Carbon Capture and Storage: A Solution?

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is constantly in the news these days. A Google search on that phrase returns 1.2 million hits. There are cheerleaders and detractors on both sides of the technology, many with very strong opinions.

A very quick primer on CCS:
Carbon capture and storage is a technology--still in its infancy--that can capture CO2 emissions at the source (typically a power plant). It captures these emissions, liquidizes the CO2 and stores it in underground formations. Usually the underground storage is the same as where oil and gas has been extracted , which supporters argue will be able to store the CO2 for millenia. Wikipedia does a pretty good job of explaining it.

The point of CCS is to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with burning fossil fuels by capturing them. Other major strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions include: reducing the need for energy in the first place (efficiency and conservation); replacing fossil fuels with other sources of energy (e.g., biofuels, renewables, nuclear), and biological sequestration (e.g., forests).

There are currently no commercial-sized CCS power plants in operation anywhere in the world, and critics also point out that the investments in CCS would have to be enormous to scale it up enough to be effective. However, I am in favor of continuing to invest in CCS; here's why.

As I opined in my post on nuclear power, climate change is happening way faster than scientists expected just a few years ago. The challenge is enormous, and our response to date has been insufficient to the challenge. At this point in time we need to go down every pathway, trying every strategy and investing in all the possibilities. We do not have time to scratch our heads over a perfect response to climate change; we need to do it all. On every front: renewables, efficiency, international agreements, alternative fuels, etc., we are coming up short compared to what is required to slow down and reverse the dangerous buildup of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere (I like the Climate Progress blog for the role it plays in educating about the severity of the climate crisis).

I do not believe that CCS should be used as an excuse to continue burning as much coal as we do now (or even more as the coal industry would like us to accept). Just the opposite; I believe we need to slow down and eventually stop the burning of coal. CCS needs to be developed as a solution to the main problem--not an excuse for not doing other things. On this point, I am closely aligned with the Union of Concerned Scientists viewpoint as outlined in this report.

I very much like the idea of developing CCS as a way to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. When the technology is developed, it could be applied to biomass power plants (sometimes referred to as Bio-Energy CCS or BECCS). The CO2 captured would then result in a net reduction in CO2 from our atmosphere, essentially carbon negative (first the trees or plants remove the CO2 as they grow, then we capture that and store it away when we combust it for energy). That's something we have to do if we believe, as I do, that we already have too much in our atmosphere. Just slowing and stopping greenhouse gas emissions will not be enough; we also have to go backwards and reduce the 200-plus-year buildup of them.

So that's why I support CCS. If the fossil fuel industry can be used to help us develop the technology so that we can deploy it later in ways to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere, then I want it--and we need it--to happen.

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