Archive for September, 2009

Sequestering CO2 – Part 2

September 22, 2009

The issues of CO2 emissions, coal-fired power plants, global warming and global economic growth are so important and so intertwined that they deserve considerably more attention than my short, earlier post on Carbon Sequestration. If you believe, as I do, that:

1. Economic growth is a GOOD thing – in the US, Europe and Japan, in China, India, Brazil, Russia and the rest of the fast industrializing countries, and especially for the poor, sick and hungry majorities in the under-developed parts of the world.
2. Energy, especially electricity and transportation fuel, is the vital ingredient for economic development and growth.
3. Fossil fuels – oil, coal, natural gas – are dirty, from the time they’re brought out of the ground through their ultimate use. However, using them is easy, cheap (in direct costs, at least), and they’re readily available.
4. Alternative energy sources (wind and solar, for example) are attractive for their green-ness and inexhaustability – but be prepared (for the near- and mid-term future, at least) to pay a high $$$-per-unit-of-energy price and an additionally high price for developing the supporting infrastructure.

Bottom line – Like it or not, the world is stuck, for the next couple of decades, with using a lot of coal for creating electricity. That leads to 2 inescapable conclusions:

1. Make sure that we use the coal in the least-dirty way possible. (I can’t bring myself to use the words ‘clean’ and ‘coal’ together.) That means new power plants should use IGCC Integrated Combined Cycle Gasification technology, a process that recovers more energy from a ton of coal and produces emissions that are easier to handle. See my earlier “Clean Coal?” post.
2. Develop viable, useful alternatives for the CO2 that is the inevitable by-product of fossil energy. Sequestration works, but it’s purely a cost, the equivalent of paying to haul your household garbage to the landfill. How about spending some of those $$$ and effort, instead, on creating (perhaps subsidizing) positive uses for CO2? (Such as this idea, for example.)
3. Adopt a combination of energy tax / carbon tax schemes – based on objectiove measures of the FULL, TRUE cost of fossil energy – that produce energy prices reliably and predicably high enough to foster development and maturation of renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar.

Sequestering CO2

September 22, 2009

While it may not be the most virulent of the greenhouse gases, CO2 certainly gets is share of attention as the most common and well-recognized global warming villain. A potential CO2 antidote, “sequestration” (capturing CO2 from smoke stacks, recompressing it, and pumping it into porous rock strata thousands of feet underground), is about to be tried in a big way at a coal-fired power plant in West Virginia. A September 22, NYTimes article explains.

For at least an generation, now, the petroleum industry has known about and occasionally practiced the first cousin of sequestration – injecting CO2 into oil-bearing rock formations to enhance the recovery of tightly bound petroleum liquids. Occasionally, because the technology details aren’t suitable in every case, and much more often because the economics of oil production and downstream pricing won’t support the fairly expensive process.

Sequestration is a safe and effective way of disposing of CO2. Whether it can be affordable is another question. The initial estimate isn’t encouraging, if the article is correct that disposing of the CO2 will consume 15 to 30 percent of the energy gained from burning the coal that produced it. Perhaps the West Virginia test can begin to answer the feasibility questions and point us toward a practical answer.

Solar Burnout?

September 17, 2009

NEWSWEEK (Sep 21, 2009. Pg17) announces “Solar Burnout”, the fast approaching demise of the solar energy industry. Typical of the media, the story is long on sensationalism but painfully short on nuance, but it underscores the difficult economic hurdles faced by alternative energy developers. It’s a song that I’ve sung more than once …
( here, here, here and here )

Now, I’m a solar energy fan going way back to the first oil crisis and alternative energy boom three decades ago, and I’d love to see a substantial share of fossil fuel usage converted to wind, solar and nuclear. But I’m also a businessman and a realist who knows that an exciting new technology has to ultimately succeed not on altruism and goverment subsidy, but on its own economic merits.

The science and technology are within our grasp to transition our economy from oil and coal to more sustainable primary energy sources. Unfortunately, the deck of economic development cards is stacked overwhelmingly in favor of the incumbent oil- and coal-based technologies. Breaching the barrier that shields our fossil-fueled present from an alternative energy future won’t be easy, but (perhaps) it can be done …

1. Exploit our North American natural gas resources as a substitute for oil (ie transportation fuel) and coal (electricity), until wind, solar and other alternatives reach commercial maturity. Natural Gas isn’t perfect – it’s a fossil fuel that you burn – but it’s a whole lot better (cleaner, cheaper, and geo-politically safer) than oil or coal.
2. Tax oil, coal and natural gas used for transportation fuel or electricity at an adjustable rate sufficient to maintain an end-user price equivalent to crude oil at about $80 per BBL. Use the proceeds to fund R&D, science education, alternative energy start-ups, etc.
3. A national tax on gasoline and diesel transportation fuel, graduated to reflect the fuel efficiency of your vehicle – drive a gas guzzler, pay a high per-gallon tax rate; drive fuel-efficiently, pay a low rate. Use the proceeds as incentives to individuals and businesses to convert to energy friendly technologies.
4. Streamline regulatory and permitting processes in a way that encourages alternative energy development, while protecting legitimate health, safety and environmental interests.

Let me emphasize — We already have the science, technology and engineering tools we needs to begin building our alternative energy future. I fear, however, that we lack the collective patience and political will to invest the $$$ and the decades of effort required to move beyond our current entrapment in coal mines and Middle East political intrigue.