The Weekly Carboholic: Catch-22 for carbon capture and solar thermal

Posted on June 11, 2008

1


carboholic

Catch-22: a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule <the show-business catch-22:no work unless you have an agent, no agent unless you’ve worked – Mary Murphy>

If you’re at all familiar with business, you can probably think of countless times when the phrase “catch-22” applied to your job – you can’t make a product until there’s a market, but the market won’t develop without the product. Or your first customer wants you to lower your prices to account for the high volume that 10 customers would justify, but until you have more than one customer, you can’t lower your prices without losing money on every product sold. It’s a common problem in business, government, even the everyday life of a family. And until someone steps up and takes the risk and absorbs the costs of being an early adopter, or until such time as some outside force resolves the paradox, the situation is static and in limbo.

This same situation is now occurring with respect to carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) for coal and natural gas electricity generation and for solar-thermal power in the U.S.’ desert southwest.

Cutting carbon dioxide emissions is a fine idea, and a lot of companies would be proud to do it. But they would prefer to be second, if not third or fourth.

So starts the NYTimes Magazine article Running in Circles Over Carbon. The article talks in detail about the catch-22 that is happening in the energy market with respect to CCS – there is a significant cost of entry to the first utility that dives into CCS as a corporate plan. And the costs are more than just the risks inherent in going first:

“No one wants to go into the new world,” said Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit group that favors stringent controls on power plant emissions. “We have very few takers because of the price premium.”

By price premium, Mr. Cohen meant not only the costs of going first, with the high probability of mistakes that others can learn from, but the costs of the new technology itself. The problem is, the premium is of unknown size, which makes everyone in the industry especially wary.

The article points out that local public utilities commissions are part of the problem, and uses Virginia’s state regulatory body as an example. According to the article, the Virginia State Corporation Commission turned down an application to build a CCS power plant because of the potential risk to taxpayers of a high and uncertain cost to build it. The kicker, though, was that the costs of a commercial-scale CCS plant were uncertain “because no one had demonstrated the technology on a commercial scale.” Catch-22.

According to Azcentral.com, a study commissioned by the Thomas R. Brown Foundation shows the state is facing a power problem. The study found that coal was uncertain due to likely carbon costs, natural gas demand was rising so fast that it would cost a lot more by 2030, that nuclear faced public opposition, and that solar-thermal was still too immature, and because of insufficient technological development, would stay so until at least 2020.

“In the 1970s, wind was quite expensive,” [Timothy Considine, a natural-resource economics professor at Pennsylvania State University] said. “But they learned from refining technology, and costs fell. Solar prices are expected to decline in the future. It makes sense to wait until that happens.”

Of course, solar prices won’t fall unless utilities invest in refining solar technologies, and they won’t invest until the prices fall. Again, catch-22.

However, the article points out that two of Arizona’s utilities are ignoring the recommendations of this report and building solar thermal plants next year. The difference is that the solar thermal plants that Arizona Public Service Co. and the Salt River Project are building are for handling peak demand, not for creating a baseload electricity supply (the amount of electricity that has to be provided all the time, regardless of peak use). Hopefully, though, their plants are being designed to handle hot salt storage or similar overnight energy storage technologies as they mature, because that would enable the plant to be converted from a peak demand supplier next year to a baseload supplier in the future.

I mentioned that an outside force could resolve the catch-22. Government, if it puts a price tag on emitted carbon dioxide (CO2) or , could pull the two situations above out of limbo. But when the Energy Department canceled FutureGen due to cost overruns, the department canceled its ability to directly break the catch-22 on CCS technologies and power plants. And while Congress may tax or cap CO2, there’s a problem there too:

Companies will not run to build plants that sequester their carbon because Congress has not set a price for emitting the pollutant. Without the early plants, Congress has little clue how many tons the economy can afford to capture and sequester.

———-

With the relative popularity of global heating in the public’s mind, there has been an trend to view all environmental issues in terms of global heating. This trend has been unfortunate because there are a number of issues that are simply better viewed through a different lens, such as public health, smart land use, or even energy policy. An article in Malaysia’s The Star online about the capture and burning of landfill methane for electricity falls into this category.

As concerns about climate change escalate and prices on fossil fuels like oil and natural gas soar to record levels, more companies are investing in ways to use methane gas to power homes and vehicles.

Around the world, landfills where municipal waste is collected and buried are one of the biggest producers of methane, a gas whose greenhouse effect is 21 times worse than carbon dioxide. If instead that gas is collected and burned to generate electricity, proponents say the resulting emissions of carbon dioxide are less harmful to the environment than the original methane.

It’s certainly true that methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, and so burning it to convert it to carbon dioxide is good for reducing the amount of methane released into the air. But the article also points out that landfill operators are calling landfill methane and the electricity generated therefrom “green” because the CO2 released by the power plants is 21x “cleaner” than the methane itself was.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Landfill methane should be captured regardless of whether it’s good for the atmosphere or not – it’s a nearly free byproduct of the existence of the landfill in the first place, so any company who isn’t capturing it and burning it is missing out on a perfectly good source of profit. And is any landfill really “clean”, especially when you consider all the costs (environmental and economic) of creating that waste and then disposing of it?

