Category Archives: Carbon capture and storage

Posts related to carbon capture and storage

MIT study: “The Future of Coal”

This study from MIT looks useful for those trying to understand the implications of coal use in a warming world:

An interdisciplinary MIT faculty group examined the role of coal in a world where constraints on carbon dioxide emissions are adopted to mitigate global climate change. This follows “The Future of Nuclear Power” which focused on carbon dioxide emissions-free electricity generation from nuclear energy and was published in 2003. This report, the future of coal in a carbon-constrained world, evaluates the technologies and costs associated with the generation of electricity from coal along with those associated with the capture and sequestration of the carbon dioxide produced coal-based power generation. Growing electricity demand in the U.S. and in the world will require increases in all generation options (renewables, coal, and nuclear) in addition to increased efficiency and conservation in its use. Coal will continue to play a significant role in power generation and as such carbon dioxide management from it will become increasingly important. This study, addressed to government, industry and academic leaders, discusses the interrelated technical, economic, environmental and political challenges facing increased coal-based power generation while managing carbon dioxide emissions from this sector.

Among other things, the report highlights the gigantic scale and cost that would accompany the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to try to mitigate emissions from coal-fired facilities. That said, they argue that coal use is inevitable because coal is “cheap and abundant” and argue that CCS is the only plausible way to square continued coal use with falling global greenhouse gas pollution.

Costly carbon capture

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is sometimes touted as a way to burn fossil fuels without adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. While it is not entirely without promise, it certainly has issues, and it is not plausible that it could single-handedly address the problem of climate change.

One big problem with CCS is money – it costs a lot to separate CO2 from exhaust gases, compress or liquify the CO2, and then inject it underground. Cost issues recently scuppered a proposed CCS project involving Saskatchewan and Montana:

A proposed Saskatchewan-Montana carbon capture and storage project that Premier Brad Wall said nearly two years ago would “turn some heads internationally” quietly expired last fall.

The $270 million project was launched with great fanfare in a May 2009 legislature signing ceremony with Wall and Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, with the Saskatchewan Party government pledging up to $50 million and looking for investment from the Canadian and United States governments.

But, Rob Norris, minister responsible for SaskPower, said Wednesday “those talks have been discontinued” because Ottawa turned down the province’s request for $100 million last year.

The federal decision was made after the United States government made clear it would not put in the $100 million US for the project requested by Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, said Norris.

That isn’t to say that CCS will never be an affordable option for climate change mitigation. Rather, it suggests that the idea that CCS will be able to automatically deal with the problem of greenhouse gas pollution is overly optimistic.

It is also worth noting that companies that want government subsidies to fund their CCS operations are basically saying that the general public should pay the cost of dealing with their pollution. It is probably sensible for the government to support basic research and development, but it seems unjust to finance the commercial operation of CCS-equipped facilities, should any ever be built.

CCS has other significant limitations as well. It isn’t guaranteed that the gases will stay underground, they could migrate up into aquifers or back into the atmosphere. CCS also cannot be applied to mobile sources of emissions (like vehicles) or diffuse sources of emissions (like in situ oil sands extraction). CCS also leaves us with the other non-climate problems associated with fossil fuels, like the toxins produced when they are burned or the awkward geopolitical situations they put countries into.

Fossil fuel subsidies in Canada

Because the emission of greenhouse gases hurts people around the world and in future generations, many people argue that anyone who emits them should be made to pay a fee for doing so. One way to do this is with a carbon tax, which is a specific example of a Pigovian tax applied when someone undertakes an activity that causes harm to others.

Rather than imposing such a fee on users of fossil fuels, Canada actually provides them with large subsidies. An assessment by the Climate Action Network found that oil and gas companies are receiving billions of dollars a year in subsidies, from various levels of government. This view conforms with that of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), which found that the Canadian oil and gas industry “received $2.84 billion in tax incentives from the different levels of government across Canada in 2008 through 63 different subsidy programs”. They estimate that $1.38 billion of this comes from the federal government. Alberta is the province that provides the most subsidy: $1.05 billion, followed by Saskatchewan at $327 million and Newfoundland and Labrador at $83 million.

