Carbon Capture and the Senate Energy Bill

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Sometimes at MetalMiner we feel like naysayers pouring cold water on every green idea that comes from lawmakers or the environmental lobby. We would like to put that idea down. We have long been supporters of new technologies and have even argued for federal dollars to be spent supporting nascent technologies that require more of a fast track than VC money is able to provide. We are staunch supporters of the nuclear industry and MetalMiner has even come out sometimes in the face of questionable economics on the side of renewables like tidal power and the development of smart grids where we see the logic if not a strong economic case but there are some green initiatives that we have a problem with. Wind power has been one of them due to the level of subsidy (in one form or another) nearly always required and carbon capture is another. So it was interesting to see an article in the NY Times analyzing one element of Senators John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman new Senate Energy Bill which calls for $2bn per year of incentives for carbon capture and sequestration as a strategy to reduce America’s carbon emissions.

The article’s author Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, eloquently argues that this is a wasteful and largely futile allocation of funds for three main reasons carbon capture greatly reduces the output of power plants; pipeline capacity to move the newly captured carbon dioxide is woefully insufficient; and the volume of waste material is staggering.

Starting with the reduction in energy efficiency of the power plant, the article says capturing carbon dioxide (Co2) from the flue gas of a coal-fired electric generation plant is an energy-intensive process. Bryce quotes analyst estimates that capturing the Co2 cuts the output of a typical plant by as much as 28%. Our own research suggests this is a conservative figure. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage states that there would be a 40-85% increase in power costs for a super critical pulverized coal (PC) plant if it had to sacrifice power to operate carbon capture. Can the US afford to reduce the output of the country’s 30%+ (lEIA figures) of power that comes from coal fired power stations by 28% or more? How would the US make up the shortfall build more coal fired power stations?

The second issue is transport of the captured Co2 as a compressed gas to a location where it can be stored. Usually this is a depleted underground oil or natural gas reservoir, an aquifer or the Co2 is occasionally used to increase the flow from aging oil deposits, forcing oil out of one bore by pumping Co2 down another. But that requires the oil reservoir to be adjacent to the power station or pipelines have to be laid 23,000 miles of them the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory estimates, which as the Co2 has little or no commercial value is going to be entirely at the taxpayers expense or electricity users via a carbon capture levy/tax/surcharge.

The third issue was the one that swung it for me, the scale of the problem. In 2009, Co2 emissions in the United States totaled 5.4 billion tons. The article assumes we aim to capture half of it in order to make any meaningful dent on total emissions. Say 3 billion tons per year; that works out to about 8.2 million tons of Co2 per day, which would have to be collected and compressed to about 1,000 lbs/in2 for transportation. In other words the article says we would need to find an underground location (or locations) able to swallow a volume equal to the contents of 41 oil supertankers each day, 365 days a year, for the foreseeable future (if anyone wants to test the math and the fundamentals of the argument please do so and let us know).

Is this really viable, and more to the point if the math is (on the face of it) so negative should we be voting through subsidies to the tune of $2bn per annum of taxpayers money to promote it?

–Stuart Burns

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