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?”

Obama and Xi Breathe New Qi into Global Climate Talks

Context is everything in understanding the U.S.-China climate deal struck in Beijing by U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week. The deal’s ambitions may fall short of what climate scientists called for in the latest entreaty from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but its realpolitik is important.

Obama and Xi’s accord sets a new target for reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. And for the first time sets a deadline for China’s rising GHGs to peak: 2030. This is potentially strong medicine for cooperation, when seen in the context of recent disappointments for global climate policy. Continue reading “Obama and Xi Breathe New Qi into Global Climate Talks”

Capturing Carbon is One Thing. Keeping It Down is Another.

The IPCC recently stated that failure to deploy technology to capture carbon emissions from coal would double the cost of stopping climate change. Two coal-fired power plants nearing completion in Saskatchewan and Mississippi will be the first in the world to actually prove the technology, capturing their CO2 emissions and store that bolus of greenhouse gases underground. You can learn how they will do it in my latest for Technology Review. However, one point dropped from that story bears stressing. Part of what makes the extra cost of carbon capture feasible for these plants is that they have buyers for their CO2: oilfield operators who will use the stuff as a solvent to loosen up petroleum stuck in aging oil wells. That means the CO2 may not be permanently trapped underground warns Sarah Forbes, a carbon capture expert at the Washington-based World Resources Institute. In Canada ensuring CO2 stays underground is urgent, according to Robert Watson, CEO of SaskPower, the utility completing the coal-fired power plant in Saskatchewan. Watson told me that the oilfield operator taking his plant’s CO2 must ensure that any CO2 that comes back to the surface with produced oil is recycled back underground: “They’re going to have to assure the government that they can account for all of the CO2 they use all of the time.”

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