Why carbon capture and storage isn’t “the solution” to our climate problems
If you want to learn about climate science, look to climate scientists, I always say. But if you want to learn about climate policy and energy technology, well, you might try looking elsewhere.
A case in point is British climate scientist, Myles Allen. He noted in the Daily Mail On Sunday (MoS) that “we’re doomed to disastrous warming” if we keep burning carbon — even if a recent paper he coauthored about a low climate sensitivity turns out to be true. But then he went on to argue that the only solution — and he does mean only solution — is to mandate that companies capture and store the carbon they release.
Actual caption in MoS: “Futile: Subsidising windfarms, like Whitelee on the outskirts of Glasgow, is a pointless policy, argues Professor Allen.”
Allen’s policy discussion is precisely the kind of nonsense you’d expect in the Mail, whose climate coverage is so atavastic, it makes the Wall Street Journal editorial page look like Climate Central. It is simply head-exploding that any serious climate scientist would publish a piece in publication discredited by so many climate scientists.
Back in 2010, two top climate scientists and the National Snow and Ice Data Center accused the Daily Mail of misquoting and misrepresenting them or their work. Last year, the UK’s Met Office, part of its Defence Ministry, took the unusual step of releasing a statement utterly debunking David Rose’s assertions in the paper as “entirely misleading” — and pointing out that they spoke to Rose before the piece came out but he chose to ignore what they had to say.
And so we’re subjected to this cranium-destroying headline and sub-head:
Why I think we’re wasting billions on global warming, by top British climate scientist
The MoS has campaigned tirelessly against the folly of Britain’s eco-obsessed energy policy. Now comes a game-changing intervention…. from an expert respected by the green fanatics themselves
Ahh, those green fanatics. How much wiser our climate policy would be if not for their obsession with clean energy policy!! Seriously.
Unsurprisingly Allen gets the science right:
Do I think we’re doomed to disastrous warming? Absolutely not. But do I think we are doomed if we persist in our current approach to climate policy?
I’m afraid the answer is yes. Subsidising wind turbines and cutting down on your own carbon footprint might mean we burn through the vast quantity of carbon contained in the planet’s fossil fuels a little slower. But it won’t make any difference if we burn it in the end.
Inarguably, if we burn the carbon, we are doomed. [Yes, it’s kind of surprising the Mail would concede that point, but they are so desperate to bash greens, they seem to have bought into the notion that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.]
But how does that scientific conclusion translate into negating the need for bringing wind power down the learning curve as rapidly as possible or the need for most individuals to — ultimately — reduce their own carbon footprint? It doesn’t.
Allen is just dead wrong. Many of his statements are the exact reverse of the truth.
He has fallen victim to the silver bullet fallacy — the notion that his technology solution and his alone is the only thing that can save us and others are therefore “pointless.” Worse than that, he has fallen victim to the fallacy that his as-yet uncommercial solution — large-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) — will somehow manifest several major advances in cost, safety, and viability while other low-carbon technologies won’t, even those already in the marketplace!
The fact is that CCS remains stuck in the pre-demonstration phase, after most of the world’s large-scale demonstration projects died or were killed in the last few years, while the “futile” and “pointless” investments in wind power have already succeeded in bringing down the cost of that commercial technology steadily:
Allen utterly dismisses all other solutions out of hand:
And to those on the other side who think that solar and nuclear will someday become so cheap we will choose to leave that coal alone, I’m afraid you have some basic physics working against you…
The only thing that actually matters for climate policy is whether, before we release too much, we get to the point of burying carbon at the same rate that we dig it up.
Nothing else matters – not for climate, anyway. Not efficiency targets, nor even population growth, provided we meet this goal. Unfortunately, turbines, fancy taxes and carbon trading schemes aren’t going to help us do so….
Fortunately, there is a solution. It is perfectly possible to burn fossil carbon and not release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere: you have to filter it out of the flue gases, pressurise it, and re-inject, or ‘sequester’, it back underground.
Memo to Allen: No one on the “other side” (whatever that is) thinks nuclear is going to be supercheap — since its cost has been headed in the wrong direction for decades (see “Does nuclear power have a negative learning curve?“).
Allen never actually discusses any of the physics that says solar power won’t be cheaper than coal with CCS or capturing CO2 from the air. But then Allen doesn’t seem to realize that:
- Carbon capture can’t possibly be the primary (let alone exclusive) strategy in the next two decades, if ever
- The issue isn’t whether, say, solar is going to be cheaper than existing coal plants, the issue is what is the cheapest way to deal with carbon — capture it after the fact or don’t emit it in the first place?
