Towering coal flues loom on the horizon of this small Czech town, belching smoke into the foggy February sky. The dusky plumes drift away from the large Chvaletice coal-fired power plant, which is located on a mostly barren highway lined with only a handful of homes and businesses.
The plant is run by CEZ, the country's largest energy company. It has been operating since the 1970s and produces 800 megawatts of electricity. Along with that output come emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases and particulates that are the main culprits in global warming.
But the plant also provides 260 jobs in a town of only 3,300 and heats and lights thousands of homes. For the time being, the plant's pollutants are a side effect of local economic stability.
"Coal...is the most important source of energy in the Czech Republic," said Eva Novakova, a spokeswoman for CEZ. "Practically, it is the only domestic energy source. The coal mining sector employs thousands of people, [particularly] in the regions with the highest unemployment rates in the country."
Indeed, plants like Chvaletice comprise the heart and soul of Central Europe's energy supply. The Czech Republic gets 60 percent of its electricity from coal, while in Poland the statistic rockets to 96 percent.
Coal plants, however, are also among the biggest threats to the region's environment. About 30 percent of Europe's energy-consumption emissions comes from coal, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Numbers like that make emerging clean coal technologies especially important in Central Europe. But in the absence of any commercial-scale power plants that combine the latest-generation technologies, it's difficult to know whether to believe the grand claims made by the supporters of clean coal or those who say it's an untested, hugely expensive distraction from cleaner sources of energy.
For decades, most coal plants have burnt pulverized coal. Clean coal technology generally falls into two categories: those, like supercritical pulverized coal combustion or integrated coal gasification, that extract gases and other impurities before or during combustion; and carbon capture and storage, which traps carbon dioxide to store it underground or under the seabed.
CEZ is trying to decide between two plants as a possible site for carbon capture. Czech energy company Sokolovska Uhelna has been running a coal-gasification burner at its Vresova plant near the German border since 1996.
Near Berlin, Swedish company Vattenfall is building a demonstration power plant with carbon capture technology. Its three-year testing phase will begin this fall. Major Polish energy supplier Poludniowy Koncern Energetyczny (PKE) is constructing the world's first supercritical circulating fluidized bed boiler, which blows air through coal particles so they behave like fluid, in the small town of Lagisza near Krakow. The unit will open in March 2009.
Yet these projects are only pilots. Some, like the CEZ unit, are still only on paper. Critics say clean coal technology, particularly carbon capture, won't be economically viable on a real-world scale for several decades.
"The technologies are still in research, and their industrial applications are not expected before 2030. Perhaps a few small demonstration projects are possible earlier," said Wladyslaw Mielczarski of the European Energy Institute, a nonprofit consortium of energy experts.
Skeptics point out that even so-called clean coal requires harmful mining processes and doesn't eliminate dangerous emissions, as many renewable sources do. Europe's coal reserves are also diminishing, which necessitates increasingly dangerous mining and expensive imports.
But proponents of the new technologies argue that because coal is the region's energy backbone, cleaning up plants will help minimize otherwise inevitable emissions.
"In Poland and the Czech Republic, as older coal-fired power plants are retired in the future, it's likely that new capacity based on [cleaner technologies] will be deployed to replace at least some of them," said Stephen Mills of the International Energy Agency's Clean Coal Center.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Europe used 834 million tons of coal in 2004. That is expected to climb to 856 million tons in 2015 and more than 900 million by 2030.
Central Europe in particular is clinging to the fuel. Countries in the region operate mostly traditional plants that use pulverized coal. This keeps carbon emissions high—a problem for the European Union, which has pledged to reduce emissions by 20 percent by 2020.
Many plants have taken small steps over the years to reduce environmental harm. CEZ, for instance, installed desulphurization equipment at Chvaletice in 1997. But data have shown that using such minimal cleanup methods, which target mostly sulfurous and nitrous oxides and not carbon dioxide, will reduce emissions by only a minimal percentage in the long run.
Many experts believe carbon capture is the answer. Estimates show that the technology could capture up to 85 percent of carbon dioxide produced by power plants.
Carbon capture projects trail the pack among clean coal technologies. While supercritical boiler technologies have been used to upgrade many traditional coal plants—more than 500 units worldwide, according to the IEA—there are only a handful of carbon capture sites in operation.
Yet in late January, the European Commission introduced an energy and climate legislative package that emphasizes the need for carbon capture. Industries using the technology are now eligible for EU subsidies, and carbon dioxide captured will not be considered "emitted" under reduction rules.
The commission hopes that by 2030, carbon capture will account for 15 percent of the EU's required emissions decline. "We need to make [carbon capture and storage] the norm for new power plants and to set up 12 demonstration plants by 2015," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a 21 January speech.
But skeptics say the technology remains largely untested and expensive. A 2004 report from a greenhouse gas conference estimated that a coal gasification plant fitted with carbon capture—the ultimate combination of clean-coal technology—is likely to cost 27 to 50 percent more than one without a carbon capture component. At a pulverized coal plant, the increase would be 56 to 80 percent.
