Understanding the IPCC’s Devotion to Carbon Capture

P1130803-3I’ve delivered several dispatches on carbon capture and storage (CCS) recently, including a pictorial ‘how-it-works’ feature on the world’s first commercial CCS power plant posted this week by Technology Review and typeset for their January print issue. Two aspects of CCS technology and its potential applications bear further elaboration than was possible in that short text.

Most critical is a longer-term view on how capturing carbon dioxide pollution from power plants (and other industrial CO2 sources) can serve to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. As my article on the Boundary Dam plant in Saskatchewan states, projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest that all coal-fired power plants must capture their CO2 by 2050 to keep warming below 2 °C.

But the IPCC is looking for CCS to do more than just zero out emission from fossil fuel-fired power plants. Even with that, and with renewable energy pushed to the max, the IPCC expects atmospheric carbon levels to remain dangerously high in mid-Century. That’s not hard to grasp in light of the fact that anthropogenic CO2 emissions and atmospheric CO2 levels are still rising, and prospects for a global agreement to stop that trend remain tenuous.

CCS’s second act, in the IPCC’s vision, is to collect carbon from power plants burning wood or other biomass. Since the carbon in those fuels is mostly drawn from the atmosphere, capturing and storing it underground is a means of sucking anthropogenic carbon out of the atmosphere. According to the IPCC equipping biomass-fuelled power plants with CCS technology is the only power-generating option with negative carbon emissions.

While it has yet to be demonstrated at a power plant, global ag commodities firm ADM started up CCS equipment at an ethanol plant in Illinois that is capturing bio-carbon at about the same rate that the Boundary Dam plant captures fossil carbon.

The carbon capture process itself also bears further elaboration. The technology employed at Boundary Dam uses a chemical absorption process to separate carbon dioxide from combustion flue gases. Such post-combustion capture equipment is an adaption of the scrubbers added to many coal-fired power plants to remove sulphur from their effluent (thus reducing acid rain).

My good friend Pete Offenhartz smartly asked what became of an alternate pre-combustion carbon capture approach that I have covered extensively in the past in which coal is gasified and carbon is removed from that gas stream prior to combustion. Pre-combustion CCS has lost ground recently for two reasons: One is that, unlike post-combustion CCS that can be retrofit to an existing power plant, as occurred at Boundary Dam, pre-combustion technology is only applicable to new plants. And few new coal-fired power plants are being built in the U.S. (thanks to cheap natural gas from fracking) or in Europe (where rising solar and wind generation is slashing wholesale power prices).

Another factor is the weak example set by pioneering gasification projects. For example, little has been heard from a prototype plant erected in Tianjin, China, although it recently appeared in an intriguing footnote to the carbon emissions deal signed by Presidents Obama and Xi last month. As I wrote for Spectrum magazine’s Energywise Blog, the plant could become the first testbed for integrating CCS and water production.

Plenty, meanwhile, has been heard from a pioneering gasification power plant in Mississippi, and the news is not inspiring. That cost of that plant, five times bigger than the CCS-equipped unit at Boundary Dam, has escalated from $2.4 billion to over $6 billion. And startup expected this year has been pushed back to March 2016 at the earliest.

Causes of the delays and cost overruns, according to MIT’s CCS Project Database,  include miscalculation of pipe thickness, length, quantity and metallurgy which then required reinforcement of the plant’s support structures.

Germany’s Grid: Renewables-Rich and Rock-Solid

Grid graph German Energy TransitionLast Friday Germany’s grid regulator released the 2013 data for grid reliability, and the figures have renewable energy advocates crowing. The latest numbers (released in German) reveal no sign of growing instability despite record levels of renewable energy on the grid — 28.5 percent of the power supplied in the first half of 2014. In fact, Germany’s grid is one of the world’s most reliable. Continue reading

Renewables to Dethrone Nuclear Under French Energy Plan

After months of negotiation, the French government has unveiled a long-awaited energy plan that is remarkably true to its election promises. The legislation’s cornerstone is the one-third reduction in the role of nuclear power that President François Hollande proposed on the campaign trail in 2012.

Under the plan, nuclear’s share of the nation’s power generation is to drop from 75 percent to 50 percent by 2025, as renewable energy’s role rises from 15 percent today to 40 percent to make up the difference. That is a dramatic statement for France, which is the world’s second largest generator of nuclear energy, after the United States. France has a globally-competitive nuclear industry led by state-owned utility Electricité de France (EDF) and nuclear technology and services giant Areva. Continue reading

Amid Blackouts, India’s New Leader Vows 24-7 Power for All

Blackouts this week in New Delhi and surrounding states are providing a dramatic backdrop for a bold promise by India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalist party swept to power in a landslide election last month. As a scorching heatwave drove power consumption beyond the grid’s capacity, Modi’s government vowed to deliver “round-the-clock power for all by 2022,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

That will be an awesome task. Nearly one-quarter of India’s 1.26 billion citizens lack grid access. And India’s utilities have struggled to keep up with demand from those who are connected. Power cuts are frequent. Continue reading

Floating Wind Turbines Headed for Offshore Farms

PrinciplePower.WindFloatFloating wind power is no longer science fiction. Promising results from five test platforms operating worldwide—including three in Japan—are turning into project plans for a first generation of floating wind farms. Industry analyst Annette Bossler, who runs Bremen, Maine-based Main(e) International Consulting, predicts that the number of test platforms will nearly double over the next two years and that commercialization is within site. “By 2018-2019 you will start to see the first really large-scale commercial use of floating platforms,” predicts Bossler.

Putting wind turbines on offshore platforms akin to those developed for the petroleum industry provides a means of exploiting high-quality offshore winds—which are stronger and more consistent than onshore winds—in waters too deep for today’s bottom-fixed foundations. Continue reading

Seattle’s Bullitt Center Shines

Online at Architectural Record:

The designers of Seattle’s Bullitt Center have overachieved. The designers set out to demonstrate that a six-story office building could generate all of the energy it needs, but after one year of operation, it is sending a sizable energy surplus to the local power grid, according to data released by its developer, the Bullitt Foundation.

Consumption is simply far lower than what its architects and engineers projected for the 52,000-square-foot building. Instead of using 16kBtu per square foot—half the energy-use intensity (EUI) of Seattle’s best-performing office building—consumption during its first year was just 10kBtu/sf …

read on

Minnesota Finds Net Metering Undervalues Rooftop Solar

Utilities should be paying more for their customers’ surplus solar power generation according to a solar pricing scheme approved by Minnesota’s Public Utility Commission last month and expected to be finalized in early April. Minnesota’s move marks the first state-level application of the ‘value of solar’ approach, which sets a price by accounting for rooftop solar power’s net benefits, pioneered by the municipal utility in Austin, TX.

Minnesota is one of 43 U.S. states that requires utilities to pay retail rates for surplus solar power that their customers put on the grid. Utilities across the U.S. are fighting such net metering rules, arguing that they fail to compensate the utility for services that their grid provides to the distributed generator. So last year pro-solar activists and politicians in Minnesota called the utilities’ bluff, passing legislation tasking the state’s Department of Commerce with calculating the true value of rooftop solar power. Continue reading