Sustainability, Carbon Sequestration, and the Bottom Line

Sustainability, Carbon Sequestration, and the Bottom Line

Abstract. By burning fossil fuels we have put 3.6 trillion tons of Carbon Dioxide, CO2 in the atmosphere in the last 200 years – most in the last 60. This has changed the concentration of atmospheric CO2 from 250 parts per Million, ppm, to 390 ppm, an increase of approximately 35.9%. This increase of atmospheric CO2 is resulting in changing precipitation and rising temperatures, particularly at the poles and farther away from the equator.

The typical modern reductionist approach is to simplify the problem to develop a solution:
“Burning coal, oil, and natural gas puts CO2 into the atmosphere. All we need to do to solve the problem is modify the machines so they burn fossil fuel without releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. How do we do that? We should capture the carbon dioxide, and the arsenic, mercury, other heavy metals, radionucleotides, etc, and store it somewhere.”

But we need to remember that we are burning coal, oil, and natural gas for a reason: to generate heat, hot water, electricity and transportation. There are alternative energy technologies, including nuclear, solar, and wind.

Coal with Carbon Sequestration is estimated to cost $10 to $15 Billion per gigawatt, without considering the costs of mining, processing and transporting the coal, cleaning up after mining, and isolating the arsenicals, mercury, and radionucleotides released from burning coal.  Solar is estimated to cost $6.5 Billion per gigawatt - with no fuel and no wastes. Wind $2 to $3 Billion per gigawatt - with no fuel and no wastes.

We at Popular Logistics think, feel and believe that we need to replace coal with solar and wind immediately.

Body.  The Brundtland Commission1 defined “sustainability” as “meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” I see sustainability as arising from systems that harness one or more natural processes. Unsustainable systems are built around consuming nonrenewable resources. So whether or not carbon sequestration works, there are questions of sustainability that should be raised in conjunction with the use of carbon based fuel systems. 

The sun shines. The winds blow. Plant an apple, a maple, or an olive tree, you get apples, maple syrup, or olives. Put a polar panel in the sun, you get power or hot water, depending on the panel. Put a wind turbine in the path of the wind; you convert the kinetic energy in the particles of air into electricity. 

Is Carbon Sequestration Sustainable or Less Unsustainable? The Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, which get 40 to 50 miles per gallon, and the 100 mpg Bright Automotive Idea are less unsustainable than an 8 - 20 mpg SUV. However these vehicles use fossil fuels that are not regenerated. A 20 mpg biodiesel vehicle, however, because the fuel that is used is regenerated by a current process, is sustainable, with regards to fuel.

As this report shows, capturing and storing the carbon dioxide produced by burning coal, has no effect on the sustainability or unsustainability of coal, altho, because it requires 25% or more of the energy released by burning coal, it will cause more coal to be burned.

Carbon Capture and Sequestration

Our reliance of fossil fuels for energy has put 3.6 trillion tons of Carbon Dioxide, CO2 in the atmosphere2 in the last 200 years – most in the last 60. This changed the concentration of atmospheric CO2 from 250 parts per Million, ppm, to 390 ppm, an increase of approximately 35.9%. This increase of atmospheric CO2 is resulting in changing precipitation and rising temperatures, particularly at the poles and farther away from the equator. 

The typical modern reductionist approach is to simplify the problem to develop a solution:

“Burning coal, oil, and natural gas puts CO2  into the atmosphere. All we need to do to solve the problem is modify the machines so they burn fossil fuel without releasing CO2  into the atmosphere. How do we do that? We should capture the carbon dioxide, and the arsenic, mercury, other heavy metals, radionucleotides, etc, and store it somewhere.”

But we need to remember that we are burning coal, oil, and natural gas for a reason: to generate heat, hot water, electricity and transportation. There are alternative energy technologies, including nuclear, solar, and wind.

If capturing, storing, and cleaning up the carbon dioxide and other toxic products of burning fossil fuels is less expensive then other energy technologies, then clearly we should burn fossil fuels. But if, after looking at the system as a whole and factoring in the costs of coal mining, oil and gas drilling, processing, and transport, and the costs of isolating pollutants such as carbon dioxide, arsenic, mercury, other heavy metals, and radionucleotides is higher, we need to choose the least expensive alternatives.3

This discussion focuses on techniques for capturing and storage of carbon when it is released by burning coal, and asks a few questions about carbon capture and sequestration. A comparison is made between coal, solar and wind. Nuclear power is not considered because it is understood to be the most expensive energy alternative available today.

Some Questions about Carbon Sequestration:

1. How much will it cost, in terms of money and energy?

2. What can go wrong? What happens then? What will natural and man-made disasters do to the ecology, biochemistry and chemistry of the ecosystems in the vicinity of carbon sinks? What is the effect of a spill of Millions of gallons of liquid carbon dioxide at the bottom of the ocean?

3. What happens if nothing goes wrong? The side-effects of strip mining are devastated local ecosystems in the vicinity of the mines. The side-effects of burning coal include mercury in fish and in the biosphere.

4. What are the side-effects of CCS?

The idea is to pull or rip carbon out of the ground, process it somehow, transport it to where it needs to be burned, process it some more, then burn it, which converts some of the chemical energy into electricity, and push the carbon dioxide back into the ground. Does this really make sense?

