Sniffing Gas: White House Taps ARPA-E to Boost Methane Detection

Gasbot 2.0. Photo: Victor Hernandez

Gasbot photo: Victor Hernandez

In this month’s issue of IEEE Spectrum we spotlight the methane emissions overlooked by the U.S. EPA’s greenhouse gas inventory, and the satellite-based detector launching next year to map this “missing methane.” Last week the White House acknowledged EPA’s missing methane problem, and laid out a strategy to combat it. While promising to improve EPA’s inventory, including more use of top-down methane measurement, the White House also promised federal investment in ground-based methane sensing to plug leaky natural gas systems thought to be the source of much of the missing methane.

Action can’t come soon enough according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which on Monday unveiled its latest report onClimate Change Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. The IPCC said “widespread and consequential” impacts are already visible and world leaders have only a few years to change course to avoid catastrophic warning. Methane is a major contributor according to the scientific body’s update on the physical basis for climate change, released last fall, which deemed methane to be up to 44 percent more potent as a warming agent than previously recognized. Continue reading

Counting the Sins of Chinese SynGas

Heavy water use, threats of tainted groundwater, and artificial earthquakes are but a sampling of the environmental side effects that have tarnished North America’s recent boom in natural gas production via hydraulic fracturing or fracking. No surprise then that in European countries such as the U.K. that are looking to frack for cheap domestic gas, the environmental protesters often arrive ahead of the drill rigs.

But countries seeking fresh gas supplies could do far worse than fracking. So say Duke University researchers who, in today’s issue of the research journal Nature Climate Change, shine a jaundiced spotlight on China’s plans to synthesize natural gas from coal. Nine synthetic gas plants recently approved by Beijing would increase the annual demand for water in the country’s arid northern regions by over 180 million metric tons, the Duke team concluded, while emissions of carbon dioxide would entirely wipe out the climate-cooling impact of China’s massive wind and solar power installations. Continue reading

The Debate: Fracking and the Future of Energy

France 24 Energy in 2013 DebateThe Arctic is melting faster than predicted. Is now the time to shut down the low-carbon nuclear power plants in France — the 20th Century’s staunchest proponent of nuclear energy? Is natural gas produced via hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ a gift that is buying time for a transition to renewable energy or a curse that reinforces fossil fuel dependence? Will carbon belching heavyweights such as the U.S. and China ever get serious about cleaning up their energy systems?

Such questions are top order in France, whose President kicked off a Grand Débat on energy this month Continue reading

Is Gas Fracking Inducing Earthquakes?

India’s Koyna Dam: The textbook case for induced seismicity

Fracking for natural gas, whereby gas-trapping rock formations are blasted open with high-pressure water and chemicals, has prompted serious concerns over the safety of groundwater supplies. But another risk is gaining profile: the potential for inducing nerve-rattling microseismicity or, potentially, unleashing a quake of truly destructive magnitude. Like the magnitude-5.6 quake that rocked Oklahoma last weekend.

As I documented for Spectrum magazine this spring, human activity can and does induce earthquakes. Continue reading

Quebecers Say ‘Non’ to “Gaz de Shit”

Heckled and booed off the stage at a series of public meetings earlier this month, Quebec’s salesman-in-chief for a novel energy development withdrew from the fight this week – citing the advice of worried doctors but vowing to rejoin the fight. The inspiration for André Caillé’s intemperate welcome was not a coal-fired power plant or a pipeline full of heavy oil from Alberta’s tarsands, but what until recently was considered the green fossil fuel: methane. Continue reading

Dispelling Carbon Capture’s Scaling Myth

Critics of carbon capture and storage (CCS) often deride the scale of infrastructure required for CSS to make a meaningful dent in global carbon emissions — not just in equipment to capture emissions at power plants (and other ‘point’ sources of CO2) but also in pipelines to move the captured CO2 to storage sites. But an overlooked recent study by the Richland, WA-based Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) makes a convincing case that, at least where pipelines are concerned, the scale of CO2 infrastructure required is well within the realm of current industrial activities.

