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Commercial viability of CO2 capture and storage – of course not (under the historical paradigm)

A recent article titled “Government impose ‘carbon capture levy’ to fund coal-fired power plants”, discusses the UK government imposing a tax on electricity to potentially fund carbon capture and storage (CCS) development on up to four coal plants over the course of 10–15 years. A quote from the article sums up the discussion:

“The Department for Energy and Climate Change said yesterday that uncertainty over the commercial viability of CCS meant that public support might have to continue beyond 2030.”

Of course CCS is not commercially viable. The only way to make it commercially viable is to internalize the cost of CO2 emissions to such a degree that the cost of investing in the infrastructure for capturing the CO2 justifies the investment. The price of CO2 is not there yet for the UK, and is nonexistent within the United States. So the commerical viability question is not even applicable except for potentially using captured CO2 to extract more oil out of mature reservoirs. Still, given that there are natural sources of CO2 that only require major investments in pipelines while avoiding interacting with the electricity indudstry, a sufficient CO2 price may not exist for a couple of decades that induces investment in CO2 capture on coal plants.

But the real “commercial viability” conundrum rests on the fact that a large portion of society believes that we (well, the industrialized world) should place a value on reducing CO2 emissions. Capturing CO2 from coal plants will lower their net electricity output by 20–35%. In terms of the normal venacular of economics, this is going to something less efficient. In this case, the efficiency is less electricity output per unit of fuel input. This is a fundamentally different concept than has occured since the dawn of the industrial revolution.

Sure, we have imposed certain types of pollution mitigation technologies on power plants before (e.g. SO2 and NOx scrubbing, mercury capture), but these have for the most part not prevented coal plants, and the power plant industry in general, to increase their efficiency over time by increasing the pressure and temperature of operation. But everyone knows that the thermodynamics of the power plant with CO2 capture will be less efficient. This goes directly against the purpose of investments and technological advancement since the founding of modern civiliazations.

People have historically invested in ways to extract more productivity and wealth from the Earth per unit of effort (human effort) until some ecological feedback prevents that from being a desireable option any longer. These feedbacks to date have mostly been associated with direct air-, soil- and water-quality problems. And the past mitigation methods have been of a small order of cost such that the human population has continued to grow since the Industrial Revolution. But this feedback fo global warming appears to cost several orders of magnitude more to deal with. The question is: “Is coal power so valuable to us that we will continue to use it even at lower efficiency?” In other words: “Are other viable technologies so inferior that coal power must continue to exist by providing less direct services than it has since we first put it in a steam cycle connected to a dynamo?”

So far, the answer seems “yes” to these two questions. Widespread use of CCS will mean that we value environmental/ecosystem services more than energy services on a larger scale than any time before in history of human civilization.

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About Carey King

Dr. Carey W King performs interdisciplinary research related to how energy systems interact within the economy and environment as well as how our policy and social systems can make decisions and tradeoffs among these often competing factors. The past performance of our energy systems is no guarantee of future returns, yet we must understand the development of past energy systems. Carey’s research goals center on rigorous interpretations of the past to determine the most probable future energy pathways. Carey is a Research Scientist and Assistant Director at the Energy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin, and appointed also at the the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy within the Jackson School of Geosciences and Business, Government, and Society Department of the McCombs School of Business. Visit his website at: http://careyking.com and follow on Twitter @CareyWKing
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