The IISD estimates that emissions from the oil sands would be 12% lower without these subsidies. These subsidies continue despite a pledge made to the G20 that they be eliminated.

Another way governments subsidize oil and gas producers is by protecting them from legal liability in the event of accidents. This is what the Government of Alberta is planning to do, in relation to carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects. Such liability limits would be similar to those in the nuclear industry, where operators of nuclear power plants cannot be held financially responsible for the full cost of accidents they cause. Rather, taxpayers will be on the hook to pay for many of the cleanup costs.

Coal: A Human History

Barbara Freese’s Coal: A Human History provides a concise account of the interactions between humanity and coal, particularly in the United States, United Kingdom, and China. It includes a great many interesting anecdotes, as well as some good analysis of the social, health, and environmental consequences of coal use. In particular, it leaves the reader with a strong sense of the health costs associated with air pollution from coal, even before you start considering its impact on climate.

Freese identifies the forces that drove coal from a mineral of very peripheral importance to a substance that ended up at the heart of industrialization, powering the Industrial Revolution and being burned now in unprecedented quantities, mostly to generate electricity. She points out the importance of population density, wood scarcity, and the improved efficiency of steam engines in prompting the explosion of coal use. She also discusses the suffering associated with coal mining and use, the connections between the industry and industrial relations and organized crime, and the possible future of coal and energy generally.

Ironically, one of the key messages from the book is that coal – gritty, filthy coal – is actually largely invisible now. London’s deadly coal fogs are a thing of the past, and yet coal-fired power plants around the world continue to emit huge amounts of lethal pollution, accounting for tens of thousands of annual deaths in North America and perhaps a million in China. And yet, because the mechanism of this harm is invisible, there is no real public outcry to stop it. Thankfully, reduced suffering and death from air pollution is one of the major co-benefits that will accompany climate change mitigation, once nations finally start getting serious about it.

Climate change is essentially taken as a given in this short book, with some reference made to the possibility of abrupt and dangerous climate change, driven by reckless burning of fossil fuels. Freese is probably correct to treat carbon capture and storage (CCS) dismissively. Significant practical and economic hurdles stand in its way, and it is entirely plausible that it will prove quicker and cheaper to just deploy zero-carbon sources of energy, rather than refit fossil fuel fired power plants so as not to emit greenhouse gases.

One minor cause for complaint is the awkward binding of the hardcover edition. This small thin book just doesn’t want to stay open, and will clasp shut unless constantly held with the covers spread. The book’s treatment of hydrogen as a possible future energy storage medium is also thin and probably overly optimistic.

Those hoping to gain a broader historical perspective on the emergence of coal as an important energy source, the consequences of its use, and the present and future of the material will likely find this book informative, accessible, and useful.

Don’t Ignite the Lignite

Quite unintentionally, deficiencies in the quality of my video camera and the lighting of the establishment where this was filmed have made this video more anonymous than I planned. It has a bit of a ‘witness protection program’ vibe. My apologies about the annoying feedback in the audio.

At the same time, it lays out my current views on climate change and how to deal with it in just five minutes:

Obviously, it requires many simplifications to put that amount of information into a five minute movie. Even so, I think it is a fair reflection of my current thoughts, at least insofar as I would format them for an event of this type.

It would be very interesting to know what I am wrong about.

It would also be interesting to know which (if any) messages seem to be well conveyed.

The slides and speaking notes are also available:

Compressed air energy storage

Carbon dioxide isn’t the only thing that might get injected underground in response to climate change. Wired is reporting on how storing compressed air could help utilities deal with the irregular output from renewable generation options, such as wind farms. When energy supply exceeds demand, these facilities would pump air into underground structures like salt domes. When the grid demands more power than renewable sources can supply, the high-pressure air can be released to regenerate electricity.

