Understanding the IPCC’s Devotion to Carbon Capture

I’ve delivered several dispatches on carbon capture and storage (CCS) recently, including a pictorial ‘how-it-works’ feature on the world’s first commercial CCS power for Technology Review. Two aspects of CCS technology and its potential applications bear further elaboration than was possible in that short text. Most critical is a longer-term view on how capturing carbon dioxide pollution from power plants (and other industrial CO2 sources) can serve to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is looking for CCS to do much more than just zero out emission from fossil fuel-fired power plants. Continue reading “Understanding the IPCC’s Devotion to Carbon Capture”

Can China Turn Carbon Capture into a Water Feature?

In an intriguing footnote to their historic climate deal this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama called for demonstration of a hitherto obscure tweak to carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology — one that could simultaneously store more carbon and reduce water consumption. Such an upgrade to CCS holds obvious attraction for China, which is the world’s top carbon polluter and also faces severe water deficits, especially in the coal-rich north and west. Obama and Xi pledged joint funding for a project that would inject 1 million tons of captured carbon dioxide deep underground, annually, and simultaneously yield approximately 1.4 million cubic meters of water. Continue reading “Can China Turn Carbon Capture into a Water Feature?”

Giving FutureGen a Second Chance

FutureGen — the carbon-neutral coal power project initiated and then killed under the Bush Administration — looks increasingly likely to be resuscitated under President Obama after proponents met with Energy Secretary Steven Chu this week. There is now good reason to take a fresh look at this proposed coal gasification power plant which integrates carbon capture and storage (CCS) from the ground up.

Those words don’t come easy for this longtime FutureGen critic. But the context has changed since FutureGen was conceived in 2003, and even since Bush Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman killed it in January of 2008. While Energywise recently noted ongoing concern over FutureGen’s cost, here are five arguments that could justify heavy federal financing:

  • Project scope: In its early years FutureGen was viewed as a PR exercise because it framed carbon-neutral coal as a research project, positioning the use of commercially-ready Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle power plants as a moon-shot. Chu has indicated that the project would be streamlined. My sources say one element likely to go will be plans to generate fuel-cell grade hydrogen.
  • Financing: The most fundamental block to commercialization of IGCC technology was Bush’s refusal to put a price on carbon emissions, which thwarted even utilities such as AEP that wanted to build cleaner coal plants. Carbon pricing may arrive under Obama–if he can push it through Congress–but the financial collapse has now slashed utilities’ appetite to pore capital into big projects.

Continue reading “Giving FutureGen a Second Chance”

Dispelling Carbon Capture’s Scaling Myth

Critics of carbon capture and storage (CCS) often deride the scale of infrastructure required for CSS to make a meaningful dent in global carbon emissions — not just in equipment to capture emissions at power plants (and other ‘point’ sources of CO2) but also in pipelines to move the captured CO2 to storage sites. But an overlooked recent study by the Richland, WA-based Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) makes a convincing case that, at least where pipelines are concerned, the scale of CO2 infrastructure required is well within the realm of current industrial activities.

First to the critics, who like to compare (unfavorably) CCS infrastructure to the heft of the oil industry. Take Joseph Romm, who writes in his Climate Progress blog that, “We need to put in place a dozen or so clean energy “stabilization wedges” by mid-century to avoid catastrophic climate outcomes … For CCS to be even one of those would require a flow of CO2 into the ground equal to the current flow of oil out of the ground. That would require, by itself, re-creating the equivalent of the planet’s entire oil delivery infrastructure, no mean feat.” [Emphasis by Romm]

The PNNL study determines the feat is feasible not by taking issue with  estimates such as Romm’s, but rather by projecting a realistic implementation path for CCS technology. The research, presented by PNNL senior scientist Jim Dooley at November’s 9th International Conference on Greenhouse Gas Technologies, first projects how rapidly CCS could grow in the U.S. under agressive climate policies. Then it compares the pace of pipeline construction implied with the historic evolution of natural gas pipelines.

PNNL’s conclusion: “The sheer scale of the required infrastructure should not be seen as representing a significant impediment to US deployment of CCS technologies.”

PNNL Comparison of CCS and natural gas infrastructure growthBetween 11,000 and 23,000 miles of dedicated CO2 pipeline would need to be layed in the U.S. before 2050, according to PNNL’s estimates, in addition to the 3,900 miles already in place (which carry mostly naturally-occuring CO2 used to stimulate production from aging oil wells). The attached graph from Dooley’s presentation breaks the projected CO2 pipeline mileage down by decade of installation (see red and blue bars), and shows just how puny it is relative to the U.S. natural gas network (yellow bars).

Note that MIT’s 2007 Future of Coal report also compared CCS infrastructure favorably to natural gas pipelines. The MIT report estimated that capturing all of the roughly 1.5 billion tons per year of CO2 generated by coal- burning power plants in the U.S. would generate a CO2 flow with just one-third the volume of the natural gas flowing in the U.S. gas pipeline system.

That scale is certainly immense. But so is the challenge posed by climate change.

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This post was created for the Technology Review guest blog: Insights, opinions and analysis of the latest in emerging technologies

The EuroParliament’s Schwarzenegger Clause and CCS

Carbon sequestration — the notion that carbon dioxide from coal-fired power stations and other major greenhouse gas emitters can be captured and stored underground — is taking a lot of hits from environmental activists bent on banning coal outright. For a taste, check out this recent post on the Gristmill green blog by Joseph Romm, a most articulate carbon capture critic. Political leaders, in contrast, appear far more supportive, and it’s not just American presidential candidates wooing coal-country voters. Last week European parliamentarians voted to finance largescale sequestration demo projects with a generous €10-billion fund and, better still, approved what they called a ‘Schwarzenegger Clause’ to mandate carbon capture for new generating stations from 2015. Like an existing requirement approved by California’s governor the clause sets a 500 gram CO2 per kilowatt-hour emissions limit that coal-fired plants can beat only with carbon capture.

The U.K.’s Environment Agency had already recommended a ban new coal-fired power plants that don’t use carbon capture and storage (CCS) the week before.

Part of the European motivation, as French and British leaders have made clear, is that CCS is more than a key to meeting agressive climate change action goals. They are also a critical means of keeping coal in the mix and thus limiting Europe’s dependence on imported oil and gas from Russia and the Middle East.

In the U.S., meanwhile, Al Gore is calling for civil disobediance to force adoption of the same CCS mandate. In fact, there are already steps in this direction even in North America beyond Schwarzenegger’s innovations:A panel appointed by Arkansas’ governor recommended last month the state approve no new coal plants until CCS is ready; the Canadian government floated a plan this spring to require CCS at new bitumen-to-oil plants in Alberta’s tarsands from 2012; and last fall British Columbia decreed a no-new CO2 from coal policy that stalled two proposed coal-fired plants (one may go forward as a biomass plant to burn trees killed by a warming-enabled infestation of beetles).

A wildcard to watch: weakening political resolve in the face of the global finance crisis. According to this report from Agence France Press yesterday, a few European leaders are wavering on greenhouse gas emissions as energy-intensive industries face tough times ahead.

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