Flexible options to provide energy for capturing carbon dioxide in coal-fired power plants under the Clean Development Mechanism
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Operators of coal-fired power plants with carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) can provide energy for carbon dioxide (CO2) capture by increasing coal input (option i) or reducing electricity output (option ii). Under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), does a flexible option exist in the future to provide energy for capturing CO2? In this study, we use a representative coal-fired power plant in China (600 MW) as a case study to assess the options to be implemented and the corresponding economic performance and emission reductions of coal-fired power plants with CCS. Both Monte Carlo simulation and the net present value (NPV) methods are used in this study. The results show that the flexible options yield an average NPV that is 57.36 and 48.07 million Chinese Yuan more than the net present values of option i and option ii, respectively, during three crediting periods. Additionally, the implementation of flexible options can improve the emission reduction effect in coal-fired power plants with CCS and promote the optimization of power systems. The priority for expanding the positive effects of flexible options is for international climate change policy negotiators and policymakers to formulate stricter international emission reduction policies with a high certified emission reduction price. In addition, a good communication and coordination mechanism between the coal-fired power plants and the administration of the power system are required to ensure the efficient implementation of flexible options.
KeywordsCoal-fired power plants CCS Flexible options CDM
The need to address climate change has reached a global consensus (IPCC 2014). Many countries have introduced regulatory policy schemes for carbon reduction (Abdi et al. 2018). However, in the foreseeable future, our world will still rely heavily on fossil energy (IEA 2016b). Carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) technology is a potential approach for mitigating climate change. Furthermore, without the contribution of CCS towards achieving global atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations within a range from 430 to 480 ppm CO2 equivalent, the global emission reduction cost will increase by 138% from 2015 to 2100 (IPCC 2015). However, due to high capital, operating and maintenance costs, CCS technology is difficult to develop without the input of external income (Stigson et al. 2012). In this context, the inclusion of CCS projects under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) has been considered a financial incentive mechanism for developing countries that wish to deploy CCS. Participants in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties, Cancun, Mexico, December 2010 decided that CCS can be developed into CDM project activities (UNFCCC 2011). The relevant methodology has been drawn up preliminarily and is being improved gradually (UNFCCC 2013). An important aspect of CDM projects is the certification of emission reductions. Similar to other types of CDM projects, the certified emission reductions (CERs) of CCS projects are equal to the difference between baseline emissions and project emissions and leakages (Global CCS Institute 2011; IEAGHG 2007; Philibert et al. 2007; UNFCCC 2013). The CO2 emissions arising from the energy (electricity and heat) used for CO2 capture1 are the largest part of the project emissions.
- Option i:
Under option i, new auxiliary power plant (or idle generating capacity) is fully utilized for capturing CO2, thereby helping to maintain the power output. In this context, the amount of coal used in power generation is greater than that used before the CO2 capture system was installed. Therefore, other power plants in the electricity system can maintain the stability of the power system without increasing the power output. Consequently, the calculation of CO2 emissions arising from the energy used for CO2 capture should be based on the CO2 emission factors of the coal-fired power plants (IEAGHG 2007).
- Option ii:
Under option ii, the coal input for power generation is the same in coal-fired power plants with and without the CO2 capture system. The reduction in the power output is equal to the amount of energy consumed by the CO2 capture system. To ensure the stability of the electricity system, the reduction in the power output of retrofitted coal-fired power plants should be compensated by increases in the power output of other power plants in the electricity system. Therefore, the combined margin (CM) CO2 emission factor of the electricity system should be used to calculate the total CO2 emissions arising from the use of energy for CO2 capture (Haefeli et al. 2004; IEAGHG 2007).
China, the world’s largest emitter of CO2 (Mi et al. 2017a; Mi et al. 2017b), is facing huge pressure to reduce emissions. The emission reduction effect of CCS technology could be attractive to China, where the coal power industry has been and will continue to be the primary emissions sector (Zhang et al. 2014). Consequently, CCS technology is likely to become increasingly attractive to China’s coal-fired power plants.