A facility in Alabama has been storing 19 million cubic feet of air at 1,100 pounds per square inch since 1991:

The plant’s output is 110 megawatts at full capacity, which is fairly typical of power plants now coming on line. It can run for 26 hours from a fully charged cavern and supply the demands of 11,000 homes, the institute says. Typically, however, it would run 10 hours a day or less, when demand is high. Another advantage, Mr. Meyer said, is that it can increase and decrease its power level quickly.

The facility can recover 870 watts from every 1,000 it stores – a higher proportion than is possible with either pumped hydroelectric storage or batteries. It also cost only $550 per kilowatt of capacity, compared with about $1,000 per kilowatt for pumped hydro. Despite those advantages, the Alabama facility remains the only one of its kind in the United States. A similar facility in Huntorf, Germany has been operating since 1978.

While air is an easier thing to store underground than CO2 (which forms acid in contact with water, and is riskier if suddenly released), it is conceivable that innovations in compressed air storage could be applied to carbon capture and storage operations, and vice versa.

Technologies and facilities like these will help to even out the peaks and troughs associated with renewable generation. Along with compressed air and pumped hydroelectric storage, promising energy storage options include pumped and multi-lagoon tidal facilities, as well as fleets of electric vehicles that can be charged when energy is ample and tapped as an energy reserve at times of maximum demand. Linking widely-separated generating sites using technologies like high voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission could also be an important way of dealing with fluctuations in output. When the sun isn’t shining in California or New Mexico, the wind may well be blowing in the Dakotas or along the Pacific Coast.

Coal is temporary

For a moment, ignore all the environmental and climatic consequences of burning coal. Thought of only as an energy source, it is nonetheless demonstrably finite. Cambridge Professor (and Chief Scientific Adviser of the Department of Energy and Climate Change in the United Kingdom) David MacKay ran some of the math on the stuff:

In 2006, the coal consumption rate was 6.3 Gt per year. Comparing this with reserves of 1600 Gt of coal, people often say “there’s 250 years of coal left.” But if we assume “business as usual” implies a growing consumption, we get a different answer. If the growth rate of coal consumption were to continue at 2% per year (which gives a reasonable fit to the data from 1930 to 2000), then all the coal would be gone in 2096. If the growth rate is 3.4% per year (the growth rate over the last decade), the end of business-as-usual is coming before 2072. Not 250 years, but 60!

And, going back to climate change for a moment, we ought to remember that coal-fired power plants with carbon capture and storage equipment will use coal less efficiently to produce electricity. This is because some of the energy contains in the fuel will need to be dedicated to separating the carbon dioxide from the other flue gases (which, like air, are mostly nitrogen), then to pressurizing or liquefying the CO2, transporting it, and injecting it underground. It will also take energy to build the infrastructure necessary to perform these tasks.

Another thing to keep in mind is energy return on investment. Naturally, we started by exploiting the fossil fuel resources that were cheapest and easiest to extract: oil that literally shot up into the air when you sank a well. Now, we are in the world of difficult and expensive fossil fuels: those that take a lot of energy to get at and then process into usable fuels. We are certainly farther along when it comes to unconventional oil than when it comes to coal, but the same logic will eventually bite for the solid fuel. As such, the last portions of the global coal reserve will surely yield less energy for us than the first ones did, provided we don’t shift away from coal long before we get to those last reserves (which, because of climate change, we must).

As with all fossil fuels, coal has no long-term future. All of this is relevant because it illuminates the choice we are making. It’s not between a future that runs forever on coal (with climate change risks) and a future that runs on inexhaustible renewable forms of energy. It is between moving away from coal now, when it is still possible to save the climate, or doing so at the bitter end, once we have severely undermined the ability of the planet to support human life and prosperity. For everyone who isn’t the owner of a coal mine or a coal-fired power plant, this seems like a pretty easy choice.

