CIVITAVECCHIA, Italy: At a time when the world's top climate experts agree that carbon emissions must be rapidly reduced to hold down global warming, a leading Italian electricity producer, Enel, is converting its massive power plant here from oil to coal, the dirtiest fuel on earth.
Over the next five years, Italy will increase its reliance on coal to 33 percent from 14 percent. Power generated by Enel from coal will rise to 50 percent. And Italy is not alone in its return to coal.
Driven by rising demand, record high oil and natural gas prices, concerns over energy security and an aversion to nuclear energy, European countries are slated to build about 50 coal-fired plants over the next five years, plants that will be in use for the next five decades.
The fast-expanding developing economies of India and China, where coal remains a major fuel source for more than two billion people, have long been regarded as one of the biggest challenges to reducing carbon emissions.
But the return now to coal even in eco-conscious Europe is sowing real alarm among environmentalists who warn that it is setting the world on a disastrous trajectory that will make controlling global warming impossible. They are aghast at the renaissance of coal, a fuel more commonly associated with a sooty Dickens novel and which was on its way out just a decade ago.
There have been protests here in Civitavecchia; at a new Vattenfall plant in Germany; at a plant in the Czech Republic; as well as at the Kingsnorth Power station in Kent, which is slated to become Britian's first new coal-fired plant in over a decade.
European power-station owners emphasize that they are making the new coal plants as clean as possible. But critics say that "clean coal" is a pipe dream, an oxymoron in terms of the carbon emissions that count most toward climate change. They call the building spree short-sighted.
"Building new coal-fired power plants is ill-conceived," said James Hansen, a leading climatologist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. "Given our knowledge about what needs to be done to stabilize climate, this plan is like barging into a war without having a plan for how it should be conducted, even though information is available.
"We need a moratorium on coal now," he added, "with phase out of existing plants over the next two decades."
Enel, like many electricity companies, says it has little choice but to build coal plants to replace aging infrastructure, particularly in countries like Italy, which prohibit nuclear power. Fuel costs have risen 151 percent since 1996, and Italians pay the highest electricity costs in Europe.
In the United States, fewer new coal plants are slated to go on line, in part because it is becoming hard to get regulatory permits for those previously planned and in part because nuclear power is an alternative, politically unacceptable in much of Europe.
In terms of cost and energy security, coal has all the advantages, its proponents argue. Coal reserves will last for 200 years, rather than 50 like natural gas and oil. It is relatively cheap compared to oil and natural gas, although coal prices have tripled in the past few years. More important, many countries export coal - there is not a coal cartel - so there is more room to negotiate prices.
"In order to get over oil, which is getting more and more expensive, our plan is to convert all oil plants to coal using clean-coal technologies," Gianfilippo Mancini, Enel's head of generation and energy management, said. "This will be the cleanest coal plant in Europe. We are hoping to prove that is will be possible to make sustainable and environmentally friendly use of coal."
"Clean coal" is a term coined decades ago by the industry, referring to its efforts to reduce local pollution. Using new technology, clean coal plants sharply cut down the number of sooty particles spewed into the air, as well as gases like sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide. The technology has no effect on carbon.
In contrast, the technology that the industry is counting on to reduce the carbon emissions that add to global warning - carbon capture and storage - is not now available for coal. No one knows if it is feasible on a large, cost-effective scale.
Enel says it will only start experimenting with the technology - in which carbon emissions are pumped into underground reservoirs rather than released - in 2015, in the hopes of "a solution" by 2020.
"That's too late," said Jeff Sachs, head of Columbia University's Earth Institute.
In the meantime, new coal plants will be spewing more green house gas emissions into the atmosphere than ever before, meaning that current climate predictions - dire as they are - may still be "too optimistic," he said. "They assume the old energy mix even though coal will be a larger and larger part."
The problem is that carbon capture and storage, the holy grail of clean coal, will take global coordination and billions of dollars in investment, Sachs says, which no one country or company seems inclined to spend.
There are a few dozen small demonstration projects in Europe and in the United States, most in the early stages. But progress has not been promising.
At the end of January the administration of President George W. Bush canceled what was previously by far the biggest carbon capture demonstration project in the United States, at a coal-fired plant in Illinois, because of massive cost overruns.
The European Union had pledged to develop 12 pilot carbon capture projects for Europe, but said that was not enough. There is a new coal-fired plant going up in India and China every week and most of those are not constructed in a way that is amenable to carbon capture, even if it were developed.
Many have likened carbon capture's road from the demonstration lab to a safe, cheap, available reality as a challenge equivalent to putting a man on the moon. Norway, which is investing heavily to test the technology calls carbon capture its "moon landing." In fact it may be even harder than that. It is a moon landing that must be replicated daily at thousands of coal plants in hundreds of countries, many of them poor.
Plants that are capable of capturing carbon gases - those that generate pure carbon as an efflux - cost 10 percent to 20 percent more to build and only a handful exist today. For most coal power plants the costs of converting would be "phenomenal," concluded a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
More to the point, while capturing carbon involves technology, storing it is at some level inherently local. Geologists have to determine whether there is a suitable underground site for storing the emissions, calculate how much carbon it can hold and then equip it in a way that prevent leaks and insure safety. A massive leak of underground carbon could be as dangerous as a leak of nuclear fuel critics say.
"Figuring out carbon capture is really critical - it may not work in the end - and if it is not viable, the situation with respect to climate change is far more dire," Sachs said.
On many fronts, the new Enel plant is a model of efficiency and recycling. The nitrous oxide is chemically altered to generate ammonia, which is then sold. The resulting coal ash and gypsum is sold to the cement industry. An on-site desalination facility means that the plant generates its own water for cooling. Even the heated water that comes out of the plant is not wasted: it heats a fish farm, one of Italy's largest.
But Enel's plan to deal with the new plant's carbon emissions consists mostly of a map of Italy with several huge white ovals superimposed - subterranean cavities where CO2 could be potentially be stored. The sites have not been fully studied by geologists as yet to make sure they are safe storage sites and well sealed. There is no infrastructure or equipment that could move carbon into them.
The new Enel plant here opens its first boiler in two months. It will immediately produce fewer carbon emissions than the ancient oil boiler it replaces, but only because it will produce less electricity, officials here admit.
In the towns surrounding Civitavecchia the impending arrival of a massive coal plant, with its three silvery domes, is being greeted with a hefty dose of dread.
"They call it clean coal because they use some filters, but it is really nonsense," said Marza Marzioli, spokesman for the "No Coal" citizens group in the nearby ancient Etruscan town of Tarquinia. "If you compare it to the old plant yes its better, but it's not 'clean' in any way."
The group says that Enel has won approval for a dangerous new coal plant by buying machines for local hospital and through massive public relations. Enel ads for the project show a young girl erasing a electricity plant's smokestack. A 2007 local referendum voted no, but the plant went ahead anyway, the group said.
The European Union, through its emissions trading scheme, has tried to get power plants to consider the costs of carbon by forcing them to buy "permits" for emissions. But with the price of oil so high, coal is far cheaper even with the cost of permits to pollute factored in, Enel has calculated.
Stephan Singer, head of European energy and climate office of the environmental group WWF in Brussels, says that math is shortsighted: The cost of coal and permits will almost certainly rise over the next decade.
"If they want coal to be part of the energy solution, they have to show us that carbon capture can be done now, that they can really reduce emissions" to an acceptable level, he said.