Therefore, based on the principle of profit maximization, we use a typical coal-fired power plant in China as a case study to assess the options for providing energy to capture CO2 under the CDM in developing countries and to evaluate the corresponding economic performance and emission reductions of coal-fired power plants with CCS.
2 Literature review
High-energy consumption is an important factor that leads to the high cost of CCS projects (Arranz 2016; IPCC 2005). In general, the energy cost accounts for approximately 8–27% of the total cost of CO2 capture (Broek et al. 2009; Company and McKinsey 2008; Viebahn et al. 2012; ZEP 2011). The purpose of an enterprise is to make a profit. The energy cost of CO2 capture is directly affected by both the amount of energy consumed and the energy price. Ziaii et al. (2009) established a dynamic rate model for the removal of CO2 from coal-fired power plants by mono ethanol amine (MEA). Based on this model, the removal rate of CO2 can be increased by 1% under the condition of reducing the steam rate (energy consumption). It is more efficient to reduce the capture cost through the flexible operation of the capture rate than by simply controlling the capture system to reduce energy consumption. Chalmers et al. (2009) evaluated the feasibility of flexible operation of the capture system and pointed out that there is no obvious technical obstacle to flexible operation. Patino-Echeverri and Hoppock (2012) concluded that whether the benefits of flexible operation outweigh the increased costs depends on the relationship between capital and operating costs and cyclical electricity price differentials. Research by Wiley et al. (2011) showed that in a market with cyclical electricity demand in New South Wales, flexible operation can capture 50% of the CO2 generated by coal-fired power plants without reducing the net amount of electricity supplied to the grid. In addition, the emission reduction cost with a flexible capture rate is lower than that with a fixed capture rate. The inclusion of CCS in the carbon market or the CDM is considered to be an important means to promote the development of CCS. Therefore, some studies on the CCS technology operation strategy take into account carbon prices. Based on a multiple time scale control-optimization framework, Abdul Manaf et al. (2016) evaluated the potential net operating revenue of the flexible operation of a coal-fired power plant retrofitted with a post-combustion CO2 capture plant in response to changes in power plant load, carbon prices and electricity prices. Research by Arce et al. (2012) found that application of dynamic optimization approaches to exploit the time-varying values of wholesale electricity and CO2 prices can lead to significant savings in the operating costs associated with post-combustion CO2 capture processes. This technology can reduce energy costs by 10%.
Flexible capture is considered a strategy to reduce the direct cost of CO2 capture and improve the direct benefits of CO2 capture by controlling the capture rate. In fact, under the CDM, coal-fired power plants with CCS can also improve their profits by flexible options to provide energy for capturing CO2 in developing countries. This operating mode considers both the amount of power output and the CERs, which indirectly affect the economic efficiency of CO2 capture. In addition, this flexible operating mode is an important part of the comprehensive mechanism to maximize the economic efficiency of the capture system. However, this subject has not received sufficient attention and in-depth research.
The options to provide energy for capturing CO2 can be adjusted at any time during the entire service life of coal-fired power plants. Which option will be implemented depends on the power generation profit, the CM emission factor, emission factor of the coal-fired power plant (or new auxiliary power plant) and the CER price. After several rounds of global climate change negotiations, global climate policy remains uncertain (Wei et al. 2014). Uncertainty in global climate policy will be reflected in the CER price (Zhou et al. 2014). Thus, by what means do we judge the options in an uncertain environment? The Monte Carlo simulation (MCS) is a widely recognized, comprehensive and flexible method for analysing uncertainties (Chou 2011; Dueñas et al. 2011; Liu et al. 2017; Vithayasrichareon and MacGill 2012). Based on the distribution function of uncertainties and a large number of simulations, the probabilities of executing each option and the corresponding economic and emission reduction effects of coal-fired power plants with CCS can be obtained annually. In addition, how does the flexible option impact the overall economic efficiency of the system over entire crediting periods? The net present value (NPV) method fully accounts for the time value and has been generally favoured in practical applications (Tang et al. 2017). The combination of MCS and NPV can be used to simulate the probabilities of executing each option and the corresponding economic and emission reduction effects of coal-fired power plants with CCS in an uncertain assessment environment.
