You Can’t Slow Projected Warming With Gas, You Need ‘Rapid and Massive Deployment’ of Zero-Carbon Power
“Another major study finds confirms natural gas is a bridge fuel to nowhere. A must-read new study by climatologist Ken Caldeira and tech guru Nathan Myhrvold (!) makes clear the world’s only plausible hope to avert catastrophic temperature rise this century is aggressive deployment of zero-carbon technologies and conservation.”
Brilliant summary on Joe Romm’s blog of new major study on natural gas. Conclusion of this study: there is no climate value in switching to gas.
“BOTTOM LINE: If you want to have a serious chance at averting catastrophic global warming, then we need to start phasing out all fossil fuels as soon as possible. Natural gas isn’t a bridge fuel from a climate perspective. Carbon-free power is the bridge fuel until we can figure out how to go carbon negative on a large scale by the end of the century.”
"Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is facing strong headwinds in Europe. EU member states have so far failed to translate an EU CCS law into national legislation. In the UK, a prestigious demonstration project has been cancelled. The European Commission still supports CCS, but sees an important role for it only after 2030. Too late, say beleaguered industry representatives. They fear that the momentum for CCS will be lost and key players will desert their CCS activities if policymakers don’t take firm action soon."
Excellent overview of the state-of-play on CCS in Europe in this article in European Energy Review.
See also in the same publication: “Finally, the plan for the CCS revolution”:
“European plans for CCS (carbon capture and storage) will require a network of 22,000 kilometres of CO2-pipelines to be built across Europe. The construction of this network, which will be able to transport 1200 million tons of CO2 per year by 2050, will cost some €50 billion. This is concluded by an international consortium of companies and research institutions, CO2Europipe, that has conducted a unique in-depth study to find out what it takes to build a European-wide CO2 transport network.”
"A power company that was expected to demonstrate a carbon-capture technology has said it cannot take part, leaving the remaining partners at risk of losing $1 billion in federal funds." (NY Times)
It really becomes embarrassing: so many projects which were to demonstrate the commercial feasibility of carbon capture and storage have failed in the last 12 months. Should we close the books on one of the miracle solutions for decarbonisation?
Further reading pro and contra CCS:
- Renewable Energy World: “Oh CCS, Where Art Thou?”
- Public Service Europe: “The world needs carbon capture and storage”
”Despite all the talk about curbing greenhouse gas emissions, the world is burning more and more coal. The inconvenient truth is that coal remains a cheap and dirty fuel — and the idea of “clean” coal remains a distant dream.”
Scary article by Fred Pearce on Yale Environment 360. It also makes the connection with the Durban climate summit and South-Africa’s coal addiction.
Two interesting quotes from the article:
“All the talks in Durban will be of how to kick the coal habit. But as the climate talks have dragged on — from Nairobi in 2006 to Bali to Poznan to Copenhagen to Cancun and now to Durban — we have been hardening our addiction.
When the talks began half a decade ago, 25 percent of the world’s primary energy came from coal. The figure is now 29.6 percent. Between 2009 and 2010, global coal consumption grew by almost 8 percent.”
“The inconvenient truth is that coal remains the world’s cheapest fuel for electricity generation and industrial heat and power. Another is coal’s PR.
“Clean coal” is its cleverest piece of sophistry. Lobby organizations like the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity — sponsored in the past by BHP Billiton, Duke Energy and others — use the phrase to foster the idea we can have both our coal and our climate. Most insidiously, the industry has persuaded many policymakers that dirty coal today can pay for clean coal tomorrow.”
The EU executive has announced its first ever plan to use €9.1 billion from the EU’s 2014-2020 budget to help upgrade Europe’s energy infrastructure, according to strategic climate and energy needs. The Commission is to invest in the smart grid, gas projects and carbon capture and storage.
Does this really square with its "decarbonisation" strategy?
German economist Hans-Werner Sinn (IFO – Institute for Economic Research) makes the excellent case in today’s Financial Times that as long as climate policies do not focus on energy supply instead of demand they achieve very little and even have perverse effects. “… Instead of mulling over for the thousandth time which technical fixes could be applied to reduce CO2 emissions, we should turn to the core question of how to induce resource owners to leave more carbon underground”.
He also provides a good reality-check for the dreamers of carbon capture and storage: “The process of capturing CO2 from a chimney and turning it into a liquid consumes a third of the energy generated by burning the fuel in the first place. On top of that, the amount of storage volume required would be gigantic, as each carbon atom is joined by two oxygen atoms upon combustion – and they all need to be stored. Carbon captured from anthracite coal would occupy five times as much space underground as the coal itself; in the case of crude oil, three times the volume would be needed”.