I have written at length for The Economist in an online debate on point #1 — why CCS can’t possibly be a stand-alone solution:
- Climate-Control Policies Cannot Rely on Carbon Capture and Storage: That’s My Side of The Economist Debates
- Large-Scale Carbon Capture and Storage: Feasibility, Permanence and Safety Issues Remain Unresolved
- Economist Debate Concludes “Climate-Control Policies Cannot Rely on Carbon Capture and Storage”
Let’s start with “the daunting scale of the challenge,” as Vaclav Smil — who is not exactly a “green fanatic” — explained in “Energy at the Crossroads“:
“Sequestering a mere 1/10 of today’s global CO2 emissions (less than 3 Gt CO2) would thus call for putting in place an industry that would have to force underground every year the volume of compressed gas larger than or (with higher compression) equal to the volume of crude oil extracted globally by [the] petroleum industry whose infrastructures and capacities have been put in place over a century of development. Needless to say, such a technical feat could not be accomplished within a single generation.”
No doubt that’s why the pro-CCS debater, Barry Jones, who knows a heck of a lot more about CCS than Allen, wrote “The international community aims to deliver 20 demonstration projects by 2020, applying CCS to various kinds of industrial sectors. The idea is that CCS then becomes a commercial reality and begins to make deep cuts in emissions during the 2030s.”
Oops, too late. Climate destroyed.
So, sure, pursue R&D and demonstration of CCS, and hope it can be, say, 10% of the solution by 2050. But to repeat the key International Energy Agency finding from its “World Energy Outlook“:
“On planned policies, rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change … 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.”
Allen has it exactly backwards. Yes, if we keep burning the carbon, we’re “doomed,” but if we don’t start replacing planned carbon-burning infrastructure — and existing infrastructure — ASAP, we’re equally doomed.
Carbon capture is no silver bullet — no one technology is — and CCS isn’t even yet proven to be practical, affordable, scalable, and ready to be ramped up rapidly now.
In 2009, 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) CCS plants will have a costs of carbon abatement of some “$150/tCO2 avoided (with a range $120-180/tCO2avoided), 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.
Yes, one can imagine 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 reported:
“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.”
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.
Solar power, which Allen inexplicably dismisses entirely, has been making incredible strides. Solar panel prices have fallen 80% in the last 5 years alone:
Normally I’d say it’s inconceivable that CCS could become even a modest contributor to the climate problem without a high and rising price for carbon. But that isn’t true anymore — Allen has “conceived” of it:
A carbon tax will not stop fossil fuel carbon being burnt. While a modest tax would be good for turbine-builders and the Treasury, in the short-term it will not promote the technology we need to solve the problem….
For every 10 billion tonnes we emit without increasing this sequestered fraction by one per cent, we will just have to bury more later in order to catch up.
If this is what needs to be done, why not just make it a condition of licensing to extract or import fossil fuels? In forestry, if you fell trees, the law obliges you to replant.
We must use the same principle: a law to compel a slowly rising percentage of carbon dioxide emissions to be sequestered and stored.
Fossil fuel industrialists will need a few years to gear up, but they won’t need taxpayer-funded subsidies.
They’ll simply need to do this to stay in business. All past evidence suggests that when industry is faced with technical challenges it needs to overcome, it’s ingenious at finding ways of doing so.
We don’t need no stinkin’ carbon tax or trading or subsidies for renewable energy or efficiency targets. We’ll just pass a law mandating CCS and practical, affordable, and scalable CCS technology will appear in “a few years.” Problem solved. So we can safely go back to spreading our ethos of conspicuous consumption across the globe.
No, seriously, that’s his answer. It reminds one of a certain cartoon….
Such is the state of technology and policy analysis one gets from a climate scientist who hasn’t even done his basic homework.
Allen even contradicts his entire argument, but neither he nor the Mail seems to care:
If you’re using fossil carbon to drive a car or fly a plane, you just have to pay someone else to bury CO2 for you….
Frankly, I’d rather pay an engineer in Poland to actually dispose of carbon dioxide than some Brussels eco-yuppie to trade it around….
So there you have it: one policy, that everyone can agree on, which would actually solve the problem without Brussels bureaucrats dictating what kind of light-bulbs we can buy. Sound good to you?
Actually I doubt anyone would agree on it (other than Allen).
