Climate-Control Policies Cannot Rely on Carbon Capture and Storage: That’s My Side of The Economist Debates

For the second time, I’m participating in an online debate sponsored by The Economist.

The proposition is awkwardly worded, as always, “This house believes that climate-control policies cannot rely on carbon capture and storage.”

The debate will be “decided” by online voting, so do go and vote.  And, no, I haven’t changed my view of online voting, but I don’t make the rules. Yes, it is sponsored by Statoil.  ’nuff said.

Here is my opening statement as the “proposer”:

Any debate over climate policies must begin with the scope of the problem and solution.

A good place to start is with the recent International Energy Agency (IEA) “World Energy Outlook” release. The traditionally staid and conservative IEA warns:

“On planned policies, rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change … we are on an even more dangerous track to an increase of 6°C [11°F] … Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”

Needless to say, anything close to 6°C warming this century would probably mean suffering beyond imagination for billions:

  • devastating heat waves, floods and other extreme events;
  • myriad direct health impacts;
  • dust-bowl conditions over much of the arable and heavily populated regions around the globe;
  • sea-level rise of around 1 foot by 2050, then 4-6 feet (or more) by 2100, rising some 6-12 inches (or more) each decade thereafter;
  • massive species loss on land and sea—perhaps 50% or more of all biodiversity;
  • food insecurity—the increasingly difficulty task of feeding 7 billion, then 8 billion, then 9 billion people in a world with an ever-worsening climate.

Most of these will be happening simultaneously and getting worse decade after decade. Equally tragic, a 2009 study found that the worst impacts would be “largely irreversible for 1,000 years.”

So job number one for the planet is to start deploying pretty much every commercialised low-carbon and no-carbon technology we have now, starting with the most cost-effective ones. Since carbon capture and storage (CCS) is not even close to commercial, it should certainly be the focus of an aggressive R&D and demonstration programme, but it will play very little role by 2020. Without vast investment, a high carbon price and some sort of broad international agreement on CCS, it will play little role by 2030. And under even the most optimistic assumptions, it would be exceedingly unlikely to be significantly more than 10% of the entire solution by mid-century.

In short, we need to start the low-carbon deployment machine without it and hope it catches up really soon.

In any debate, you need to define your terms. The key word in the motion—”This house believes that climate control policies cannot rely on carbon capture and storage”—is “rely”. If you Google it this is what pops up:

  1. Depend on with full trust or confidence.
  2. Be dependent on.

When the fate of billions of people is at stake, it is hard to depend on with full trust or confidence a technology that is currently not commercial—especially one with so many unanswered questions.

Perhaps the biggest unanswered question is cost. Obviously no one can know the ultimate cost of mass production of any currently non-commercial technology. Unfortunately, until we have a great many large-scale demonstration plants running for an extended period of time, any statements of ultimate cost are, well, nothing you could have trust or confidence in.

Two years ago, Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs published a major study, “Realistic Costs of Carbon Capture“. The paper concludes that first-of-a-kind (FOAK) carbon capture and storage plants are going to be much more expensive than most people realise:

“The costs of carbon abatement on a 2008 basis for FOAK IGCC plants are expected to be approximately $150/tCO2 avoided (with a range $120-180/tCO2 avoided), excluding transport and storage costs.”

This yields a “levelised cost of electricity on a 2008 basis [that] is approximately 10 cents/kWh higher with capture than for conventional plants”. So pick your favourite price for new coal plants—Moody’s had a 2008 price of about 11 cents/kWh—and add 10 cents and you get over 20 cents/kWh.

Obviously there are a great many carbon-free power sources today that are already far cheaper and most are coming down in cost as their deployment grows.

Yes, the possibility exists for CCS at existing coal plants—extracted from the flue gas post-combustion—but that technology is even further from commercialisation at scale and necessarily involves capturing CO2 that is far more dilute. As the US Department of Energy reports:

“Existing CO2 capture technologies are not cost-effective when considered in the context of large power plants. Economic studies indicate that carbon capture will add over 30% to the cost of electricity for new integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) units and over 80% to the cost of electricity if retrofitted to existing pulverised coal (PC) units. In addition, the net electricity produced from existing plants would be significantly reduced—often referred to as parasitic loss—since 20-30% of the power generated by the plant would have to be used to capture and compress the CO2.”

