's team works with food-grade carbon dioxide, which is especially pure. But the CCS power plants produce a mix that is only 80 percent to 90 percent carbon dioxide. The question is how the 10 to 20 percent impurities react in the ground? Could they change the make up of the surrounding rock? "The purity has to match the reservoir," said Schilling. "So every single storage location has to be examined individually."

Experts estimate that there are long-term storage capacities for about 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide in Germany - enough space for 100 years worth of carbon dioxide from the German power plants. For now, Vattenfall wants to press its CCS-exhaust into empty natural gas stores in the Altmark region of Brandenburg. RWE wants to build a pipeline to Schleswig-Holstein.

But there is a problem with that: So far, there is no legal framework for the CCS technology whatsoever. The EU is hoping to pass a CCS-directive this year, which will be the basis for approving processes of potential final storage sites. But there is yet another problem: CCS reduces the efficiency of coal power plants.

Greenpeace speaks of 10 to 40 percent; Schilling estimates 8 to 12 percent: "That means, in order to get the same amount of electricity out in the end, CCS-coal power plants have to burn 20 percent more coal." That has an impact on cost effectiveness. Electricity from CCS is expensive, which is why critics of the technology believe that it will never prevail.

In addition, even Vattenfall does not believe that its process will be ready for large-scale application before 2020. And there are 25 new coal power plants being built or planned in Germany right now that will not be suitable for retrofitting. Climate activists contend that if the power company were convinced of the idea, then it would wait another 10 years before building new coal power plants. CCS is only a "fig leaf of the coal industry," they say.

Vattenfall also wants to develop four new brown coal surface mines in the Lausitz region to allow it to keep generate electricity from brown coal after 2040. Several villages and thousands of people would have to be relocated. A broad alliance of climate and environmental activists opposed to the plans has secured a regional referendum on the issue.

Almost 27,000 people signed the petition on "no new surface mining," over a third more than the number required to initiate the referendum process. Based on that, the state parliament has had to address the alliance's legislative initiative: abandon brown coal medium-term.

But the parliament of Brandenburg rejected the demand with the combined votes of the conservative CDU and the Social Democrats. Now 80,000 eligible voters will have to register for a referendum to prevent new surface mining.