———-

If you’ve been keeping track of the unemployment numbers recently, you’ll have noticed that we’re at about 5.5% unemployment, and that was a significant jump from last month because of the large numbers of new college grads who haven’t found jobs yet. One of the areas in which there are potentially a huge number of jobs is so-called “green”-collar jobs. These jobs vary from landscaping, tree trimming, and solar-panel installation to finance and marketing for green businesses and non-profits to green manufacturing of wind turbines.

———-

With high oil prices have come high food prices. And now a McClatchy story points out that high food prices has dramatically boosted the amount of deforestation going on in the Amazon.

[Marcelo Marquesini, a Brazil-based forest expert with Greenpeace] said that rising prices for soybeans, beef and other commodities are pushing farmers to clear more land in the sprawling rainforest, which is about the size of the western United States.

The problem is that high food prices drives farmers to clear more land to grow their crops, and that drives deforestation. And the battle between deforestation opponents and development proponents has already claimed Brazil’s Environment Minister, Marina Silva, who resigned rather than fight a losing battle.

———-

Yesterday, the national science academies of Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States – note that this is all the academies of the G8 industrialized democracies plus the Outreach Five (O5). The G8 alone account for 65% of global Gross Domestic Product, and the O5 are the five fastest growing “emerging” economies. That all thirteen nations would come up with a joint statement is impressive enough, but what that statement says is all the more so.

Humans have been adapting to their environment throughout history. But the rate and scale of climate change means there is no time for complacency. A step change in our response is needed, with action at global, national and local level. Local actors must be engaged in impact assessment and in identifying solutions. But global and national leadership is also required to manage the macro-scale effects that will accompany widespread efforts to adapt to climate change. (emphasis added)

If you’re not familiar with what a “step change” is, its an instantaneous transition from one state to another, with no delay and no time for a learning curve. In this case, the transition the science academies are calling for is from a high-carbon emitting civilization to a low- or no-carbon emitting one. Or, to put it in less arcane terms, we need to go low-carbon yesterday, not 20 years from now.

A couple of other things that the academies said that bear comment are below:

Sustainable consumption requires fundamental changes in all sectors and levels of society, including energy saving housing, low-carbon transportation and more efficient industrial processes. (emphasis added)

Our civilization runs on carbon. If we wish to continue to have a civilization, at least one that resembles the one we have now (and that the developing world aspires to have), we will have to stop running our civilization on carbon. This means that everything that consumes energy in any form today needs to be transitioned from carbon-based energy sources to non-carbon energy. Given that all carbon energy represents solar energy stored over the last few million or billion years, we have to transition toward more raw forms of solar or gravitational energy somehow, and that means no more oil, no more coal, no more natural gas at all. Not a cutback, not a reduction in rate of growth, literally none.

How’s that for “fundamental changes in all sectors and levels of society”?

There is also an opportunity to promote research on approaches which may contribute towards maintaining a stable climate (including so-called geoengineering technologies and reforestation), which would complement our greenhouse gas reduction strategies.

This is a radical statement, and one that bears more investigation. Sulfur injected into the stratosphere would cool the earth down fast (this is what a volcano does), but at the cost of ozone and thus possibly greater incidences of skin cancer globally. Powdered iron sprinkled around the oceans should promote algae growth and thus a greater rate of carbon sequestration, but potentially at the cost of destroyed fisheries as the algae decays and settles to the ocean floor.

Thankfully, all the academies called for was another meeting to promote research into geoengineering, rather than actually going out and doing any of these things. We know too little about the side effects of attempting to directly manipulate the global climate, and with so many questions remaining over our indirect manipulation of the climate via CO2 emissions, direct intervention is almost certain to be at least as controversial.

Given the time-lags inherent in the global energy system, actions need to be taken now to reach the desired target by 2050 (emphasis added).

It’s too bad that the Senate didn’t get an advance copy of this before they canned the Warner-Lieberman Climate Security Act last week.

———-

If you’ve ever been to the beach or lived close to it, you know that when the ocean is cold, you’re cooler, and if the ocean heats up, you’re hotter. The presence of the massive heat capacity of the ocean nearby moderates the swings in temperature some distance inland, and the closer you are to the ocean, the more moderated the air temperatures are by the ocean. According to the Boston Herald, a new study has found that this same effect may make Arctic warming that much worse.

If Arctic sea ice starts melting fast, polar bears and ring seals wouldn’t be the only creatures to feel it: A study released yesterday suggests that it could spur warmer temperatures hundreds of miles inland.

That means a possible thaw in the long-frozen soil known as permafrost, which in turn could have severe effects on ecosystems, human infrastructure like oil rigs and pipelines, and the release of more global warming greenhouse gases in Russia, Alaska, and Canada, the scientists said.

Given what we know about how the ocean can moderate coastal temperatures, if the Arctic ocean warms up more than the air over the coasts around it, the ocean will warm up the coastal air temperatures. For those of us who have lived in coastal regions, this makes a great deal of sense. Unfortunately, when permafrost melts, it goes from the consistency of rock to that of swamp or peat bog, and all the organic matter in it starts to decay and produce methane. And given that methane is a LOT nastier, on a per-molecule basis than CO2 is, that’s bad.

And this is one of those thing that could be yet another positive feedback into global heating that we simply can’t do anything about. Except collect the methane and burn it, landfill gas style. That’d make it all OK, right?

Advertisements
Posted in: Uncategorized