First to the critics, who like to compare (unfavorably) CCS infrastructure to the heft of the oil industry. Take Joseph Romm, who writes in his Climate Progress blog that, “We need to put in place a dozen or so clean energy “stabilization wedges” by mid-century to avoid catastrophic climate outcomes … For CCS to be even one of those would require a flow of CO2 into the ground equal to the current flow of oil out of the ground. That would require, by itself, re-creating the equivalent of the planet’s entire oil delivery infrastructure, no mean feat.” [Emphasis by Romm]

The PNNL study determines the feat is feasible not by taking issue with  estimates such as Romm’s, but rather by projecting a realistic implementation path for CCS technology. The research, presented by PNNL senior scientist Jim Dooley at November’s 9th International Conference on Greenhouse Gas Technologies, first projects how rapidly CCS could grow in the U.S. under agressive climate policies. Then it compares the pace of pipeline construction implied with the historic evolution of natural gas pipelines.

PNNL’s conclusion: “The sheer scale of the required infrastructure should not be seen as representing a significant impediment to US deployment of CCS technologies.”

PNNL Comparison of CCS and natural gas infrastructure growthBetween 11,000 and 23,000 miles of dedicated CO2 pipeline would need to be layed in the U.S. before 2050, according to PNNL’s estimates, in addition to the 3,900 miles already in place (which carry mostly naturally-occuring CO2 used to stimulate production from aging oil wells). The attached graph from Dooley’s presentation breaks the projected CO2 pipeline mileage down by decade of installation (see red and blue bars), and shows just how puny it is relative to the U.S. natural gas network (yellow bars).

Note that MIT’s 2007 Future of Coal report also compared CCS infrastructure favorably to natural gas pipelines. The MIT report estimated that capturing all of the roughly 1.5 billion tons per year of CO2 generated by coal- burning power plants in the U.S. would generate a CO2 flow with just one-third the volume of the natural gas flowing in the U.S. gas pipeline system.

That scale is certainly immense. But so is the challenge posed by climate change.

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This post was created for the Technology Review guest blog: Insights, opinions and analysis of the latest in emerging technologies

Stealth Coal: Like it or lump it

Oil and gas major ConocoPhilips and coal giant Peabody Energy applied for a permit yesterday to build a plant in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky to turn coal into synthetic natural gas. What interests me are not so much the details of their project but the fact that it’s just one more example of what a longtime source of mine, Gasification Technologies Council CEO Jim Childress, calls stealth coal.

Childress uttered this colorful term while I was interviewing him on Chinese versus U.S. developments in coal gasification for power generation using integrated gasification combined cycle or IGCC technology. (‘Combined cycle’ because it uses a gas turbine to generate power from expanding combustion gases plus a steam turbine that generates power from the heat released.) My conclusion, reported today for MIT TechReview in China Closes the Clean-Coal Gap, is that climate concerns have paralyzed IGCC projects in the U.S. whereas air quality concerns are helping push Chinese projects forward.

Stealth coal figures in Childress’ argument that neglect of IGCC technology in the U.S. does not mean we’re through with generating electricity from coal. To the contrary. As utilities turn to natural gas for more and more of their baseload power generation, they will drive demand for gas beyond what drilling can deliver. Childress predicts that coal-to-gas plants such as the ConocoPhillips-Peabody Energy project will keep the gas-fired plants running:

Right now coal plants in the planning stages are stopped dead in their tracks and the default fuel is natural gas. So we’re looking at a tightening of the natural gas market and that’s good news for coal gasification. It may not go [directly] to power but it will substitute for natural gas.

To my ear the word stealth makes coal-derived synthetic gas sound kind of sinister but its climate impact could be negligible according to a University of Kentucky study cited yesterday by Green Car Congress. Visual thinkers may prefer this report by Fox News on Dakota Gasification, the synthetic gas operation that pioneered carbon capture and storage in the U.S. (I’d send you to CNN, but they just axed their entire science, environment and technology team.)

Of course, one should also consider the environmental costs of coal mining. We’ve written recently about upstream impacts of mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia.

Yesterday Kentucky’s governor Steve Beshear focused instead on coal development’s economic impact — about 1,000 construction jobs and 200 full time jobs for a $1 billion plant according to a Louisville Courier-Journal report. Beshear translates that into political terms in Peabody Energy’s press release on their proposed gas plant: “Projects like this … enjoy rock solid support: More than 80 percent of Kentucky residents support coal gasification.”

I’m not sure about Governor Beshear’s poll data, but one thing’s for sure: There’s nothing stealthy about his feelings for coal.

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This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate