If We We Want To Stop Global Warming, Burning Gas Instead Of Coal Will Help, But Only A Little – The Only Solution Is Carbon Capture And Sequestration (CCS) – Significant Progress At Lawrence Livermore National Lab

By Paolo von Schirach

January 10, 2013

WASHINGTON – A significant short term benefit brought about by the US shale gas revolution is a reduction of overall US green house gases emissions. Gas is much cleaner than coal. Given the low cost of gas, we have now more power plants fired by gas. Old coal fired plants have been closed and more will be retired in the years ahead. They will be replaced by gas fired plants. On account of this new and cleaner power generation base America will pollute less in the years ahead.

Gas is not a long term solution

Still, while important, this switch from dirty coal to cleaner gas is not transformative, as Julio Friedman (Lawrence Livermore National laboratory) and Arnold Cohen (Clean Air Task Force) explain in an interesting The Financial Times op-ed piece. (Shale gas will change America – but not the climate, January 10, 2013).

There is no doubt that natural gas, beyond its economic advantages, is cleaner than coal and thus more environmentally friendly. However, as the two authors tell us, burning natural gas produces CO2. Gas is certainly better than coal; but it is not emission free. Since green house gases linger in the atmosphere for centuries, even after a massive switch to gas burning power plants, America will continue to add to the global CO2 growth, albeit at a slower pace.

Emissions going up

Therefore, if we want to stop global warming, we still have a problem. And if we consider that the rest of the world, lacking access to lower emissions natural gas, will continue burning more old fashioned dirty coal, it is inescapable that global CO2 emissions will continue to rise, while the planet will keep getting warmer.

Wind and solar not enough

Wind and solar will not help much. Renewable energy solutions, while theoretically ideal, are not even close to providing a real alternative. At the moment, wind and solar constitute about 3% of total power generation. Projections cited by Friedman and Cohen in their FT piece indicate that by 2035 renewable energy contributions to total power supply may go up to under 20%. In the meantime, coal consumption is growing seven times as fast as wind and solar.

CCS is the solution

The solution, Friedman and Cohen tell us, is in developing cost effective Carbon Capture and Sequestration, CCS, technologies that will allow us to continue using carbon based energy sources without the adverse environmental impact of more and more green house gases.

They write that good research (funded by both Government and the private sector) is underway at Lawrence Livermore. Technologies that will allow capturing CO2 while pumping it safely into the ground in perpetuity have been developed.

A broad based effort

And the effort enjoys solid international backing. America is working with a number of countries (Norway, the UK, France, China, Canada, Australia and Japan). This means that, when the new technologies will be ready for broad based commercial applications, they will be introduced in many different markets.

This will make a real difference. Clearly, if we want to stabilize world temperatures, it is imperative that most large energy consumers participate in efforts aimed at capturing carbon.

Rapid technology transfer

This is clearly an instance in which rapid technology transfers, should be encouraged, with no restrictions whatsoever. Indeed, assuming that good CCS systems will be developed and deployed in America very soon, this will not add to much unless China, India and Europe deploy them as they become available.

With CCS in place carbon will be green

If this will work, then we will be able to keep using carbon based energy without fear of cooking the planet and everything in it. As for renewable energy, let the R&D continue. But, once we have credible CCS systems in place, wind and solar will have to judged on their economic merit. There will be no basis for them to enjoy special consideration (with tax benefits and subsidies) because they are “green”. With good CCS systems in place, even the dirtiest coal will be green.


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