Carbon Capture Deserves Our Support

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) — the idea that CO2 can be collected from smokestacks and stowed away underground — is one of the hottest flashpoints in the politics of climate change. Many environmentalists fought unsuccessfully to strip out CCS incentives from the energy bill signed into law by President Bush this month, arguing that CCS is at best a distraction from a more fundamental shift toward renewable energy sources — if it works at all to keep any CO2 out of the atmosphere. (This may have escaped your notice because the battle over the bill ranged from a historic boost to U.S. fuel efficiency standards –which passed– to a renewable energy mandate stripped out at the last minute.)

I wade into the CCS debate this month in an op-ed for the Earth-observation portal Earthzine arguing that CCS deserves our support. My essay, a response to an Earthzine editorial that knocked CCS, looks back forty years to show that CCS is closer to proven than its critics allow. As for the economics of CCS, I argue that the dirt-cheap cost of coal-fired power provides plenty of room for the extra costs associated with capturing and sequestering CO2.

What is needed for CCS to take off is a way of monetizing the value of carbon capture. The latest energy legislation begins that process, extending tax credits for renewable energy to that produced from coal power plants practising CCS. What’s ultimately needed for both CCS and renewables to become the new normal are energy taxes or carbon trading to put a price on every CO2 molecule released into Earth’s atmosphere.

For another look at how real CCS is today and how nascent carbon markets are suffering out the wait for carbon pricing see “Carbon Capture Moves Ahead”, my story for Technology Review on the efforts of leading U.S. carbon offsets marketer Blue Source to generate and sell carbon credits from CCS projects. The bottom line: It’s a lot harder to innovate when emitting carbon costs $2/ton in the U.S., compared to roughly $30 in Europe.

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6 thoughts on “Carbon Capture Deserves Our Support

  1. Many environmentalists fought unsuccessfully to strip out CCS incentives from the energy bill signed into law by President Bush this month, arguing that CCS is at best a distraction from a more fundamental shift toward renewable energy sources

    I would tend to agree–carbon sequestration is at best a distraction, at worst an environmental nightmare. Google “Lake Nyos” to see why I’m worried about what could happen.

  2. CO2 can be deadly if it pushes aside the other gas we need to live: oxygen. Kirk’s reference is to a deadly case of CO2 suffocation that struck the villages near Lake Nyos in Western Africa in 1986. For decades CO2 from a volcano had been dissolving into the lake’s deep waters. On the night of August 21, 1986 something (probably a landslide) shifted the water, releasing a stream of rising CO2 bubbles. That tiny current pulled up more CO2, setting off a chain reaction that released a quarter of a million tons of the gas in a matter of minutes. The resulting cloud of CO2 rolled through neighboring valleys, killing 1,746 people and more than 3,000 head of cattle.

    To prevent a repeat, the industrial equivalent of a straw now continuously releases Lake Nyos’s CO2, producing a soda fountain 154 feet (47 meters) high.

    To reject carbon capture and storage based on the Lake Nyos experience is, I hope Kirk will recognize, analogous to rejecting nuclear power based on the incompetency that caused the Chernobyl disaster.

  3. “Worried about CO2 sequestration” is the more accurate way to describe my opinion. I am fond of saying that in engineering, you must “pick your pain”. That is to say, there will always be a multitude of options, each offering a number of advantages and a number of disadvantages. You must parse through the list and “pick your pain”.

    Let’s assume we want to run the whole world on solar power. Is it possible? Certainly. But we’ve picked our pain–it will have an extraordinary cost and take a very long time to bring to planetary power levels.

    On the other hand, it would be far more congruous with our current economy to continue using fossil fuels apace. Easily accessible petroleum will be consumed, but coal will last for several hundred more years. Capital costs will be small because of the extraordinarily large industrial base for these technologies. But we’ve picked a different pain–global warming will get FAR worse, many miners will die in coal mining accidents, tens of thousands of people will continue to die from the filthy air produced by coal plants, and we will probably fight resource wars for the foreseeable future for access to fossil fuels, especially petroleum.

    Consider a world powered by conventional (light-water reactor with once-through uranium) nuclear power. It is possible? Certainly. There will be great capital expenses involved in building roughly 5000 gigawatt-class reactors, and worldwide uranium consumption will increase by about a factor of 30. The pain in this scenario will be in the initial industrial build and in the opposition that will undoubtedly be faced to the disposal of the high-level waste. We will need many Yucca Mountains for the storage of the waste, or else we will need to expand the storage capability of Yucca by about a factor of ten or more.

    Finally, consider my favorite scenario–a world powered by liquid-fluoride thorium reactors. The pain in this scenario is upfront–the development and construction of the first units. After that, lower capital costs per reactor and the ability to base the reactors in submarines will make worldwide deployment much easier that light-water reactors. There will still be nuclear waste produced, but there will be roughly 30 times less of it, and it will consist of fission products that will decay to background levels of radioactivity in ~300 years. Hence, the Yucca Mountain disposal technique is not relevant. It will require mining about 1/10th as much thorium (~5000-6000 tonnes) as we mine uranium now (~65000 tonnes) to power the whole world. So mining rates will go way down. But like I said, the pain is upfront, which is the place people least like paying for it.

    Pick your pain–solar, wind, coal, gas, uranium, thorium. Everyone’s got a cost, just some are a lot worse than others.

  4. i completely agree with your statement about CCS needin our support. nothing but good can come out of capturing carbon emissions including a healthier cleaner environment. I also agreee with your statement on how the cheap cost of using coal as fuel could give extra incentive to spend the extra money to look into CCS. however it is a very intricate and difficult process to breakdown carbon molecules and store them safely so that could pose a problem. but other than that i think CCS is definately something that needs to be brought to the attention of the public and should be taken more seriously among presidential candidates.

  5. Study the AMS 70 year peer reviewed report summarizing 70 years of Mt. Washington data, our premiere weather station located in a jet stream so that it’s far more than a point measurement. And what do you find? A seventy year straight-line slightly downward trend for summer and fall temperatures, a straight-line slightly up trend for spring temperatures (these three seasons have the least variation) and slightly more increasing temperature slope but straight-line trend for winter where most of the variation is and which accounts for what global temperature increase took place over 70 years, about 0.3 C.

    This means the 80% increase in CO2 emissions since 1970 has had no effect on temperature trends whatsoever, because if it had, this much CO2 increase would have had to cause these jet stream temperature trends to curve upwards over such a long period, and it didn’t. Thus, there is absolutely no justification for any CCS or worries about CO2, and I predict this whole CO2 fiasco will all die down in a couple years. It’s all nonsense.

    Look, if you can’t believe real data, what can you believe?

  6. The climate models that predict fundamental changes in Earth’s climate predict that some points will warm and some will cool. Mt. Washington may be in a jet stream but it is still one data point. A very dynamic and important data point perhaps. But still just one.

    Might you by chance be the Lloyd Weaver who is patenting a novel application of steel-making technology to improve coal gasification? If so, it would be fascinating to hear about your experience and your thoughts on how the technology is faring in today’s political and economic climate.

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