Some experts, however, say storage, not price, is the technology's biggest hurdle. "There is some concern that the carbon dioxide stored underground could leak and thus needs monitoring," the EEI's Mielczarski said. "The questions arise: Who should do it? And [for] how long—1,000 years, 2,000 years?...Industry will never accept such obligations. Local authorities? These legal problems should be addressed as soon as possible, as they are more difficult to handle than technologies."
Vit Hladik of the Czech Geological Survey, however, is optimistic about storage possibilities. From his office in Brno, Hladik has teamed with dozens of regional partners in the GeoCapacity project, which is co-funded by the EU. The three-year project is mapping Europe's major carbon emissions points and assessing countries' storage capacities.
"The initial results show that if you compare the storage capacities with the annual CO2 emissions from big stationary sources, that we have about 25 years [of capacity] to store all of the country's emissions," Hladik said of the Czech Republic. "This is just a theory, but it is a good comparison of the two figures." He hinted that capacities in Poland and Slovakia could be larger.
Hladik added that if geologists choose appropriate sites without fault lines and other leak-inducing features, CO2 loss from storage should be "99.9 percent excluded." Monitoring of the storage sites, he added, should fall to geological companies in the short term and governments in the long term.
He admitted, however, that for carbon capture to have an environmental effect, it must be made "economically attractive" to big companies.
STEPS OF ALL SIZES
Some companies are making transitional moves by installing new technologies without carbon capture. "Some forms of [the technologies] are already well-established and are clearly financially viable," said Mills of the IEA Clean Coal Center, pointing to supercritical pulverized coal or fluidized bed boilers. "Both types of system are working commercially around the world."
PKE's project in Lagisza, Poland, however, is a particularly innovative intermediate step.
Coal is Poland's energy lifeblood, and the country is also Europe's major producer. It contains 23.5 percent of the continent's recoverable coal resources and mines more hard coal than any other European country, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It is the fifth largest coal exporter in the world, and its state-owned coal mines provide thousands of jobs.
So heavily does Poland rely on coal that the EU has lowered the country's emissions reduction target to 15 percent.
The move to build an advanced fluidized bed boiler, supplied by U.S. company Foster Wheeler, acknowledges both coal's reign as energy king and the need to protect Poland's environment. The one-of-a-kind project will cost 500 million euros and replace two old units at Lagisza. It will have a 460-megawatt capacity.
The units will eliminate almost all sulfurous and nitrous oxides, and CO2 is expected to drop about 25 percent. Efficiency will be 43.3 percent—roughly the same as a supercritical pulverized coal plant's efficiency and much higher than that of a traditional one.
"Achieving this improvement in a single step is a major achievement," Timo Kauranen, president and chief executive of Foster Wheeler Energia, the Finnish subsidiary responsible for the project, said in a 2006 statement. "An equivalent increase in fuel efficiency has typically taken up to 10 years of cumulative development to achieve."
CEZ is taking a different route. In the short term, it is upgrading existing plants to increase efficiency and reduce emissions. But jumping to answer the EU's call for carbon elimination, the company also wants to build a carbon capture demonstration project within the next decade.
Overall, CEZ plans to spend 317 million euros by 2012 to reduce emissions.
The project is still in early planning stages. The company is trying to determine, among other things, if each of the two sites has enough space for a new plant and if there is a suitable site nearby for carbon storage. Novakova said a date for opening the plant has not been picked. The company also doesn't know how much CO2 would be eliminated in the new carbon capture unit.
"The figure will be a result of the feasibility study, which is under preparation at the moment," Novakova said.
Mielczarski of the EEI said plans like those of CEZ, which remain sketchy and plagued by unanswered questions, are "too ambitious compared to the technologies we have at the moment and can have in 20 to 30 years."
"There will be a lot of noise on research [and] demonstration installations, but the real impact will be negligible," he added.
Mielczarski said research should focus instead on renewable nuclear fusion and hydrogen energy sources. Hladik of the Czech Geological Survey also noted that carbon capture could be hindered in the long run by limited storage space.
"There is a possibility if [carbon capture] is applied that after some tens of years we will not have more or sufficient storage capacity. This might happen, but only provided that it is really applied in many cases and installations," Hladik said.
But Hladik added that carbon capture nonetheless "must be applied," especially in coal-addicted countries like the Czech Republic and Poland.
"This is quite an innovative method...because focusing only on efficiency and renewables will not solve the problem of climate change," he said.
Mills of the IEA Clean Coal Center said he is confident that with research and investment, clean coal technologies can become financially viable and widespread. Carbon capture just might take longer than other alternatives.
"Several major technology developers have now formed commercial alliances and are strongly promoting their particular systems," Mills said, citing General Electric and Siemens. GE plans to open a clean coal information and support center in Warsaw and focus on promoting coal gasification technology.
Mills said the bottom line is that coal isn't going anywhere, which makes clean coal technologies necessary.
"In some situations, coal remains crucial to the economic health of a particular country," he said. "Countries will continue to depend heavily on new coal-fired generating capacity as their economies expand further."