Based on a review of the literature, we state our contributions to existing knowledge. First, flexible options for providing energy to capture CO2 in coal-fired power plants are proposed under the CDM. Additionally, the critical CER prices for option adjustment and the probabilities of executing each option (option i and option ii) are discussed in detail. Finally, we analyse the economic and emission reduction effects of coal-fired power plants with CCS under each option (option i, option ii and flexible options).
3.1 Research framework
There is no documentation available to specify the time interval between two rounds of CER certifications and issuances. Communication with professional researchers in the CDM project verification enterprise suggests that the CERs will be certified and issued generally every half a year to 2 years. Therefore, the emission reductions in the CCS are certified and issued once a year in this study.
The CO2 emission factor and profit of coal-fired power plants are two key parameters in this paper (Table 1). In many studies, the CO2 emission factor of coal-fired power plants is set as invariant (Rubin et al. 2015; Zhang et al. 2014). In addition, we cannot obtain an accurate trend regarding the profit of coal-fired power plants. Therefore, the CO2 emission factor and profit of the assessed coal-fired power plant are considered invariable in this study. The subsequent sensitivity analysis will try to make up for the limitations associated with this assumption.
Key parameters and data affecting the flexible options
Installed capacity (MW)
Annual utilization hours (h)
(Editorial Board of the China Electric Power Yearbook 2008–2017)
CO2 emission factor of coal-fired power plants (tons/MWh)
Energy consumption during CO2 capture (MWh/ton)
Three crediting period (years)
3 × 7
Profits per MWh (CNY/MWh)
(Huaneng Power International Inc. 2016–2017)
CM CO2 emission factor (tons/MWh)
See Table 4
Explained in the Appendix
Initial CER price (CNY/ton)
(Intercontinental Exchange 2018)
CER price volatility
CER price drift rate
3.3 Critical CER price for option adjustment and probabilities of executing each option
3.4 NPV of integrated profits for a coal-fired power plant with CCS under different options
3.5 CO2 emissions arising from energy used for the CO2 capture under different options
4 Research case and data
4.1 CER price volatility and drift rate
4.2 Data and explanation
The CO2 emission factor of the assessed coal-fired power plant: The net standard coal consumption rate is 0.311 tce/MWh (tons of standard coal equivalent per megawatt-hour) for coal-fired power plants with installed capacities above 6 MW in 2018, based on the extrapolation of 2005–2016 data (efcoal = 0.3788 − 0.0257 ln(2018 − 2004)) (Editorial Board of the China Electric Power Yearbook 2006–2017). Given an emission factor of standard coal of 2.64 tons/tce (tons per ton of standard coal equivalent) (NDRC 2014), the CO2 emission factor of the coal-fired power plant is calculated to be 0.821 tons/MWh.
Profits per megawatt hour: This study calculated the profits per megawatt hour of coal-fired power plants in China’s largest power generation group, Huaneng Power International Co., Ltd., from 2015 to the first half of 2017. In the calculation, the profitability of each business segment is assumed to be the same (in which the income from the electricity and thermal business section accounts for more than 99% of the total income, and the coal-fired power business segment generates more than 94% of the total electricity) (Huaneng Power International Inc. 2016–2017). Due to fluctuations in coal prices in China, the average price over the past 3 years is taken to calculate the profits per megawatt hour, yielding a value of 26.6 CNY/MWh.
CM CO2 emission factor of the electricity system: China calculated the CM CO2 emission factor of the electricity system in six regions (NDRC 2017). However, due to the lack of available data, in this study, China’s electricity system is considered as a whole. First, we calculated the operating margin (OM) emission factor and the build margin (BM) emission factor according to the “tool to calculate the emission factor for an electricity system (version 05.0)” issued by the CDM Executive Board (CDM EB) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (UNFCCC 2015). Then, the weighted average method was used to calculate the CM CO2 emission factor of the electricity system. The percentages of the OM emission factor and BM emission factor were 50% and 50% in the first crediting period and 25% and 75% in the second and third crediting periods, respectively (UNFCCC 2015). The detailed calculation process is shown in the Appendix.
