By Dave Elliott
The influential German Advisory Council on the Environment (SRU) has mapped out how it sees the future of coal. It notes that the Federal Government Coalition agreement (2013) states that: ‘the conventional power stations (lignite, coal, gas) remain an indispensable part of the national energy mix for the foreseeable future’, but it tries to put more flesh on that vague timescale, so as to better meet and exceed the 80% carbon reduction goals of the existing energy transition plan – it wants that raised to 95%. In particular it says that, with nuclear now being phased out (all of it by 2022), ‘an integrated energy policy should synchronise the phasing out of conventional power generation capacities and the increasing use of renewables’. (more…)
By Dave Elliott
In a post-Xmas pre-new year Scrooge-type austerity mood, I worry about the money we are wasting on energy. If you look at Sankey diagrams of energy flows from primary resources to final end use, you will see that for many countries around half the raw energy input is wasted in the conversion process, most of it being rejected into the atmosphere as heat, for example from steam-based fossil and nuclear generation systems.
By Dave Elliott
‘Government support is designed to help technologies to stand on their own two feet, not to encourage a permanent reliance on subsidies. We must continue to take tough judgments about what new projects get subsidies’. So said Amber Rudd, the new UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmhansrd/cm150622/debtext/150622-0001.htm#1506227000002
Are the cuts to renewable energy support she is imposing sensible?
by Carey King
A recent article by two Google engineers, Ross Koningstein and David Fork, in IEEE Spectrum has raised quite a discussion. The article entitled “What It Would Really Take to Reverse Climate Change” discusses Google’s investment in the “RE<C” project that sought to “…develop renewable energy sources that would generate electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power plants do”. The goal was to produce a gigawatt of power (presumably installed capacity). Google abandoned the project in 2011, according to the article because they believed it would not meet their cost goal and would also not avert significant impacts from climate change (they state the need to keep atmospheric concentrations of CO2 below 350 ppm as suggested by James Hansen).
I commend the two engineers for writing this article discussing their efforts and thoughts. However, I see this foray into energy as typical of the Silicon Valley mentality that is used to “solving” some technological problem quickly, selling the company or idea to a larger company, and then moving on to the next great app. Whether it is RE<C or making advanced biofuels from algae or cellulosic feedstocks, the Silicon Valley stereotype thinks the “energy problem” will be solvable just like cellular phones and that their “energy days” will be another line on their CV. Unfortunately, the realities of the energy production business are more difficult to change than realities on the energy consumption side of the business. Most innovative companies of the last several years are emerging to use information to consume energy more smartly because we no longer have the money and demographics to increase energy consumption. This is part of the new reality.
The Google engineers don’t mention the solution that will come about but needs no technology: consuming less energy. This will be the only solution that actually reduces CO2 emissions, but it will instead coincide with higher energy prices and costs, not “cheap zero-carbon energy” as is stated as a goal. The reason is because of the rebound effect, or Jevons Paradox (named after the British economist William Stanley Jevons). The cheaper energy becomes, the more the world consumes in the aggregate of all people consuming energy and not just a single device (refrigerator, car etc.) becoming more energy efficient.
Even divergent opinions on the limits of the planet and human endeavours agree that the effect of cheap energy is to increase total consumption compared to if energy were more expensive. I explain this concept via two books I use for my energy class at The University of Texas: The Bottomless Well (TBW) and Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update (LTG). I specifically use these two books (there are other possibilities) to force students to understand widely divergent opinions on how people interpret the past use of energy for guiding (or not) future energy policy and use of natural resources. TBW is optimistic on human ingenuity, the discovery of new technologies, and increased efficiency to provide the services we crave. LTG accepts that humans are clever animals, but also understands the physical constraints of a finite planet will eventually even trump gains in efficiency (so that production and consumption do not increase infinitely), forcing the reduction of consumption and physical stocks that we can maintain (largely people and industrial capital). TBW says it is best for the government to get out of the way of industry in improving technologies. LTG says that forward-looking policies are (really “would have needed to have been already”) necessary to minimize environmental damage and promote the necessary equity that will be needed after the world peaks in annual throughput (e.g. ~ GDP, but not exactly).
