Friday, September 23, 2011

Carbon Capture and Sequestration: Where is the All-Out Effort?

Given the continual reminders from scientists and journalists that global warming is not only happening, but its effects may be accelerating, and the realization that coal will be a significant source of energy for the foreseeable future, one might think that the world would be aggressively trying to clean up the coal consumption cycle in order to minimize carbon release per unit of energy. There are two ways this can be accomplished. First, one can consume the coal more efficiently, providing more energy per unit of carbon release. Second, one can capture and sequester the carbon produced (CCS) in order to keep it from entering the atmosphere. There are technologies available to address each goal, with the ideal situation being plants of the future that combine both approaches. 

Good intentions abound, with the US and most developed countries having at one point planned to aggressively pursue these technologies. Progress has been slowed by lack of political will and by economic effects stemming from the Great Recession. Two recent articles provide an update on the status of these efforts.

Ken Wells and Ben Elgin have an article in Businessweek titled: What’s Killing Carbon Capture? They present a picture in which an initial enthusiastic thrust on the part of both nations and industry appears to be dissipating.

"In 2010, President Barack Obama unveiled a goal to bring five to 10 commercial-size CCS demonstration plants on line in the U.S. by 2016. Leaders of the Group of Eight, a global consortium that includes the U.S., Russia, and Japan, embraced in 2008 a goal to launch 20 large-scale CCS demonstration projects by 2010 with "broad deployment" of the technology by 2020. All told, governments worldwide committed $22.5 billion to support CCS from 2008 to 2010, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. An MIT website that tracks worldwide CCS projects lists 68 scattered across 15 countries, 45 of them associated with coal-fired power plants."

"Yet since the beginning of the fourth quarter of 2010, at least five large-scale CCS projects have been canceled or postponed, while the fate of several others remains doubtful, according to interviews with a dozen project developers by Bloomberg Businessweek and research by Bloomberg New Energy Finance."

The power industry seems ambivalent about addressing future requirements. Many are open to development of energy and carbon efficient systems, but such efforts yield more expensive energy. Local controls will not allow them to raise rates to recover expenses, and federal subsidies are harder to come by, with economic and political difficulties anticipated for the near future. Those in the industry who would prepare for the future complain that without a carbon tax there is no way to recover their costs. Those in society who favor a carbon tax complain that the energy industry has successfully lobbied against it.

The authors are focused on providing a survey of the activities taking place in the United States, and detail some of the issues that have arisen. They point out that the carbon capture step is the most technically challenging, whereas storage sites seem to be plentiful. They include a hint of warning in recounting the story of a family in Canada who claims they are seeing seepage of carbon dioxide from an underground storage reservoir. High concentrations of the gas can be dangerous because the body’s breathing mechanism is triggered by buildup of the gas. A whiff of carbon dioxide tells the brain it is time to take a deep breath—exactly the wrong response.

The reader is left with the impression that the potential for carbon CCS is real and achievable—one only has to learn to live with higher energy costs. If one had a functioning government one could devise energy conserving strategies that could bring this closer to a zero sum game.

S. Julio Friedmann provides an article in Foreign Affairs titled: Carbon Capture and Green Technology. Friedmann’s article is more global in scope. He sees the ongoing efforts as being too small to change the world’s environmental trajectory.

"And even as some coal plants are decommissioned or slated for closure, others are built, and not only in developing countries. (In 2010, the United States commissioned ten new coal plants, which would put out 6000 megawatts.) Natural gas development, which also emits CO2, has continued apace. And although wind and solar power use have increased rapidly in both OECD and developing countries, electrical grid instability and average power costs have increased as well. On a global and national basis, the fossil-fuel fraction of energy supply has hardly changed and emissions have risen steeply, even with much more renewable supply."

The author is more disappointed than pessimistic. He indicates there is one country where activity is brisk and focused.

"The good news is that Chinese executives and politicians understand the risks posed by global climate change and the role that CO2 emissions play. Given that understanding and its reliance on coal, it is not surprising that China is investing substantively in CCS. The world's largest power company, Huaneng, has almost finished the GreenGen plant, soon to be the largest integrated gasification combined cycle plant on earth. It is being built to International Green Construction Code Standards with 80 percent indigenous technology -- and in less than three years. Moreover, the 250-megawatt plant will sequester 90 percent of GreenGen's emissions in the next three years, roughly one million tons per year. Huaneng also plans to undertake a large-scale CCS retrofit to a 600-megawatt plant near Shanghai, which will capture between two and four million tons of CO2 per year."

"Chinese state-owned enterprises are investing in indigenous capture technology of all kinds, including advanced pre- and post-combustion capture technology as well as oxygen-fired combustion. They are pursuing CCS at plants that convert coal to liquid fuels, chemicals, and natural gas, as well as new designs for ultra-high-efficiency coal conversion, all with major investments from China's National Energy Administration and the Ministry of Science and Technology. These projects will be large-scale enough to test and validate the safety and effectiveness of sequestration, as well as to provide insight into the real costs of these technologies. Not surprisingly, many Western companies have partnered with Chinese firms to develop and demonstrate novel CCS technology, including GE, Duke Energy Inc, Powerspan, Peabody, and others. These relationships are a pathway for advancing the technologies and lowering their costs."

James Fallows wrote an article for The Atlantic pointing out that the only way to stop global warming was by finding a way to provide clean energy from dirty coal. He also predicted that the only way this could be achieved is by depending on China to provide the laboratory where concepts could be tested and ultimately fed back to the developed nations. China’s massive building program, and its ability to put a project in operation within three years, has no counterpart elsewhere. We are fortunate that they seem to be fulfilling that role.

The events surrounding the Japanese tsunami have cast a shadow over any ambitious nuclear energy initiatives. That only makes the need to clean up energy production from coal more pressing. Unfortunately, momentum in this direction seems to have been lost—unless we can depend on China to be fabulously successful in their energy endeavors.

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