Monday, August 25, 2008

CCS: Cure or CurSe?

Three factors are converging to put Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) at the forefront of the global energy picture and discussion.

* Pollution from our ongoing dependence on fossil fuels to power global industrial society has pushed the planet's environment beyond it's ability to absorb our abuses and maintain temperature equilibrium. Global warming/climate change is on the march as the build-up of GHGs (both carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane but also others such as sulfur dioxide) in the atmosphere continues.
* The two fossil fuels that largely powered the 20th century's industrial and technological growth, oil and natural gas, are both at or nearing their peak and other alternatives are already being leaned on to fill the gap. The only two possible alternatives that can possibly carry much of the burden of energy-hungry human population are coal and nuclear (though China, India, Japan and others are already investigating the possible foolhardy exploitation of methane hydrates (methane is a GHG twenty times more powerful than CO2), a carbohydrate fuel source potentially more abundant than all the other fossil fuels combined) and there is still a large mistrust of nuclear as the foundation of the global energy strategy.
* It is increasingly clear that industry-driven governments throughout the world are intent on pursuing business as usual until nature and geology absolutely refuse to cooperate and force us to face the reality of a planet in overall energy decline. To a large extent they have little choice. We have a global economy and global society built on debt and an ever-increasing money supply. That increasing money supply is based on a very shaky assumption of continued population, resource and GDP growth, all of which are threatened even in the short term by the approaching disasters.

With those three factors coming together, and despite strong and growing environmental opposition, we have left ourselves little alternative in the short term but to turn to coal. Other than the much dreaded and avoided nuclear it is the only fuel source that can be scaled up in the near term to the level to satisfy an appreciable portion of a business-as-usual energy demand. The total potential and technology-dependent wind, solar, tidal and geothermal energy could not make a serious attempt to replace the loss of energy coming with the decline of global oil and natural gas supplies. Even if technologically, environmentally and economically feasible, broad-based methane hydrate exploitation is still potentially decades away. It is unlikely, also, that the problem of disposal or long-term storage of radioactive nuclear waste will be solved satisfactorily. Without that the widespread discomfort with the nuclear option is unlikely to dissipate unless nuclear is the absolute last option open to us in which case that opposition will be ignored out of "necessity". Which may be the case soon enough at any rate as, according to some knowledgeable observers like Chris Skrebowski, tar sands may peak as early as 2015 and, according to the Energy Watch group in Germany, coal should peak as early as 2025 but before 2015 the predominant source of coal will be dirty, brown coal, not the "cleaner" black coals that have dominated to date.

An increased dependence on coal, especially as an increasingly dominant source of energy, means big-time problems on the global warming/climate change issue. The only possible way to lessen that impact would be with broad-based carbon capture and sequestration, not just of the emissions from coal-fired power plants but atmospheric CO2 from, for example, automobile and aircraft emissions and natural gas-fired power plants.

Will Carbon Capture and Sequestration be implemented early enough and on a sufficient scale to prevent the environmental disaster that looms before us as we pass peak oil? It will, by most estimates, take at least a decade to develop workable and scalable CCS technology and infrastructure. Most CCS plans and projects, however, involve the building of new coal-fired power plants with CCS built into the design. There is very little viable research ongoing for technology that can be retrofitted across a broad spectrum of existing power plants, not only coal fired but natural gas and oil fired as well.

Whether the technology is developed and implemented early enough to have any impact on the growing environmental crisis depends largely on how quickly we increase the burning of coal on a global scale without carbon capture built in. As oil and natural gas supplies decline, if CCS technology is not available or not efficient enough will we wait until it is available or proceed with opening new coal-fired power plants while hoping the technology will still be developed and can be retrofitted? If history is any measure we will proceed and hope for the best.

China and India (and other nations) continue opening new coal-fired power plants today on a massive scale (China's power demands are increasing by as much as 20% per year), all without CCS technology built in, most without design considerations for later retrofitting. China and India particularly (but also other 3rd world countries) have habitually disdained design safety and necessary routine maintenance in their attempt to produce "cheap" power, despite the fact that design technology exists to satisfy both, but at a cost. If CCS adds significant cost, either built in or retrofitted, it is likely that all manner of excuses will be found for not implementing it. Third world countries are not alone. The "cheap" energy demands of industry have always trumped public and even government environmental concerns. We must keep the wheels of industry rolling. If the need for energy is there but CCS is not ready or not economically acceptable to industry, it is likely those "cheap" energy needs will be met, whatever the cost or consequences.

