Thursday, September 04, 2008

Space Colonies, Flying Cars and Clean Coal

Great Technological Myths for the 21st Century

All of the above are promised technological marvels that never have and probably never will materialize, feel-good mental distractions pumped out by myopic techno-centric minds. But this article is only about one; clean coal or, more accurately, CCS (carbon capture and sequestration).

Carbon capture, unlike space colonies and flying cars, is a pipe-dream born out of necessity. We are so adversely impacting the life-support system of this planet that we have now forced ourselves into a position of having to correct some of our more critical damage. The article, Carbon tax no cure for climate change, claims, "Ultimately, the answer to greenhouse gas emissions in this energy-hungry world is going to come from a breakthrough on the technology side, and it won't come cheap."[12] Whether or not one accepts that technology holds the solution, it is the driving force behind industry and government in most developed and developing nations and will, therefore, dictate the direction in the corridors of power over the coming decades.

In case it appears otherwise, let me be very clear. I am not against the concept of carbon capture and sequestration. Quite the contrary. Only a small clutch of pollyannas and cornucopians any longer believes that peak oil (and peak natural gas) are not fast approaching. Ethanol and biofuels, tar sands, oil shale, methane hydrates and any other alternatives do not negate that reality. The fact that we are forced to pursue these costly and difficult alternatives, in fact, are confirmation that the reality of peak oil is sinking into the consciousness of those in the energy industry. There is unfortunately little doubt, therefore, that we will pursue coal as a primary energy option as the reality of declining oil and natural gas reserves dictates. Increasing our reliance on dirty coal - the dirtiest of all fossil fuels - without pursuing every means of preventing further destruction of the earth's environment through elevated CO2 emissions would seriously hasten the demise of the life-support capability of this planet.

My issue with carbon capture and sequestration is complex but starts with a reasonable doubt that we can develop a technology to do it soon enough. I fear that we will continue to build dirty, coal-fired power plants on the basis of an assumption that such technology will materialize and can be retrofitted to those plants. It appears that the energy drain on those facilities for CCS (up to 40% or more) will dramatically increase our global energy consumption with no net increase in energy produced. It also appears that the full energy cost of CCS, from mining of the coal through eventual sequestration, could more than double the energy consumption with no net increase in energy produced and hasten our race toward an energy cliff. I fear that we will force ourselves into a near-term reliance on nuclear energy, complete with its radioactive waste disposal problem, by creating a new energy crisis by rapidly depleting the planet's coal resources. I also fear that we will soon pursue the very dangerous alternative of mining the world's methane hydrate deposits, running the very serious risk of pushing the earth into a runaway greenhouse effect (methane is 20 times more powerful as a GHG than CO2).

Breaking CCS down, carbon capture refers to isolating and collecting the carbon dioxide created by the burning of fossil fuels. This would usually be at the point of combustion, such as in coal-fired power plants, thus preventing it entering the atmosphere. Another possibility is extracting previously emitted carbon dioxide (from, for example, automobile and aircraft emissions, factory emissions and home heating fuel emissions) from the atmosphere itself. There is current gas separation technology that can accomplish this on a limited scale.

Carbon sequestration involves the long-term storing or sequestering of that CO2 in either gaseous or liquid form underground, usually in formations such as depleted oil or natural gas wells (there are some efforts to use injected CO2 to increase the well-head pressure and flow rate of operating oil wells[3]) or abandoned mines, or in liquid form at the bottom of the deeper parts of the ocean where it is hoped the massive pressure of water above the CO2 deposit would hold it in place. There is also research ongoing into chemically reacting the carbon dioxide with substances like sandstone or certain chemicals like carbon hydroxide and transforming it permanently into other substances like rock (see Carbon sequestration rocks! Literally[9]) or sodium bicarbonate, better known as baking soda (see Baking Soda: Removes stains, odors, and combats Global Warming[22]).

In between carbon capture and carbon sequestration will have to be some means of transport, such as tanker trucks, trains, ships or, most likely, pipelines, to get the carbon dioxide from point of extraction or capture to the site of sequestration. The CO2 transport aspect has, thus far, received very little attention or funding. In a presentation to the US senate of a proposed new bill, Senator Coleman pointed out (see Sen. Coleman testifies before Senate Committee about carbon dioxide capture and transport) "While considerable progress has been made on the first [capture] and third [sequestration] steps, [this] bill begins the process of determining how best to get the CO2 from the point of creation to the point of storage."[28]

Simple, right? Not!