Burial at Sea

The NY Times4 reported that SCS Energy, of Concord, Mass., has a plan to build a new CCS equipped coal plant, the “Purgen” plant,5 in Linden, NJ. 90% of the carbon dioxide released by burning coal at this plant will be captured, compressed, pushed into a 24 inch diameter pipe, pumped approximately 70 miles south-east, and a half-mile down along the ocean floor, past Staten Island, New York, and Middlesex, Monmouth, and Ocean Counties in New Jersey, to a point 25 or 30 miles east of Atlantic City, New Jersey,and injected into a well drilled a mile beneath the sandstone floor of the Atlantic Ocean.

The pipe will have to be monitored for leaks along its 70 mile length. Leaks will have to be repaired. Maintanence and repair costs could be significant.

CCS is energy intensive. It is projected to use 25% or more to the plant's energy to compress, cool, and pump the CO2 into the sub-sea well in which it will be sequestered.

According to the NY Times, the plant will cost $5 billion if completed on time and on budget. It will also need $100 Million a year in Federal Government subsidies, which amounts to another $3 Billion to $4 Billion of taxpayer money, over the plant's 30 to 40 year operating life span. Plus fuel costs and normal operating and maintenance costs. The total: $8 or $9 Billion. The article left out a crucial detail: the size of the plant. If it's a 500 MW plant, then the cost is $16 or $18 Million per megawatt ($M/mw). If it's a 2.0 gigawatt plant, the cost is $4.0 to $4.5 M/mw. According to the Highland Park Mirror6, and the Green Party of Essex County, NJ7, this would be a 750 MW plant, so the capital costs are $6.67M/mw up front and $10.67 M/mw to $12.0 M/mw over the life of the plant.

CCS Prototype on Land

Industry Week reported another CCS prototype at American Electric's Mountaineer facility in New Haven, W. Virginia.8  The article states: "the pilot facility captures and stores around 20 megawatts of carbon dioxide.... The unit can handle only a fraction of Mountaineer's 1,300 megawatt capacity." According to the New York Times9 the 20 MW carbon sequestration subsystem at the Mountaineer Plant will cost approximately $146 Million, $7.3 Million per megawatt of capacity.

In comparison, utility scale photovoltaic solar costs approximately $6.5 Million per megawatt. Wind power is approximately $2 Million per megawatt; offshore wind is estimated at $3 Million per megawatt. Wind and solar energy systems do not require mining, drilling, processing or transportation of fuel, or clean-up of by-products. Wind and solar also do not require an additional 25% of capacity to offset the energy required to clean up a fraction of the wastes.

Beauty, Elegance, and Simplicity



Destroying mountains, shipping rocks 1,000 miles, or 2,000 miles, from Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia or Montana to California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, etc., is not simple. Capturing the waste, compressing it, and burying it under the coal plant, or piping it another 50 or 100 miles under tremendous pressure and burying it a mile under the ocean floor is not beautiful, elegant, or simple.

A battery of wind turbines planted on and bolted to the sea floor and rising 300 feet into the air is not simple either. One 3.5 megawatt turbine can meet the electric power requirements for about 4,000 people, so we would be looking at 2,000 turbines to meet the electricity requirements for the 8 million residents of state of New Jersey, and another 5,000 for the 20 million New Yorkers. Once the system is installed, however, there is no fuel to mine or pump out of the ground and transport 1,000 miles or 2,000 miles, there are no wastes to "manage" or discard.

Conclusion

Cutting the carbon footprint of coal would make it less unsustainable. But we still have to mine, ship, and burn the coal, then manage the waste, which is where sequestration comes in.


The Carbon Capture and Sequestration, CCS, technology that exists is expensive and still being developed. CCS therefore shouldn't be considered "proven" or "state of the art" but should be considered prototypes.  Furthormore, since solar and wind power technologies are clearly cleaner and less expensive, the use of fossil fuels, including coal, oil, and natural gas should be phased out as soon as possible.

 

Notes:

1)DB Climate Change Advisors, Deutsche Bank Group, “Greenhouse Gases Cause Climate Change”, http://www.dbcca.com

2)Gailbraith, Kate, “A Plan for US Emissions to be buried at Sea,” New York Times, May 18, 2009,

www.nytimes.com/2009/04/18/business/energy-environment/18clean.htm?_r=1

3)Davis, Leigh, Oceanic carbon interment plan draws local objections, Highland Park Mirror, Oct. 15, 2009, http://www.highlandparkmirror.com/pp/story/oceanic-carbon-interment-plan-draws-local-objections

4)Green Party of Essex County, NJ, http://www.essexcountygreens.org/, Facts about the Proposed Coal Plant in Linden, http://www.essexcountygreens.org/PurGenFactSheet.html

5)Beatty, Andrew, Alstom Pushes Carbon Capture Solution at U. S. Coal Plant, Industry Week, Nov. 1, 2009, http://www.industryweek.com/articles/alstom_pushes_carbon_capture_solution_at_u-s-_coal_plant_20303.aspx?Page=1

6)This $7.3 Million per mw is based on the statement that American Electric is spending “$73 Million on the capture and storage effort, which includes half the cost of the factory.” Riddell, Kevin, Retrofitted to Bury Emissions, Plant Draws Attention, New York Times, Sept. 22, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/22/science/earth/22coal.html

7)http://www.scribacrc.org/uploads/24__45.3_Billion_in_Coal_Plants_Canceled_in_07.pdf

8)The subsidies that appear to be needed for solar would not be needed if there were no subsidies for coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear power. That hypothesis, however, is beyond the scope of this paper.

Larry Furman writes for Popular Logistics, the intersection of emergency preparedness, public health and environmental policy

 

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