The Costs of Capturing Carbon

Perhaps the biggest single question in the climate debate is how much it will cost to capture the carbon dioxide given off by power plants, especially coal power plants.

Some skeptics say it can’t be done at all. They are wrong, utility executives say—the technology exists. But at what cost?

For decades, the U.S. has benefited from low electricity rates, thanks to cheap coal plants. Many customers pay only about 5 cents per kilowatt hour, while others (mainly on the coasts) pay upwards of 10 cents.

No one doubts that adding a carbon capture system to existing or new coal plants would raise the price of electricity. But the actual rise is crucial. Obviously, the higher the price tag, the harder it would be to tackle climate change, both economically and politically.

Now comes a new report from Harvard that helps narrow down the possible costs. The first carbon capture systems, the report estimates, would raise the cost of electricty by 10¢ per kWh. But when the technology is put into widespread use, the cost would drop to 2-5¢ per kWh. That translates into a cost of about $30-50 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions avoided.

And that is pretty reasonable, the authors conclude, since the expected price for carbon dioxide emissions under a climate bill would be in a similar range. As a result, says the report, “mature technology would be competitive with conventional fossil fuel plants at prevailing carbon prices.”

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