5 Results and discussion
5.1 Critical CER price for the option adjustment and probability of executing each option
The probability of executing each option (Fig. 4) is directly determined by the critical CER price and the real CER price. The global pressure to reduce emissions is increasing, and it calls for global climate negotiations to draw up more stringent emission reduction policies. However, after several rounds of global climate change negotiations, the global climate policy remains complicated (Wei et al. 2014). The CER price, which is expected to increase in value, will be fluctuated. At the beginning of the first crediting period, coal-fired power plants will basically not execute option ii because of the low CER price. However, due to the expected increase in the CER price, the probability of implementing option ii will continue to increase (from 0.05% to 21.38%) during the first crediting period. The probability of implementing option ii (47.32–49.35%) changes slightly because of the decentralized distribution of the CER price (which is determined by the principle of geometric Brownian motion) during the second and third crediting periods.
5.2 NPV of integrated profits under different options
5.3 The CO2 emissions arising from energy used for CO2 capture under different options
5.4 Sensitivity analysis
There may be uncertainty in the CER price volatility, CER price drift rate, profits per megawatt hour, CO2 emission factor of coal-fired power plants and the CM CO2 emission factor of the electricity system for various reasons. To analyse the impact of these uncertainties on the results, a sensitivity analysis is conducted with a 10% change in each variable.
5.4.1 Impact on the critical CER price for option adjustment and probabilities of executing option ii
5.4.2 Impact on the NPV of integrated profits under flexible options
5.4.3 Impact on CO2 emissions arising from the energy used for the CO2 capture
Thorbjörnsson (2014) pointed out that the coal-fired power plants will consume 20–35% more coal to supply the same amount of electricity under CCS than they would globally without CCS. This result is based on the assumption that the energy consumption of the CCS is all provided by coal. From the research results of this paper, this statement is not sufficiently comprehensive. Operators of CCS will implement flexible options for providing energy in the future. Compared with option i, option ii indirectly increases the consumption of low-carbon electricity. For a 600-MW plant in China, compared with option i, flexible options increase the emission reduction effect by 0.53–13.7% during the three crediting periods (from 2018 to 2038). If 2.2% of all installed capacity above 30 MW is equipped with CCS in China, which would meet the emission reduction requirements for 2018–2038 of the power sector with CCS (approximately 1 billion tons) (CoalSwarm/SierraClub/Greenpeace 2018; IEA 2015; IEA 2016a; IEA 2018), the emission reduction caused by the flexible options would be 5–130 million tons. From the perspective of developing countries around the world, the contribution of flexible options towards mitigating climate change would be even greater. In addition, the faster the development of low-carbon electricity (nuclear power, wind power, solar power, etc.) is, the earlier the adjustment from option i to option ii. From this perspective, CCS and low-carbon electricity will not be antagonistic but will instead reinforce and promote the development of low-carbon power systems in developing countries. Therefore, we suggest that more attention should be paid to the flexible options to provide energy for capturing CO2 under the CDM. There is no doubt that a high CER price is essential to expand the positive effects of the flexible options. Thus, the first group to focus on flexible options should be international climate change policy negotiators and policymakers, who should work towards stricter emission reduction policies. It is believed that the phenomenon of low CER prices due to differences in climate change negotiations is only temporary. Under stricter emission reduction policies, developed countries need to purchase more CERs from developing countries through the CDM, which will push up the price of CERs. It is the operators of coal-fired power plants with CCS who directly decide whether to implement flexible options. To maximize revenue, operators should be informed of the options to be implemented based on the evaluation methods and framework constructed in this study. The research framework and methods are applicable not only to China’s coal-fired power plants with CCS but also to those in all developing countries.