His critique of current climate policy is hard-hitting: “The silence of politicians on how to slow down fossil fuel extraction smacks of denial. Gesture politics go a long way towards soothing green-tinged souls (and firming up business for the environmental industries), but whether they actually achieve anything appears to be of no interest”.
Sinn’s theory about the “green paradox” is not new. He has been writing on this issue for the last three years. Other climate experts have been critical of his approach but it seems to me that he has some interesting points which need further discussion. For a good critique of Sinn’s ideas, see Claudia Kemfert (head of the energy department at the same IFO): “There is no green paradox” in European Energy Review.
What if the new “silver bullet”, large carbon capture and storage (CCS), would finally get commercially available at the time when the world will start running out of coal? Will we then look upon all the money being poured into this “clean coal” as another folly of “the Age of Stupid“?
I have already written about “peak coal” and CCS (“Brussel’s New Silver Bullet“) last year but there are now two new reports confirming again that coal reserves have been overstated and that we probably have about 20 to 30 years instead of 200 years of the black gold left. Joseph Romm has a good analysis of both reports (“Are we approaching peak coal – part 2?”) on his blog.
Maybe the EU and the US should launch some fact-finding investigations on the REAL long-term potential of coal and invest the big CCS money in some less sexy but already existing and working technologies such as combined heat and power (CHP) ?
“There is no silver bullet to solve the climate/energy crisis” is one of theses phrases which can be heard over and over again in each and every energy debate in Brussels. Most of the times, the phrase is used by someone who wants to push his or her own silver bullet, be it nuclear, CCS or prolonged use of fossil fuels. A recent and totally independent study from Stanford University gives at least some indication as to which bullets are less silvery than others.
Professor Mark Z. Jacobson of the department of environmental engineering at Stanford looked at the different proposed solutions to deal with global warming, air pollution and energy security and compared them according to their life-cycle impacts on climate, air pollution, energy security, water supply, land use, wildlife, resource availability, thermal pollution, water chemical pollution, nuclear proliferation and undernutrition. The study was not paid for by any stakeholder or government agency.
According to Jacobson’s ranking, wind power, concentrated solar power, geothermal, tidal, solar photovoltaics, wave and hydro are the most promising energy sources. Nuclear, coal (even with carbon sequestration) and ethanol (corn as well as cellulosic) score considerably less good in terms of externalities.
The Climate Progress blog has an excellent longer summary of the study, which completely debunks the myth that nuclear and carbon capture and storage are low-carbon technologies.
Remember the biofuels fairy tales which in the span of one year turned into one big nightmare when more scientists started to look a little deeper and the media started reporting about its connection to the new food crisis? It looks like the energy industry’s new “wunderkind”, carbon capture and storage, might follow the same path.
I have expressed my doubts about CCS in previous posts and some great recent articles have confirmed my skepticism.
At the Gristmill blog, Joseph Romm (who in the nineties worked for the energy department of the Clinton administration) has produced one of the best overviews of critical voices on CCS (“Coal in question. Is coal with carbon capture and storage a core climate solution?). Citing several recent studies, Romm concludes:
“The bottom line is that we should continue to pursue CCS research, development, and demonstration in a serious effort to turn this long-term strategy into a medium-term one. But efficiency, wind, solar PV, and baseload solar are where we should be placing the big deployment dollars right now.”
On the Post-Carbon Institute blog, Richard Heinberg is even more critical. His article “Delay and Fail” cites energy guru Vaclav Smil (for me the most brilliant energy expert in the world – read his “Energy at the Crossroads“):
“The technology exists only in the sense that its components have been demonstrated on a small scale. Deploying it broadly would require the development of an infrastructure that would require trillions of dollars of investment and decades of work. According to Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba, in a recent letter to Nature, we would need to handle a volume of CO2 twice as large as the world’s crude oil flows just to sequester one quarter of carbon dioxide emitted in 2005 by large stationary sources“.
“CCS is essentially a “delay and fail” strategy by the coal industry. By selling the idea of “clean coal,” the industry delays an energy transition away from fossil fuels, while setting itself up for an eventual failure of the entire CCS project. By the time that the failure is clear and obvious, there will be no alternative: the coal plants will have been built, the money invested. We’ll burn more coal, and to hell with the climate. ”
After EU policymakers’ disenchantment with biofuels (see EurActiv: MEPs seek reduced biofuel commitments), it is time to find the new “silver bullet” to tackle the climate and energy crisis. During two conferences held in Brussels this week, lobbyists for carbon capture and storage (CCS) pulled out all the stops to convince us that governments should invest big time to speedily develop this “inevitable” solution. The question is: is it inevitable and is it a solution or a false hope?
