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Charles McConnell: Why We Should Use Carbon Technology — Not Carbon Credits

Rather than feel good initiatives, we should look to technological innovation to help address both climate change and energy security. Carbon capture, utilization and storage holds the potential to help solve both critical needs.

 

Did you purchase a carbon credit for your recent flight to Houston for this week’s Offshore Technology Conference? If so, what did that act accomplish in the effort to reduce CO2 emissions from our atmosphere? In my view, nothing. Instead, what we need are technologies and solutions that have a real impact — not some esoteric concept to make people feel better.

CO2 is not a poison — we drink carbonated beverages everyday. But it does impact the earth’s atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. Coal-fired power plants and natural gas-fired units generate a large volume of CO2, and while that clearly isn’t the only contributor to climate change, it does have an impact.

Coal, in particular, has been all but declared “the enemy” by the Environmental Protection Agency, but what are the real facts? If we shut down every coal-fired plant in the United States tomorrow, we would reduce the CO2 output globally by only 2 percent. Although we have about 600 coal-fired power plants in the United States — following the closure of 150 or so that have been replaced by natural gas generation — there are an additional 800 coal plants planned for China and India in the next 10 to 15 years. And the nearly 20 percent annual growth of coal in Europe is largely driven by the expensive policy choices of a renewable portfolio standard that has failed the test of affordability for consumers.

We will continue to use fossil fuels as a society. Natural gas emits CO2, just like coal. Renewables are not going to fill the gap in the next 50 years. So what should we do? Buy carbon credits? Do nothing? Of course not — we must deploy transformative technology.

Technologies around carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) provide such an opportunity. CCUS is a process that goes a key step further than just carbon capture and storage (CCS), since capturing CO2 as a waste product and storing it as waste, is just that — a waste.

CCUS is the capture of CO2 from coal-fired or natural gas-fired emissions points, then purifying and conditioning the CO2 for utilization in enhanced oil recovery (EOR). By delivering the processed CO2 to geological formations that have oil currently in place, we enhance the recovery of the oil and achieve carbon capture at the same time. Over the longer term, as the cost of CO2 capture is further reduced, other uses can be realized in chemicals production — such as urea and polycarbonates.

The potential energy and climate impact goes far beyond the United States, where the vast majority of enhanced oil recovery with CO2 currently is practiced. Geologic assessments worldwide — mostly offshore —indicate there is adequate geologic capacity to take up 120 years worth of the world’s total CO2 emissions from all coal-fired power plants. It may not be applicable everywhere in the world, but it’s also not a niche market.

Let’s embrace CCUS as a technology that can catalyze energy security and affordability as a “good for business” proposition. And let’s embrace CCUS as an environmentally accretive part of our energy portfolio to make a real impact by taking CO2 out of our atmosphere and storing it safely and permanently as a “good for the environment” proposition. CCUS — not carbon credits — is our pathway to achieving impactful change, technically and commercially.

(Top image: Courtesy of Thinkstock)

 

Charles McConnell is Executive Director, Rice University Energy and Environment Initiative. He previously served as Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy at the Department of Energy.

 

 

 

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