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. Continue reading

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Can China Turn Carbon Capture into a Water Feature?

LLNL process image

Water recovery concept for CCS at GreenGen. Source: LLNL

In an intriguing footnote to their historic climate deal this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama called for demonstration of a hitherto obscure tweak to carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology that could simultaneously increase its carbon storage capacity and reduce its thirst for water. Such an upgrade to CCS holds obvious attraction for China, which is the world’s top carbon polluter and also faces severe water deficits, especially in the coal-rich north and west.

As the Union of Concerned Scientists puts it in its The Equation blog, “Cracking this nut … could be a huge issue for China.” Continue reading

Obama and Xi Breathe New Qi into Global Climate Talks

Context is everything in understanding the U.S.-China climate deal struck in Beijing by U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week. The deal’s ambitions may fall short of what climate scientists called for in the latest entreaty from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but its realpolitik is important.

Obama and Xi’s accord sets a new target for reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. And for the first time sets a deadline for China’s rising GHGs to peak: 2030. This is potentially strong medicine for cooperation, when seen in the context of recent disappointments for global climate policy. Continue reading

Two REAL Carbon-Capturing Coal Power Plants

The IPCC recently stated that failure to deploy technology to capture carbon emissions from coal would double the cost of stopping climate change. Two coal-fired power plants nearing completion in Saskatchewan and Mississippi will be the first in the world to actually prove the technology, capturing their CO2 emissions and store that bolus of greenhouse gases underground.

You can read about how they will do it in my latest piece for Technology Review. One point dropped from that story bears stressing. Part of what makes the extra cost of carbon capture feasible for these plants is that they have buyers for their CO2: oilfield operators who will use the stuff as a solvent to loosen up petroleum stuck in aging oil wells. That means the CO2 may not be permanently trapped underground warns Sarah Forbes, a carbon capture expert at the Washington-based World Resources Institute.

In Canada, however, expectations are higher according to Robert Watson, CEO of SaskPower, the utility completing the coal-fired power plant in Saskatchewan. Watson told me that the oilfield operator taking his plant’s CO2 must ensure that any CO2 that comes back to the surface with produced oil is recycled back underground: “They’re going to have to assure the government that they can account for all of the CO2 they use all of the time.”

Local Qualms Kill Ohio CCS Effort

Columbus-based sci-tech research group Battelle is pulling out of a $92.8 million project to test carbon capture and storage (CCS) in Ohio — one of seven regional sequestration tests underpinning the U.S. Department of Energy’s program to kick the wheels on CCS. A Battelle spokeswoman cited “business considerations” in a terse statement on Friday announcing the decision, but Ohio newspapers highlighted local fears that injecting CO2 underground would spark seismic tremors, disrupt underground water supplies, and depress property values.

The setback offers further evidence of the strong Not Under My Back Yard backlash elicited by CCS proposals. Earlier this month Energywise reported that similar concerns are blocking European power giant Vattenfall’s plan to sequester CO2 from its innovative oxyfuel coal-fired power plant in Schwarze Pumpe, Germany. Burial of the CO2 is on hold until at least next spring. Continue reading

Schwarze Pumpe Hits a Bump

Vattenfall's oxyfuel pilot plantLocal concerns about the safety of carbon sequestration are blocking European power giant Vattenfall’s plan to close the loop on greenhouse gas emissions from its coal-fired carbon capture and storage (CCS) pilot plant in Schwarze Pumpe, Germany. The ‘oxyfuel’ plant has been burning coal in pure oxygen since starting up last fall, making its CO2 exhaust easy to capture. But burial of the CO2, set to begin this spring, is now on hold according to the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper. Staffan Gortz, Vattenfall’s CCS spokesperson, told the paper that, “people are very, very skeptical.” Continue reading

Europe Shortlists Capture Projects for Stimulus

European leaders shortlisted a dozen proposals to demonstrate large-scale carbon capture and storage at coal-fired power plants last month as eligible to share €900 million of the EU’s €5-billion stimulus funding package. The goal is to bring down the cost of carbon-neutral coal power — which the European Commission expects to continue to exceed the cost of conventional coal power in 2020 — and to gain more experience with underground storage of CO2.

Seven propose to capture CO2 post-combustion from the exhaust of conventional coal-fired power plants, a relatively inefficient process that nonetheless costs less up front — an attractive feature given today’s financial mess. Three are Integrated Combined Cycle Gasification or IGCC power plants that would pull CO2 out of coal-derived gases prior to combustion, akin to the U.S. FutureGen project that Bush killed and Obama may be reviving. Two more would concentrate their CO2 exhaust by burning coal in purified oxygen — the oxyfuel approach that Sweden’s Vattenfall is testing at a pilot plant in Germany.

Continue reading