It's definitely not as easy as the constant headlines announcing new projects (globally 20 in 2007) would have us believe. Despite those constant announcements nothing gets done, except a lot of your tax money going into the coffers of organizations mounting government-funded research programs. Coming up with a workable, scalable, cost effective CCS technology will not be simple and will not be fast. “People don’t understand the magnitude of the problem,” said Howard Herzog, principal research engineer for M.I.T.’s Carbon Capture and Sequestration Program. “How can we do hundreds of these plants by 2050 - and that’s what we’ll need - if we can’t even do one?”[32]

Everything about carbon capture and sequestration is future, theoretical, of unknown cost but of great promise. Wise supervisors vote unanimous support for power plant, a typical article announcing a new coal-fired power plant, says, "Robbins said the resolution makes note of support for the “best available, advanced and futuristic technology for carbon capture” Dominion is urged to incorporate as that technology becomes available. ..... Adkins said he believes Dominion’s Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center will become a “world model” for the development of carbon capture and sequestration technology in the future.[emphasis mine]"[15]

Carbon capture and sequestration, if it ever ultimately materializes which is by no means certain, will be very energetically expensive. There is much debate about both the technical parameters and potential future viability of carbon capture and sequestration. The article, New coal fired power station gets go ahead points out, "The notion of cleaned coal is an oxymoron, with environmentalists and scientists disagreeing over the viability of any capture / cleaning / sequestration technology. It will take years and seems a high gamble to rely on a technology in the future."[5] This sentiment is echoed in the article, Big Coal's Dirty Plans for Our Energy Future, which states, "But scientists and environmentalists say "clean coal" does not exist; it is a misnomer and an oxymoron. "[16]

As to the energy requirement, according to the article, Carbon capture faces cost challenge, "Carbon capture costs represent up to 80 per cent of the total costs of carbon capture and storage, between $66 to $110 a tonne, according to preliminary research by the CO2 network."[26] Estimates are, in fact, that carbon capture in coal-fired power plants could consume from 20-40% as much energy as is being generated, and that the total energy costs from capture to sequestration, including the energy for mining and transporting the coal, could require 60% as much energy or more as the energy being generated in the power plant. Quite simply this means that power generation incorporating carbon capture and sequestration will require up to 60% more fuel to generate the same amount of energy as that being produced without CCS. With peak oil, peak natural gas and peak coal all set to materialize over the next few decades that is a disheartening statistic. And that 60% more fuel will also generate and emit carbon dioxide which, in turn, has to be captured and sequestered.

In a global economy addicted to perpetual growth and massive profits no industry is going to voluntarily adopt, at their own expense, a new technology that is going to add 60 percent to their fuel bill, especially an industry like power generation where fuel cost is their largest single operating expense. The article Energy at the crossroads: Carbon sequestration is a GM solution; we need a Honda solution suggests, "There are simply too many unknowns to commit enormous investments to an undertaking whose results could be obtained in many more preferable ways."[3] The article suggests, for example, that, ".....we could cut our energy use by more than 60 percent without diminishing our lifestyle in any way -- and arguably it would be enhanced,". The article claims, ".....the U.S. requires 7 tons of oil equivalent (toe) per person per year to maintain our present lifestyle. But ..... a top-notch lifestyle [such as that in Europe] requires no more than 2.6 toe and arguably even a bit less."[3] Despite the highly political assurances of the current White House administration to the contrary, sooner or later the American way of life has to become negotiable, and the sooner the better.

In order to soften the economic blow the largest industrial CO2 polluters/emitters would face implementing CCS, various forms of cap-and-trade systems have been proposed by different industrial governments. Most of these programs are broken into multiple phases where phase 1 involves giving the first allocation of carbon certificates to the major CO2 emitters. Subsequent phases would require emitters to purchase additional certificates at auction. The intent of the phasing is to encourage CO2 emitters to, over time, reduce their emissions (and their costs) to acceptable levels, either through adoption of CCS technology or other means.