What we’re up against in Canada

You can argue all you like that exploiting the oil sands is against the long-term interests of Canadians, given the climatic risks it poses. What is much harder is to overcome the influence of so much short-term cash.

This year, for the first time ever, royalties from the oil sands will eclipse those from any other energy resource in Alberta:

Oil sands royalties will outstrip conventional crude royalties by a modest $35-million this year, the government forecast in the budget tabled yesterday. By 2010-2011, the province expects oil sands royalties to roar to $3.2-billion, a 75-per-cent hike that will see bitumen production provide 45 per cent of the province’s total oil and gas royalties.

By 2012-2013, the oil sands will form 53 per cent of Alberta’s royalty stream, which will represent a quarter of total provincial revenues.

In the face of that, it is easy to dismiss the risk of catastrophic or runaway climate change as distant and uncertain. Unfortunately, given the enormous size of the world’s reserves of unconventional oil and gas – including the tar sands – exploiting them is the single thing we can do that most increases the probability of a truly terrible outcome for humanity. In addition, there are all the air and water pollution consequences that accompany oil sands exploitation, as well as the destruction of natural habitat.

Given the fact that most of the fuels being manufactured from Albertan bitumen will eventually be used for vehicles, even cheap and affordable carbon capture and storage (CCS) will not make it safe to exploit these resources. This makes Alberta’s CCS-focused provincial climate change plan laughably inadequate.

Carbon capture and storage

When the matter of ‘burying coal’ comes up, people naturally raise the question of whether we can dig coal up, burn it to access the energy it contains, and then return the climate-harming greenhouse gases (GHGs) it contained underground. This basic idea is called carbon capture and storage (CCS). Many people have high hopes for it as a climate change mitigation strategy. For users of fossil fuels, it seems to offer a route forward that doesn’t involve a fundamental change in what fuels we use. For environmentalists, it offers a way to reduce emissions from coal-rich states like China and the United States without asking them to take the politically difficult step of shutting down their coal industries. Paired with facilities burning biomass, CCS could even allow for negative emissions, since plants would draw carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air which would eventually be sequestered underground.

While I have argued before that it would be irresponsible to ignore CCS completely, I also think it is very important to remain aware of the risks and uncertainties. In short, we don’t know for sure whether CCS will be able to keep GHGs underground indefinitely. We don’t know whether CCS facilities will pose risks for humans or other living things in the vicinity. We don’t know how much CCS will cost, or even whether coal with CCS will actually be cheaper than renewable options like concentrating solar or wind. If coal with CCS doesn’t end up being cheaper than those, it is surely a less appealing option, since it still includes the air and water pollution that accompanies coal mining, as well as the habitat destruction, mercury emissions, etc. There are also big questions about how quickly CCS can be deployed, even if it works perfectly and is affordable. If we are going to avoid catastrophic climate change, we need to be phasing out coal without CCS on the timescale of a couple of decades. The enormous volumes of gas that would need to be seperated from power plant emissions, transported, and buried make it questionable how much of a role CCS can effectively play in that.

A further uncertainty is that the promise of CCS at some future point could serve to justify the continuance of the status quo. As The Economist pointed out:

CCS is not just a potential waste of money. It might also create a false sense of security about climate change, while depriving potentially cheaper methods of cutting emissions of cash and attention—all for the sake of placating the coal lobby.

Utilities that are based around coal-fired electrical production can argue that they will retrofit their plants at some future point, while simultaneously seeking delays in the implementation of carbon pricing and taxpayer dollars directed towards the investments that they – as the polluters – should really be funding.

In short, it seems like research into CCS should be permitted and even encouraged, given that it could be one of a suite of technologies that helps us to stabilize the climate. That said, citizens should not mistake vague promises to use CCS in the future for being akin to real emissions reductions now. They should also be wary of utility firms that want to make others pay for their pollution: if not by suffering the effects of climate change, then by paying for the equipment necessary for avoiding it.