Energy & Environmental Policy

Capture That Carbon and Put It Back from Whence It Came!

Carbon capture and sequestration technology is absolutely necessary to stave off the worst effects of climate change because it’s the only way to use fossil fuels for power generation without emitting colossal quantities of carbon dioxide into the air.  Moreover, CCS technology is ready for large-scale demonstration today; implementing government incentives for CCS will help commercialize the technology and allow us to realize the immense environmental benefits by putting carbon back from whence it came.

CCS describes any process used to separate carbon from a fossil fuel and permanently store or sequester it, usually as CO2. You can remove CO2 before burning the fuel (pre-combustion), after burning it (post-combustion) or by burning fuel with pure oxygen (oxy-combustion).  Most CCS systems would then store CO2 in deep underground geological formations.  Burning fossil fuels takes carbon from the ground and puts it in the air; CCS puts the carbon back where it came from.

CCS works for any fossil fuel, but rapid deployment is critical for dealing with the large volumes of CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants.  Half of U.S. electricity comes from coal and rapidly developing countries like China are building one new coal-fired power plant per week, making quitting coal turkey unlikely. Even if the world stopped building coal-fired power plants today, current plants will stay online for decades. CCS is the key to utilizing coal while still preventing existing plants from spewing millions of tons of CO2 into the air each year.

CCS technology is ready for large-scale demonstration today. For CCS technology to realize its vast potential, aggressive worldwide demonstration and deployment is required to commercialize the most economical CCS systems possible.  CCS can achieve truly remarkable emissions reductions; studies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on CCS assert that CO2 capture can avoid more than 85% of CO2 emissions from coal.  Critics note that CO2 transportation infrastructure and CO2 capture equipment carry billion dollar price tags and that the energy requirements of current CO2 capture systems reduce power plant output by 25 percent or more.  However, building and operating large-scale demonstration systems is one of the best ways to bring down equipment and energy costs! I’m not saying CCS is cheap; I’m saying the investment is worth it.

CO2 capture, transport and sequestration technologies are already operating at large scale, so there’s no reason to delay scaling up to integrated CCS systems at full-scale power plants.  Vattenfall, a German utility company, began demonstrating an oxy-combustion system with CO2 capture in 2008.  Chemical absorption and stripping, the most mature post-combustion process, has been used by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries for CO2 removal in the natural gas purification and ammonia production industries since 1999.  CO2 has been injected underground for enhanced oil recovery in west Texas since the 1970s, and CO2 has been sequestered in Norway since 1996 and in numerous sites across the U.S. and the world since.  The main barrier for CCS is policy, not technology.

Currently proposed CO2 cap and trade policies won’t make CCS economical in the near term, so additional incentives are needed for the world to reap the long-term benefits offered by CCS.  Government policies need to reduce the risk of CCS investments; otherwise, owners of coal-fired power plants will have no reason to bother capturing CO2.

There are plenty of policy options for supporting CCS, but most lack necessary financial backing.  States like Indiana and Massachusetts have expanded renewable energy incentives to include CCS under a low-carbon policy, and Texas has legally defined coal-fired power plants with CCS as “clean energy!”

However, simply classifying CCS as “clean” or “alternative” is not enough to fund a large-scale facility.  Rapid CCS demonstration and deployment requires strong industry and government partnerships, but funding sources must be clearly identified.  Projects can be funded through CCS-specific budgets, or governments could follow the United Kingdom’s lead and raise money for CCS through an electricity surcharge.  We’re talking about building billion dollar facilities that operate for decades; rhetoric simply won’t be enough.

The technology is ready.  The policies are on the table, but the money is not.  If the world is serious about saving our planet from the dire consequences of carbon dioxide emissions, we need to open up our eyes and our wallets to CCS technology.

For more information:

Mitsubishi Heavy industries CO2 capture

CO2 for Enhanced Oil Recovery, started in TX in 1972

China’s coal buildout and CCS;contentBody

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