During the roundtable organised by Friends of Europe moderator Giles Merritt tried to focus on the question “who will pay?” (business or the public sector, so basically us the taxpayers) and “how much will it cost?”. I heard no clear answers on both questions.
With an over-representation from pro-CCS speakers (Shell and BP top managers, the Hydro-sponsored NGO Bellona Foundation, speakers of the EU Technology Platform for Zero Emission Fossil Fuel Power Plants – ZEP for short - and the UK Carbon and Storage Association), the main message of the roundtable was loud and clear: fossil fuels (and in particular coal) are the future and CCS will have to clean up the mess so that we can continue to live our current lifestyles. “I hate CCS” said European Parliament rapporteur Chris Davies, “but I hate coal even more”.
No big arguments of course about the coming oil, gas and coal peaks or the environmental uncertainties surrounding CCS (more water use, less efficient power plants, so even more coal use, and the dangers of stored CO2 leakage in the future) . A lonely Greenpeace speaker seemed to be a bit overwhelmed by the heavy fire from his other speakers and was therefore not really capable to highlight enough the arguments of the excellent report the environmental organisation published recently (BTW I disagree with this report’s optimism about the potential of renewable energy but that’s for another blog post).
Although all of the CCS panelists called upon the EU and member states to open their purses for big financial support, none was willing to put an exact figure on how much governments would have to put up for the 10 to 12 demonstration plants which need to be built asap if CCS needs to be really commercially operational by 2020. In that context, a very ideological and neo-liberal intervention by a Deutsche Bank speaker in favour of letting the “pure free market” deal with climate change looked a bit out of touch with reality. He also probably never read Nick Stern’s report .
As I mentioned during one of my own interventions, I felt that the whole argumentation used by the CCS groupies was built on two fatalisms: the China fatalism and the coal fatalism. Let’s have a closer look at them. “China is building two new coal power plants per week so we need CCS as soon as possible”. Good point, only, by the time CCS will be commercially available (2020) China will already have built around 5000 extra plants (and yes they might be “CCS-ready”, but that phrase is no more than PR spin – in most cases it means that some terrain is left for use later). Moreover, it is exactly our CCS rhetoric which will convince the Chinese that they can continue to construct these plants even if their environment is already suffering heavily as a result. The Chinese BTW will be one of the biggest losers of climate chaos.
And then there is the abundant and cheap coal which we will “inevitably” use when the lights start going out or when we do not get enough oil or oil becomes too expensive. Yes, another good argument for CCS. Problem here is: coal is no longer that cheap and the reserves (as with oil) are scandalously overestimated (see 2007 JRC report and a study by the German Energy Watch). Should we really invest billions in technology which uses rapidly declining energy reserves?
The best form of carbon sequestration already exists: just leave the coal (and the CO2) in the Earth!
CCS is basically a very smart technology fix promoted by the oil, gas and coal industries to extend the era of fossil fuels. If we are indeed “addicted to oil” (George W. Bush), we should get off of it as soon as possible, not develop new medicines to make sure marihuana smokers can safely move to heroin. We need a “fossil fuel cold turkey”.
That said (here comes my fantastic U-turn ), I am also realistic and I fear that coal will indeed be used because our “overshoot” societies will postpone the really “inevitable” (big lifestyle and distribution changes) until it is too late. Look at how our “spoiled” societies are already protesting against the high oil prices. Imagine what will happen when prices go to 200 or more per barrel. Riots in the streets. Who really thinks our elections-driven political systems will be able to deal with these developments?
So here are my recommendations to policymakers:
- establish a moratorium on new coal power plants until CCS is ready;
- start a phase-out plan for old coal power plants;
- put pressure on China (and other BRICS) to stop building coal plants and help them move to other energy solutions fast;
- provide 100% financial coverage of the costs of 10 demonstration plants but invest at the same time 5 times more in sustainable energy solutions (decentralised energy systems, efficiency, renewables) – I know this will cost a lot but compared to other costs (resource wars, failed states, climate chaos) it will be peanuts;
- commit that we will not use CCS when it is ready if we see within the next ten years that other innovations and technology breakthroughs can put us on a more sustainable zero-fossil-fuel path. So develop CCS but only use it when all other options fail to deliver.
Most importantly: stop the denial and start telling people to hard truths about the unsustainability of our Western lifestyles even if they will not thank you for it. This is called REAL climate and energy leadership!