How exactly does Allen think we could pay that engineer in Poland if we weren’t doing carbon trading? Do the Poles have the staggering amount of money needed to demonstrate CCS and then deploy it on a massive scale? No.
And what exactly does Allen think paying someone else to bury CO2 for you is?
Memo to Allen: It’s called CO2 trading. [Oh, and the term “yuppie” went out of fashion a long time ago. I think you mean “Brussels eco-hipster.”]
But here’s the point Allen misses: What happens if, as seems all but certain for the next 25+ years, it is a lot cheaper to build a renewable power plant or retrofit your buildings with energy efficiency than it is to capture and bury the CO2 in a new plant (or an existing one). In that case, all Allen’s mandate would do would be to force companies to pursue one of the most expensive CO2-reducing option imaginable. Remember, those companies can’t do any CO2 trading that might result in their simply agreeing to shut their coal plant down entirely. Can’t let those Brussels eco-yuppies try to minimize costs. Allen knows the one and only answer.
Further, I seriously doubt that everyone can agree we should just starting paying an engineer in Poland — or Russia or China or the U.S. — “to actually dispose of carbon dioxide.”
As I wrote in the Economist, if the Russian government said it was sequestering 100 million tons of CO2 in the ground permanently, and wanted other countries to pay it billions of dollars to do so, would anyone trust it? No. The potential for fraud and bribery are simply too enormous. But would anyone trust China? Would anyone trust an American utility, for that matter? We need to set up some sort of international regime for certifying, monitoring, verifying and inspecting geologic repositories of carbon—like the UN weapons inspections systems. The problem is, America has not been able to certify a single storage facility for high-level radioactive waste after two decades of trying and nobody knows how to monitor and verify underground CO2 storage. It could take a decade [or more] just to set up this system. We haven’t even started.
And yes, that means those eco-hipsters in Brussels will be nosing around every CCS site in the world. If Allen doesn’t like the “windfarms in Scotland, carbon taxes and Byzantine carbon trading systems,” he’s going to love it when the first we-paid-the-Russians-to-vent-CO2-from-their-coal-plants scandal happens.
Then we have the leakage issue. Even a very small leakage rate of well under 1% a year would render the storage system all but useless as a “permanent repository”.
Equally worrisome, a Duke University study found: “Leaks from carbon dioxide injected deep underground to help fight climate change could bubble up into drinking water aquifers near the surface, driving up levels of contaminants in the water tenfold or more in some places.” What kind of contaminants could bubble up into drinking water aquifers? The study noted: “Potentially dangerous uranium and barium increased throughout the entire experiment in some samples.”
This problem may not turn out to be fatal to CCS, but it might well limit the places where sequestration is practical—either because the geology is problematic or because the site is simply too close to the water supply of a large population.
Public acceptance (aka NIMBY) has already been a huge problem for CCS. Public concern about CO2 leaks—small and large—has impeded a number of CCS projects around the world. The concerns should be taken seriously, as BusinessWeek reported in 2008:
“One large, coal-fired plant generates the equivalent of 3 billion barrels of CO2over a 60-year lifetime. That would require a space the size of a major oil field to contain. The pressure could cause leaks or earthquakes, says Curt M. White, who ran the US Energy Department’s carbon sequestration group until 2005 and served as an adviser until earlier this year. ‘Red flags should be going up everywhere when you talk about this amount of liquid being put underground.’ ”
I wonder who will be insuring those repositories against accidents? Probably the same folks who ensure nuclear plants against accidents….
And concerns about earthquakes should be taken seriously, as an article published by Stanford University researched concluded in 2012:
We argue here that there is a high probability that earthquakes will be triggered by injection of large volumes of CO2 into the brittle rocks commonly found in continental interiors. Because even small- to moderate-sized earthquakes threaten the seal integrity of CO2 repositories, in this context, large-scale CCS is a risky, and likely unsuccessful, strategy for significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
D’oh! Yes, pass a law forcing every fossil fuel company in the world to bury their CO2 starting now so they can solve all these trivial problems “in a few years.”
This notion of solving environmental problems through the mandated use of specific technologies is one that, understandably, has lost favor in recent decades. But the mandated large-scale use of technologies whose affordability and practicality haven’t even been demonstrated, well, that’s not on any government — or businesses — list of sound climate policies.
The bottom line is there are simply too many unanswered questions for anyone to say today that we could rely on large-scale deployment of CCS in the 2030s representing even 10% of the answer to the carbon problem by 2050.