Many of these schemes, however, do not have the teeth, possibly by intent (".....industry officials continue to talk up the greatness of carbon capture and sequestration "potential" yet refuse to implement a carbon tax or some equivalent that, from a market perspective, is the only sure way of getting the ball rolling beyond mere discussion and promises."[27]), to generate the needed CO2 reductions. The article, The European emission trading scheme: lessons for Ontario, points out, "The more allocations granted[in the EU], the cheaper carbon permits became, and the less incentive coal-fired power companies had to deviate from business-as-usual and actually reduce emissions."[4] If the cap-and-trade system does not encourage/(force?) the needed CO2 reductions there is reason to question the societal value of the system. The article, Carbon Trading: The carbon offset market is set to take off. But could U.S. businesses end up buying a lot of hot air?, spells out the most prevalent criticism. ".....critics say buying carbon offsets does little to change how carbon-addicted companies operate. "It's like the medieval practice of buying papal indulgences," complains Frank O'Donnell, president of the not-for-profit Clean Air Watch. "If sinners throw a few bucks into the pot, they can go back to sinning.""[8]

But companies and industries do what they do. Whenever possible they will find a way to turn a profit, even in cleaning up their own mess. Carbon offsets are already being tackled as a good new profit-making venture. The above report indicates, "In 2006, trading volume of carbon offsets, such as Carbon Financial Instruments and Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), jumped 200 percent in the voluntary markets (primarily the United States). Observers believe that market is now worth at least $100 million. Privately, those same observers talk about a $4 billion carbon-trading market once federal caps are approved."[8]

If tackling carbon dioxide emissions and atmospheric CO2 levels is limited to the capture of CO2 at large, single-point generation facilities such as power plants which are responsible for less than half our CO2 emissions, it is unlikely that sufficient levels of atmospheric CO2 reductions will result to have the needed impact on mitigating global warming. As the report, Carbon Capture Strategy Could Lead To Emission-free Cars, points out, "Technologies to capture carbon dioxide emissions from large-scale sources such as power plants have recently gained some impressive scientific ground, but nearly two-thirds of global carbon emissions are created by much smaller polluters - automobiles, transportation vehicles and distributed industrial power generation applications (e.g., diesel power generators)."[36] But governments like to throw your tax money at the big, visible projects like power plants, especially at election time. Research into other methods is primarily being left to private, non-funded projects like this. ".....The Georgia Tech team outlines an economically feasible strategy for processing fossil or synthetic, carbon-containing liquid fuels that allows for the capture and recycling of carbon at the point of emission. .....onboard fuel processor designed to separate the hydrogen in the fuel from the carbon. Hydrogen is then used to power the vehicle, while the carbon is stored on board the vehicle in a liquid form until it is disposed [of] at a refueling station."[36]

Environmentalist largely argue that no new fossil-fuel-fired power plants should be built without functioning carbon capture built in. Industry and most western governments argue against that position. Banks are caught in the middle, uncertain about the wisdom of the financial risk of granting investment funds for construction of a plant dependent on a technology that might never materialize in a political climate that is daily giving birth to new legislation demanding ever-tighter environmental controls. In the article, Banks won't slow plans for coal plant, the dilemma is spelled out, "But waiting until sequestration technology is perfected before building a plant would leave the state and ..... customers without reliable and low-cost sources of electricity....."[35] Anne Woiwode, state director for the Michigan Sierra Club, disagrees. Woiwode says "it doesn't make sense for utilities to build coal plants knowing federal regulations are coming, and that someday they might have to retrofit existing plants with carbon sequestration technology. She is worried utilities will pass along those costs to rate payers."[35] If they do not, either directly in customer power rates or indirectly through government subsidies, free carbon certificates or exemptions, I am not sure who she expects will pick up that cost. Certainly not the utility.

But the question is a fair one. Shouldn't the corporations, governments and nations that have financially benefited from the burning of cheap fossil fuels be responsible for the cost of cleaning up the present and their future environmental damages inflicted by those practices? This argument is put in sharp relief in the article, Carbon capture Canada's best hope to meet Kyoto targets. "But an excellent case can be made that Alberta should pick up the lion's share of the tab to create this tidbit of technology. After all, Wild Rose Country is in danger of growing out of sync economically with other provinces, developing a fatcat reputation as it continues to be the prime beneficiary of Canada's oil industry as well as the largest contributor among provinces to the greenhouse gas emissions problem."[34] And the article, Carbon capture faces cost challenge, adds this. ""Just for pure sequestration, the value is derived from not having CO2 in the atmosphere," Charles Szmulo, with Enbridge Inc. says. "That doesn't pay revenue, it's more of an avoided societal cost. The question is who's going to pay for that societal cost."[26] The inference in that statement is that it certainly will not be the polluter. Some take their skepticism a little further, as suggested in Banks Get Smarter On Cleaner Coal. "And given that the technology to capture and store carbon from coal plants isn’t expected to be viable for at least a decade, anything built between now and then will likely only come with the promise of carbon capture technologies, not the real thing. If you’re a skeptic, like climate scientist James Hansen, then you doubt that utilities are planning on implementing carbon capture technology, even when it becomes available."[33]

