Saturday, July 15, 2017

Carbon Nation

It is fortunate that Project Drawdown left CO2 capture and storage (CCS) out of their solution set, because the IPCC left us with a mixed bag by including it as a key element among their recommended approaches*. Environmentally-minded organizations such as the Post-Carbon Institute (PCI) are all too happy to explain that CCS doesn't pencil out when you consider such fixed costs as a network of pipelines in the U.S. equal to that of the entire oil industry. As implied by their name, however, the Post-Carbon Institute discounts the value of all of the extra tight oil that might be recovered and burned by enhanced oil recovery using all the captured CO2. Considering how polluting coal and other industrial combustion processes can be, it makes sense if you can exchange the CO2 output for a more clean-burning petroleum product, but the extra pipelines and other CCS components required really does cause it to look like CCS would be a net economic loss (until oil prices rise). The fact that the energy industry is begging for more subsidies to jumpstart CCS does not help their case.

Stanford Prof. Mark Jacobson, whose transition to renewables plan is embraced as the mainstay of the Green (Party) New Deal, also excludes CCS. Richard Heinberg of PCI nonetheless criticizes Jacobson's reliance on underground heat storage technologies unproven at scales needed for his plan. Both Jacobson's and CCS's scaling problems are constrained by access to storage deep underground and, in the case of CCS, sometimes hundreds of miles from the source.
Photo by Eden, Janine and Jim

It is typical of our disconnection from nature that a less brutal means of sequestering captured carbon wouldn't attract more interest. Biochar can be a coproduct of electricity production when using biomass as an input. Rather than pipe it deep into the ground, burying biochar a few inches below the surface of farmland would be all that is needed to sequester the carbon. Unlike CCS, biochar is scalable up or down, befitting the feedstock availability and soil characteristics in a locale. While not a stand-alone replacement for current fossil fuel electricity, biochar-producing power plants should be pursued before the riskier CCS plants that have already wasted billions of dollars in pilot programs and never captured any carbon. Further investments or subsidies in CCS power plants would quite likely fall short, leading to expansion of more carbon spewing fossil-fueled electricity, with the carbon capture piece set aside as too expensive or difficult to complete.

*According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, the overall cost of a global climate mitigation strategy without CCS is higher than a strategy with CCS in every scenario, and many models cannot limit likely warming to below 2 °C without CCS. (U.S. DOE Report, Jan. 2017, pg. 7)

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