If there is, alternatively, any "doubt" about the CCS technology that doubt will be used as a convenient excuse (can you spell "red herring"?) not to implement it. As we have seen repeatedly in western nations, particularly in the US, where there is no doubt industry lobbies will work very hard to manufacture doubt in order to create an excuse for not pursuing a policy contrary to their dominant profit motive. When it comes to something as serious as the potential destruction of the planet's environment doubt should be a cause for extreme caution, but industry does not see it that way, nor do the governments they have bought and paid for. Doubt is consistently used as the basis for not addressing environmental issues and similar "costly" measures. When it comes to doing the right thing and being good corporate citizens, it seems that an absolutely certainty of, of course, profitability is required.

Carbon capture and sequestration comes at a cost, not just economically but also in terms of energy consumption and collateral environmental damage. Carbon capture reduces fuel efficiency by 20-40% meaning 20-40% more coal (of lower grade) or other energy must be burned to get the same energy output, meaning 20-40% more CO2 must be captured and sequestered because of the carbon capture. But CO2 is not the only "toxin" and greenhouse gas produced in burning coal and other fossil fuels. Sulfur Dioxide, lead and other emissions are also part of the mix. 20-40% more of these emissions will also result from the implementation of CCS. The potential increase in damage from soil toxification and acidification of freshwater supplies may be greater than the environmental benefits from the reduction of CO2 emissions released into the atmosphere. The carbon capture aspect will also employ a large volume of various chemicals to scrub the CO2 from the smokestack emissions, more chemicals that the environment has to cope with.

The sequestration of the captured carbon is also not without problems. The two primary plans for carbon sequestration are 1) to inject it into deep mines and exhausted oil fields or 2) injection deep into the oceans for sequestration at the ocean bottom. The long-term feasibility of land based sequestration in old mines and exhausted oil fields is by no means certain. The geological structure required to "contain" the injected CO2 (probably liquid rather than gaseous) is reasonably understood. But the actual geological structure of the sites into which sequestration is planned is not. Geology changes over time and the serious potential risk of a catastrophic re-release of the sequestered CO2 in time is very high. Fractures and stresses in the "cap" that holds the CO2 in place can readily develop allowing long-term slow re-release of the sequestered CO2. There is also a serious potential that sequestered CO2 can seep into stressed groundwater aquifers contaminating and acidifying those increasingly critical sources of water.

Deep ocean CO2 sequestration is almost certain to increase, over time, the acidification of the seawater above the sequestered CO2. The more acidic water becomes the less capable it is of supporting life. Additionally, the more the water absorbs CO2 from that sequestered on the ocean bottom the less capable that water becomes of absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. The risk becomes very great that the planet's greatest CO2 sink, the oceans, would completely lose their ability to absorb atmospheric CO2, pushing the atmosphere into a runaway greenhouse effect.

There are far greater questions to consider in the carbon capture and sequestration debate than simply our ability to develop the technology to achieve it. The health and life-support capability of the planetary environment is at stake, as is the future survivability of life on earth, man included. We have an unfortunate tendency of creating more problems with our solutions than the problems the solutions answer. We are far too close to the edge to be creating more problems with our solutions. Maybe it is time for governments and industry to consider whether business-as-usual is a viable strategy any longer. Maybe it is time for them finally to consider that we have to drastically cut back our global energy consumption and seriously change the way in which our species interacts with the environment, while there is still a livable environment to interact with.

1) United Nations Climate Change Conference: Bali: An Initial Balance Sheet
2) The Climate Crisis is a political crisis
3) Big Coal's Dirty Plans for Our Energy Future
4) Ten things you need to know about carbon capture
5) Net carbon dioxide losses of northern ecosystems in response to autumn warming
6) The Chemistry of Carbon Capture and Storage
7) Spongelike Air-Capture Gadget Scrubs Away Carbon Emissions
8) Carbon, Capture and Storage: Technology, Capacity and Limitations
9) Carbon capture gets crystal powered
10) "All We Need is Water and Pollution."
11) Carbon credit generates nearly $500,000 for Nebraska's farmers
12) Experts say candidates miss the boat on energy crunch
13) Ethical Issues Raised by Waiting for Geological Carbon Storage
14) Carbon sequestration frustration

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