Our present giddy enthusiasm for carbon capture as a means of mitigating greenhouse gas build-up in the atmosphere runs, unfortunately, the distinct risk of achieving quite the opposite. Carbon dioxide is not the only atmospheric toxin and greenhouse gas going up the smokestack of our factories and power plants. There is sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, lead, and a host of other toxins, as well as the particulate matter in the smoke itself. With the increased parasitic energy demand on emission sources equipped with carbon capture technology (and this without even allowing for the reduced energy intensity of the poorer grades of brown coal that will have to be used when the higher grade coals are gone in the next few years) we may reduce the CO2 being released into the earth's atmosphere but will significantly increase the emissions of these other toxins and greenhouse gases.

We may reduce CO2 levels but increase the incidence of particulate matter (e.g. smoke, dust and ash) in the atmosphere that is responsible for the global dimming that has arguably neutralized the global warming impact being brought on by the increased greenhouse gases. Rather than balance the earth's temperature by reducing our human-generated greenhouse gases we may end up causing a precipitous drop in the average global temperature with the serious potential of pushing us into another ice age.

We have an unfortunate tendency of developing tunnel-vision when we are looking for solutions to problems, even those of our own making. We like to put all our eggs in one basket, our faith in that one grand solution. This is based on an ardent belief that what "small" problems are generated by the solution can, in turn, be solved by the application of yet more technology. But what is the solution when the technology itself is the problem?
1) Climate change and the purpose of growth
2) Earlier start for clean coal power
3) Energy at the crossroads: Carbon sequestration is a GM solution; we need a Honda solution
4) The European emission trading scheme: lessons for Ontario
5) New coal fired power station gets go ahead
6) Earth2Tech Maps: Coal Power Plant Deathwatch
7) FAQ: Carbon Capture & Sequestration
8) Carbon Trading: The carbon offset market is set to take off. But could U.S. businesses end up buying a lot of hot air?
9) Carbon sequestration rocks! Literally. We try to capture the debate on putting carbon where it won't hurt anything
10) The wind, the sun-and the atom
11) Climate scientist criticizes coal-fired power plant plans
12) Carbon tax no cure for climate change
13) Where Do The Candidates Stand On Energy Sources?
14) Scientists Protest Geoengineering to Capture CO2
15) Wise supervisors vote unanimous support for power plant
16) Big Coal's Dirty Plans for Our Energy Future
17) There is a silver-bullet solution to global warming
18) Europe's CO2 Capture Conundrum
19) Discover The Future Of Carbon Capture And Storage
20) Climate fraud, carbon profits
21) Masdar and Hydrogen Energy plan clean energy plant in Abu Dhabi
22) Baking Soda: Removes stains, odors, and combats Global Warming
23) Aker to invest in pioneering carbon capture facility
24) Greenpeace condemns Alberta climate change plan
25) Brussels' CO2 permits expected to cost Drax its independence
26) Carbon capture faces cost challenge
27) Climate Neros fiddle while Rome burns
28) Sen. Coleman testifies before Senate Committee about carbon dioxide capture and transport
29) Will Canada Save Clean Coal?
30) Clean Coal?
31) Natural Systems Solutions to Global Warming
32) Clean coal: FutureGen goes on the rocks
33) Banks Get Smarter On Cleaner Coal
34) Carbon capture Canada's best hope to meet Kyoto targets
35) Banks won't slow plans for coal plant
36) Carbon Capture Strategy Could Lead To Emission-free Cars


nika said...

I was wondering if you have found any explicit biochar metagenomics projects yet. When you google it, its not abundantly clear that there is one - maybe i am missing it. I am looking for a specific scientific reason so am very interested in hearing about what you have learned.

appreciate your time! I am at nika dot boyce at gmail dot com

Richard Embleton said...

If you see my two articles on terra preta in this blog;

Origins of Amazonia's Terra Preta Soils
Terra Preta Soils - Agricultural Miracle from the Past?

and follow the links at the end of those articles you will find several projects, one in particular, studying the "biology" of terra preta soil.