The positive effects of flexible options may be accompanied by some negative effects. The stability of a power system is the foundation of social and economic development (Darwish et al. 1977). Although the option adjustment for every coal-fired power plant will not have a strong impact on the stability of the power system due to differences in adjustment time (critical price), some impact is still likely to occur. Therefore, coal-fired power plants should make a pre-judgement about the option and communicate with the administration of the power system in a timely manner. In addition, the operation and planning of the power system should prepare for a situation in which coal-fired power plants will (want to) adjust the option. Flexible power system control mechanisms and the reasonable planning of the installed capacity may be regarded as good choices.
This study evaluated the options for providing energy to capture CO2 in coal-fired power plants under the CDM in developing countries and assessed the corresponding economic and emission reduction effects of coal-fired power plants with CCS. Compared with the means proposed in previous studies, involving a flexible capture rate to maximize the economic efficiency of CO2 capture, this study proposes another method from a new perspective. Because of the current extremely low CER prices, coal-fired power plants will implement option i. However, with the further increase in pressure to reduce emissions, adjustments from option i to option ii are likely to emerge. The critical CER price for option adjustment is not high, with values of 98 CNY/ton, 56 CNY/ton and 55 CNY/ton during the first, second and third crediting periods in China, respectively. Compared with option i and option ii, the flexible options yield more profits because the average NPV of coal-fired power plants (600 MW in China) with CCS is increased by 57.36 and 48.07 million CNY, respectively. In addition, compared with option i, flexible options increase the emission reduction effect by 0.53–13.7% during the three crediting periods.
In addition, we have discussed and refined the systematic global strategies for expanding the positive effects of flexible options and avoiding the disadvantages of flexible options. If large-scale coal-fired power plants (above 30 MW) are equipped with CCS in developing countries, which would meet the emission reduction requirements of the power sector with CCS, the flexible options will increase the emission reduction by 5–130 million tons. In addition, flexible options will also promote the optimization of power systems in developing countries. Therefore, international climate change policy negotiators and policymakers should give full recognition and attention to the option to provide energy for capturing CO2 under the CDM and its positive impact. The priority for expanding the positive effects of flexible options is for international climate change policy negotiators and policymakers to formulate stricter international emission reduction policies. We believe that a high CER price is essential to expand the advantage of flexible options. However, the stability of the power system will be more or less affected by flexible options. A good communication and coordination mechanism between the coal-fired power plant and the administration of the power system is necessary to ensure the smooth implementation of flexible options.
Judging whether to make an option adjustment is based on the results of scientific calculations. This proposed method is suitable for evaluating the option to provide energy for capturing CO2 in developing countries under the CDM. In addition, the differences in the amount of CERs caused by the option adjustment will affect the investment decision with regard to CCS technology, which is not considered in the current research (Zhang et al. 2014; Zhou et al. 2010). We believe that our analysis can provide support for more comprehensive research on CCS technology investment decisions in the future.
A CCS project consists of the following three links: CO2 capture, transport and storage. The energy consumption in CO2 transport is primarily concentrated in the booster stations, which are far from coal-fired power plants (approximately 200 km) (IEAGHG 2005). In addition, the CO2 storage site is generally far from the coal-fired power plants. This study assumes that the energy needed for both CO2 transport and storage is provided by the power grid. Therefore, the energy consumption of the CCS project discussed in this study refers only to the electricity and steam used during the CO2 capture process.
The capacity factor is the unitless ratio of the actual electrical energy output over a given period of time to the maximum possible electrical energy output over that period (U.S.NRC 2018). This definition can be expressed in the form of an equation as follows:
Capacity Factor = actual output of a power plant throughout the year (MWh)/(365 days × 24 h/day × full nameplate capacity (MW)).
This study indicates that coal-fired power plants will be profitable; that is, more electricity will generate more profits. Additionally, this study assumes that the profits and losses associated with the CCS project and coal-fired power plant belong to a single enterprise.
We appreciate our colleagues’ support and help from the BIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research. We also would like to thank Dr. Xian Zhang of the Administrative Centre for China’s Agenda 21.
This work received financial support from China’s National Key R&D Program (2016YFA0602603) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Nos. 71521002 and 71642004).
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