The other issue is whether we can “be dependent on” CCS. I will address this in the next post.

10 Responses to Climate-Control Policies Cannot Rely on Carbon Capture and Storage: That’s My Side of The Economist Debates

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Nice job, Joe, but we have nothing like The Economist here. I subscribed for many years when I was doing business overseas, and their information about all kinds of issues we faced was first rate. Their reporters are trenchant and funny, and manage to make obituaries entertaining.

    They are, nonetheless, conservative, but you still were clocking a 77% win the last time I checked. This would not have happened at Forbes or Business Week. The reasons for that are many, but it comes down to The Economist’s famous hardheadedness, and our business community’s inability to even imagine a world without fossil fuels.

  2. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Carbon capture and storage doesn’t exist, and never will. It is pure humbug to protect fossil fuel profits. Billions will be wasted, (or should I say transferred to the usual suspects-the 1%)then, after years of rubbish propaganda, they will suddenly announce that the project, regretably, failed, so we are moving on to geo-engineering.

  3. David B. Benson says:

    Just say no to dirty coal.

  4. Best summary of CCS economics I’ve seen so far. Thanks Joe.

  5. M Tucker says:

    Thanks Joe, that was an excellent statement and I personally found the quote from the Belfer Center to be alarming: “…excluding transport and storage costs.” Half of the whole CCS plan is storage and they were unable to calculate an estimate of the costs because no demonstration facility exists in order to study those costs. But all estimates of transporting captured CO2 that I have seen make this fantasy completely unaffordable.

  6. Hi Joe, nicely done! I think you should also point out that a 6C rise this century, plus ocean acidification, means another Great Extinction of animal life. The food webs we depend on for much of our food will unravel, and animal life will be sparser and simpler for millions of years to follow. (I think the “50% loss” point doesn’t really cover the impact, on the natural world nor on people.)
    Keep up the good work!

  7. You are right that CCS, as presently envisioned, is not going to be a significant factor in meeting the CO2 reduction goals. Chemical capture (amine scrubbing) will double the fresh water consumption of coal plants, which is already the largest consumptive use of an increasingly scarce resource. Underground storage (“sequestration”) will endanger the groundwater supplies. The lifetime storage space for just one ordinary coal plant will require a giant oil field, so obviously storage in depleted reservoirs won’t be sufficient for the whole coal fleet. The rest of the pore space will have to be found in deep saline formations which are full of very salty brine. Where do you put the brine? Will displaced brine pollute the groundwater? Prominent authorities in petroleum engineering have condemned “sequestration” as “a profoundly non-feasible option for the management of CO2 emissions.”

  8. Aaron Lewis says:

    After the hazardous waste pollution laws (RCRA, CERCLA, CWA) were signed by Nixon, many companies tried to do “end of pipe” waste treatment. It was never cost effective. Somewhere along the production line, the material the caused the waste had a value, and was an economic good. Not wasting that material was always cheaper then wasting it and then treating the waste.

    The materials that produce green house gases all have value. It will always be cheaper not to waste them to them than to waste them and treat after wasting. Treating after discharge (carbon capture) is even more expensive. Moreover, companies that switched to processes with less hazardous waste discovered that their product was often much better.

    Conservation takes some thought up front, but is always the cheapest solution. However, because it is cheap, it has fewer commercial interests advocating it.

    Power companies want to make money selling you electricity. Oil companies want to make make money selling you oil. Even US DOE has ties to the fuel and energy industries and has not advocated conservation as strongly as it should have. Nobody advocates conservation as strongly as it deserves. For example, a house designed to be energy efficient is more comfortable because it does not have cold drafts.

  9. anders strandberg says:

    Why do ccs when we can do biochar?

  10. Richard Laverack says:

    Thanks for your submission Joe, there are a couple of things which I would like to throw in the pot.
    I have a 2011 report put out by the I.E.A./U.N.I.D.O. which lays out a “roadmap” for the “roll out” of CCS tech. It flags 60 projects up and running in 2020, 467 projects in 2030 (69% non OECD), and 1800 by 2050. All this for a savings of 4 Gt p.a.

    By 2020, investment worth USD 27 billion will be needed to fund about 60 early large-scale projects. If additional operating cost, transportation and storage were included, the total additional cost would reach an estimated USD 45 billion. (Technology Roadmap Report)