From the IEEE Spectrum article, I view Google as starting in the TBW camp, but never quite reaching the conclusion of the LTG authors. That is to say they no longer believe technology can solve the problem (they stopped their project), but they believe the solution is some new technology that we have yet to create. The Google authors state in their IEEE Spectrum article: “Our reckoning showed that reversing the trend [of increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration] would require both radical technological advances in cheap zero-carbon energy, as well as a method of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering the carbon.” They further state: “Not only had RE<C failed to reach its goal of creating energy cheaper than coal, but that goal had not been ambitious enough to reverse climate change. That realization prompted us to reconsider the economics of energy. What’s needed, we concluded, are reliable zero-carbon energy sources so cheap that the operators of power plants and industrial facilities alike have an economic rationale for switching over soon—say, within the next 40 years.” Businesses choose the most economic solutions because those are the ones that give them the greatest chance of growing, not shrinking. If all businesses are growing, and storing, streaming, and beaming more and more information in the cloud servers that Google has provided us with, then this requires more resources, not less … more emissions, not less. Cheap low-carbon energy might coincide with cheap high-carbon energy too, because if it is really cheap enough, we might be growing enough to continue to afford fossil energy. Personally, I doubt this outcome because the large growth days are over. But how do we really assess how “cheap” energy really is? Let’s look to a time series from the UK.
Figure 1 shows a calculation from Roger Fouquet on the cost of energy in England and the United Kingdom. What a nice piece of work! (Note: The UK is perhaps the best example of understanding long-term energy costs and the transition to fossil fuel usage starting in earnest in the late 1700s.) If we use England and the UK as a proxy for the modern world, Fouquet’s calculations indicate that the last decade (2000-2010) was effectively the time of cheapest energy in the history of mankind (see Figure 1). It was cheap energy that enabled the human population to reach 7 billion. In other words, cheap energy enabled us to farm land more intensively with less human effort to produce more food such that it was possible to increase the population. Without modern farming (fertilizer inputs based on creating ammonia from the hydrogen in natural gas, liquid-fueled combustion engines in tractors, fossil fueled transport and storage of food) we would not have 7+ billion people on the planet. It is simply too expensive and physically impossible to feed 7 billion people via subsistence farming. More expensive food and energy (really, food is energy) puts downward pressure on population, and that in turn puts downward pressure on the environment.
Figure 1. The cost of energy for energy services as a percentage of England and United Kingdom gross domestic product [Data courtesy of Roger Fouquet].
At the end of the article, the Google team states: “We’re not trying to predict the winning technology here, but its cost needs to be vastly lower than that of fossil energy systems.” There are two mathematical ways for competing technologies to become vastly lower cost than fossil energy systems. Either the new technologies become cheaper while fossil energy stays roughly constant (or becomes cheaper more slowly), or fossil energy becomes more expensive while the competing technologies get cheaper, stay the same cost, or increase more slowly. The real curb on resource consumption and CO2 emissions will be indicated by aggregate energy costs per Figure 1. If energy spending as a fraction of GDP increases, it indicates we are reaching diminishing returns to consumption and our responses (e.g. research, new energy resource extraction) are inadequate to continue increasing consumption. This would be the interpretation if we are trying to make energy cheaper and cheaper (most people and governments want this). However, it is theoretically possible to purposely choose (e.g. by policy) to increase energy spending as a fraction of GDP. Putting a price or tax on CO2 emissions is an example policy (Note: Internalizing the cost of CO2 emissions makes fossil fuel consumption more expensive but does not make renewable energy cheaper.).
Energy has practically never been cheaper than during the time Google has existed as a company. If energy is already this cheap, how can we say it is not cheap enough to invest in technologies to mitigate fossil fuel impacts (carbon capture from coal-fired power plants and even capture of CO2 from the air)? The common statement is that we need (low-carbon) energy to be cheaper to mitigate climate change. This is tantamount to us “Waiting for Godot” to arrive. It’s as if we’re saying: “we’re so smart, but if only we were a little smarter, we’d have the cheap unobtainium we’ve been hoping for so that we can do as many things as we want with no environmental impact.” Unfortunately, all elements in the periodic table have mass and obey the laws of physics, not our social laws of economics. There are fundamental energetic (low energy return on energy invested) reasons why we have yet to be able to “policy induce” cellulosic liquid biofuels into existence.
