May 7: Build first, talk later
The North Sea coast is a sweet spot for coal fired power plants. But in response to popular protests, advisors to the German government plea for a societal discussion on carbon capture and storage (CCS). Meanwhile construction is ongoing.

Cheap overseas transport of coal, abundant cooling water and the perspective of offshore locations for carbon storage make the North Sea coast a favourite spot for coal fired plants. We encountered one in Delfzijl and in Wilhelmshaven two others are under construction. Mind you, this is by no means a complete inventory of projected plants. These are just the sites that we stumbled upon.
Coal fired plants have drawn the attention of climate activists in Germany because of their high carbon output (about double the amount of a comparable gas fired plant) and their future reliance on carbon capture and storage - a technology that is to store CO2 in geological layers for thousands of years but that has nowhere yet been applied on a relevant scale.
In Germany, enviroment advisors to the government now plea for a societal discussion of CCS technology and to halt the law on this issue that has recently (April 1st 2009) been drafted. According to it, three CCS test projects are designated, among which one in Wilhelmshaven.
Yesterday, in a meeting at Wilhelmshaven various participants uttered their doubts on CCS technology. The local newspaper Wilhelmshavener Zeitung put an article on the event on their front page (May 7th 2009).

The socialist party SPD said that CCS technology would not be ready before 2020 - a position that can hardly be called controversial or extremist.
The green party (Grünen) concluded that over the next ten years, no relevant contribution to CO2 emissions reduction could be expected from CCS technology. Bärbel Höhn (vice president of the green party in the parliament) said: “The vague hope of CCS cannot possibly justify the construction of climate-destructive coal fired plants”.
Niedersachsen's minister of economical affairs Philipp Rösler doubted the economic feasibility of carbon storage. The costs (around 50 euros per tonne) are to be covered by CO2-certificates, which polluters have to pay for. Rössler is in favour of the CO2-certificate system, but only if it would be internationally adopted. German industry would be unfairly hindered if Germany was to introduce the certificates on its own, Rössler argues.
But there is another snag. The contracts between the power plant owners (Eon and EDF Suez) and the city of Wilhelmshaven state that the power companies will apply CCS as soon as it is 'economically feasible'. In other words, even if the technology gets developed and scaled up, it will still not be used as long as it is too expensive in the opinion of the power producers. Which may be a long time indeed.
The societal discussion on CCS is probably a good idea, since there are a lot of issues both technical and economical that need to be clarified before society gets led into a blind alley of ever increasing carbon emissions. As things stand today, the doubtful promise of CO2-storage is a cheap marketing trick to sweeten up the tainted reputation of coal fired plants.
In Holland the environment minister Jacqueline Cramer keeps saying the new coal plants in Holland will be among the cleanest in the world. How this miracle is to be performed is never specified, neither asked. The discussion hasn't even started there yet.
Economically, investments in coal fired plants are justified by the perspective of growing demand of power (as predicted by the International Energy Agency IEA) and rising gas prices (before the demand dropped because of the credit crunch that is).
There is little we can do about coal prices. But environmentally conscious consumers would do well to couple their protest to a reduction in domestical power consumption. A fast growing green movement could thus make new coal plants redundant.