The climate solution that Google could not find is not made of some more of some new kind of widget; it is made of less of all past and future widgets. We got into the climate predicament by millions of incremental advancements, and perhaps we’ll only reduce emissions rates in the same way. In terms of practically playing in the energy space, as a hybrid solution to “solving” the energy problem, Google ventured into energy management by buying Nest (thermostats that learn your habits and program your home climate control) earlier this year. This should pay dividends for all, with the tradeoff going further into an Orwellian future of increased mass information on citizen activities. It is unclear if these types of technologies will help Google (and the rest of us) decrease environmental impacts, increase use of low-carbon energy, or decrease greenhouse gas emissions rates. But we can be sure that Google owning NEST certainly follows their existing business model of gathering more information to continue selling targeted ads based on your habits.
By Dave Elliott
China’s economy has been accelerating at uniquely high levels, although lately that has slowed slightly. Some say that will provide a helpful respite from the massive eco/health problems that have been created by burning so much coal and oil- epitomised by the dire air pollution in big cities like Beijing, which of late has led to major health scares and protests. China has a massive renewable energy programme, with for example wind on and off grid already at around 75GW, but it’s barely able to keep up with the growth in energy demand. So the transition to a sustainable energy future may take some time. (more…)
A World of Troubles
by Dave Elliott
With the typhoon disaster in the Philippines, Japan’s cut back on its climate targets and Australia abandoning its climate policy, the latest gathering of the Conference of Parties of the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change in Poland last October was a rather gloomy affair. The Fifth report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had reinforced a key message from the basic science- it was now 95 % certain that climate change was caused by human activities, up from 90% previously. And the results were likely to be serious. The United Nations Environment Programme then issued a warning that if countries failed to take immediate steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the global temperature will be significantly more likely to rise above 2˚C.
By Dave Elliott
The World Energy Council (WEC) has called for policymakers and industry leaders to ‘get real’ on global energy policy, claiming that the global financial crisis, Fukushima, and the development of unconventional hydrocarbons has changed the context and that, as a consequence, the CO2 targets for 2050 will be missed, unless significant changes and policy frameworks are adopted. (more…)
Some see the term “clean coal” as an oxymoron – you can’t burn coal without producing carbon dioxide as well as other environmentally problematic solids, liquids and gases. But it is possible to move towards “cleaner coal” by filtering out or capturing some of the emissions. We already do this for acid emissions, but since the sulphur content of most fuels is relatively small, SO2 is a relatively small issue: the big issue is of course carbon dioxide – the main product of combustion.
“Carbon Capture” is the buzz word – separating out the CO2 produced in power stations. It requires complex and relatively expensive chemical processes, and then you have to find somewhere to store the resultant gas. The options for that include old coal seams, exhausted oil and gas wells, and as yet undisturbed geological strata of various types.
Along with many others, the IEA Clean Coal Centre has been promoting Carbon Capture and Storage as vital for the future. They point out that around 40% of the electricity generated globally comes from coal and that this is bound to grow – as countries like China expand. If they don’t adopt CCS, then climate impacts could be significant.
There are some CCS-type projects in China, including the Green Gen project due to come online next year, eventually planned to expand to 650 MW, but most of the running is being made in the US, and to a lesser extent the EU.
The IEA group suggests that globally there is the potential for replacing 300 GW of existing coal plant with new CCS plants and for 200 GW of upgrading with CCS. But it currently looks like we will only see around 29 GW of coal-fired CCS in place globally by 2020. So what’s stopping us?
Firstly, and mainly, the cost. CCS adds perhaps 50% to the capital cost of a of plant ($735/950 m for a new/retrofitted 400 MW plant). It also reduces overall energy conversion efficiency – some energy is needed for CCS. The IEA team says that the “energy penalty” is somewhere between 10–15% at present, although higher figures have been quoted, especially for CCS added on to existing plants. However, there are hopes of reducing the energy penalty to below 6% of output by 2030. Improved technology may also reduce the costs.
The cheapest option at present, which can be added on to existing plants, is simple post-combustion capture, but it’s inefficient – it is hard to extract the CO2 from the large volumes of low-pressure exhaust gases. It’s much cleverer to extract CO2 at an earlier stage – as in pre-combustion capture systems. In these Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) plants the coal is gasified, to produce a mix of methane, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and hydrogen. The carbon dioxide is then separated out while the other gases are used as fuel for power production. An extension of this approach is provided by firing with oxygen rather than just air – that increases overall efficiency, but adds complexity. Vattenfall has built a 30 MW (thermal) oxy-fuel demonstration plant. Meanwhile, there are many plans and programmes underway around the world (e.g. the EU has already put €1 bn into CCS, and the US $3.4 bn. Within the EU, RWE is planning a 450 MW IGCC unit, while the UK is planning four CCS plants, two pre-combustion, two post-combustion, to be backed by a new levy of 2–3% on electricity charges.
As this indicates, CCS is still a relatively expensive option for carbon reduction, at $35–70/tonne of CO2. Although there are hopes of it falling to $25–35t CO2, that’s still much more than the current value of carbon under the EU Emission Trading System. So far CCS has not be eligible for support under the Clean Development Mechanism – India and Brazil amongst others have objected to its proposed inclusion. The fear is that supporting CCS will deflect resources away from renewables and other low-carbon options more relevant to them.
The second issue is eco impacts. It is conceivable that stored CO2 might suddenly be released in large amounts – and the resultant ground-hugging cloud of dense cold gas could asphyxiate any people it engulfed. The CCS lobby sees this as unlikely – we already pump gas into part-empty wells for Enhanced Oil Recovery, and oil and gas strata have stored methane and oil for millennia, so replacing them with CO2 should not lead to any risk of sudden catastrophic release. That may not be as certain with as yet undisturbed aquifers though (e.g. undersea earthquakes do occur). And on land storage in, for example, old coal seams, seems even more potentially risky, given nearby populations.
The IEA Group says that globally there is room for perhaps 40 Gt CO2 in coal seams, and that is being followed up in the USA – where there has been some local opposition on safety grounds. There is more room, possibly for 1000 GT globally in old oil and gas wells, but the big option is saline aquifers – maybe 10,000 GT. For comparison, according to Vaclav Smil’s Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties, in 2005 world CO2 production was around 28 GT p.a.
The main driver for CCS is clearly the fossil-fuel industries desire to stay in business despite pressures to reduce emissions. In theory CCS can cut CO2 emissions from coal burning by 85% or more, and of course it’s not just coal – some of the CCS projects involve natural gas. For example, French oil company Total has retrofitted a gas-fired plant at Lacq in the South of France with CCS in a £54 m pilot project, with the CO2 being sent down the existing pipeline, back to a major local gas well at Rousse, which used to supply to the plant, for storage at a depth of 4,500 metres. Moreover, power production may not be the only option – as noted above, coal gasification can produce a range of synfuels, some of which can be used for heating or for fuelling vehicles. Indeed it could be that this may offer a way to improve the economic prospects for fossil-fuel CCS – by moving into new/additional markets.
However, a rival option is biomass. That could be burnt just for power production or gasified to also provide synfuels, with, in either case, the CO2 being separated and stored. And if the biomass feed stock is replaced with new planting, then in effect, CCS would mean not just zero- or low-net emissions, but an overall reduction in carbon in the atmosphere – negative emissions. Production of biochar from biomass, with CCS, is seen by some as an even better option. But then there are land-use limits to the widespread development of biomass, whereas there is claimed to be lot of coal available around the world, with large reserves in China, N America and Russia/Eastern Europe, enough for more than 150 years at current use rates (although estimates vary).
While many environmentalist would like coal to be left in the ground, some see coal CCS as not only inevitable, but also as positively attractive, at least in the interim, and possibly as being a low-carbon alternative to nuclear. As long as it does not detract from the development of renewables.
For more information about Clean Coal, visit www.iea-coal.org.uk.
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.