The blind alley of more coal
Thomas Homer-Dixon, whose book I adore, has written an op-ed in The Globe and Mail arguing in favor of large government investments in carbon capture and sequestration technology. His advocacy of CCS has long confused me — my reading of his book suggested (to me, anyway) that large-scale CCS was precisely the kind of technology we should avoid like the plague.
To recap: Homer-Dixon builds on the work of Joseph Tainter, who argues that societies respond to pressures and challenges by investing in complexity. But these investments come with increasing costs as time goes on, until society finds itself investing more in complexity than the challenge/pressure actually costs. In Tainter’s example of the Roman Empire, it eventually became more expensive to run the Empire than it was worth to the local peasant, whose taxes had gone nowhere but up for the previous century, so the peasants didn’t put up much of a fight when the Goths came through. Paying tribute to the barbarian was less of a burden than paying taxes to Rome, so the Empire imploded — not because the Empire was militarily weak, but because people had been living in a system of negative returns.
Homer-Dixon’s book argues that when we start getting to negative returns on increasing complexity, the proper response is new, more resilient systems, less about “efficiency” than resilience, withstanding the inevitable shocks that face any system.
We are at a pretty crucial decision point, or indeed past it: Do we keep investing in fossil fuels and the systems required to sustain them, or do we invest in the more resilient energy system of the future? Prof. Homer-Dixon and I agree that the grid of the future should be more renewable and resilient, but he argues in his op-ed that the scale of the climate crisis means we need to be using CCS now. But the two futures are not compatible, and I think we need to understand some pretty fundamental flaws with industrial CCS:
- CCS will always deliver less energy to the consumer per pound of coal burned. The act of capturing and sequestering carbon is, by its very nature, going to require energy. (We are doing work, after all.) This energy will itself certainly come from fossil-fueled plants, meaning that any CCS plant will effectively be burning more coal to deliver the same amount of energy than its non-sequestering counterpart.
- CCS will almost certainly be paired to large, centralized generators to achieve the required economies of scale. This will prejudice economic and political decisions away from generation and grid technologies that would build the resilient, renewable grid.
- Any underground caverns used for CCS could also, arguably, be used for compressed-air energy storage. But if the whole point is to “never” let that CO2 back in to the atmosphere, you obviously can’t do both at the same time. There is a large but finite number of these underground basins — so, in some places, of course CCS will come at the expense of energy storage, one of the key developments necessary for the renewable future. (Bonus: compressed-air energy storage systems actually exist, and have for decades.)
- So far, almost all of the existing CCS projects have been explicitly designed to increase the level of fossil-fuel production — usually natural gas fields past their prime.
Add them up and 1, 2, 3 and 4 mean that large-scale investment in CCS will, at the very least, crowd out investment in renewables, and in the worst-case scenario actually further humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels — the exact opposite of what we should be doing. Even if we could wave our wand tomorrow and make all coal-burning plants everywhere carbon-sequestering, the simple fact of point No. 1 means the net effect would be a dramatic increase in our coal consumption. How is that a step in the right direction? And even if you think it is, do you think the families of Appalachia would agree with you?
When you add into the equation the declining costs of renewables, the rapidly-expanding costs of fossil fuels (excluding the environmental costs), and the fact that these two choices are incompatible with each other, I think CCS is exactly the kind of negative-returns investment in complexity that we can no longer afford. We will get less energy, make the future even dimmer for renewables, and potentially worsen our long-term problems by further ensconcing the fossil fuel industries at the center of our universe. And for what? Given the fate of FutureGen, whose price tag exploded to the point that even the Bush administration pulled the plug, we can say one thing for sure: not emitting carbon in the first place is almost always and everywhere going to be cheaper than trying to bury the evidence of our crime. So why bother? Homer-Dixon writes:
Even holding greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to double their pre-industrial level — a limit that still risks severe climate disruption — will require reducing worldwide emissions about 80 per cent below their business-as-usual level by 2050. Such a huge cut, even over 40 years, will require a staggering transformation of the global energy system.
Yet for the foreseeable future, modern societies and their industries will depend on centralized sources of high-reliability power to supply a large fraction of their energy. Nuclear reactors and coal-fired plants with CCS are arguably the only two methods of generating massive quantities of reliable low-carbon power using today’s technologies. We can probably afford to reject one of these two options and still cut emissions quickly. But if we reject both, the problem gets vastly tougher and perhaps impossible. Why fight with one hand tied behind our back?
First off, if we start by assuming that we’ll need large, centralized stations in the future, then of course we’ve already prejudiced any debate in favor of coal and nuclear. Secondly, I’m not sure under what criteria CCS counts as “today’s technologies” but solar, wind, and other renewables do not. Given that there’s not a single existing and commercially-operating CCS power plant but the installed capacity of wind turbines is now greater than 90,000 mW, and some countries get more than 30 percent of their electricity from wind, I find the argument that these technologies cannot scale to be puzzling indeed. Spain’s installed wind capacity grew by an order of magnitude in just seven years, and it is now larger than the Spanish nuclear sector.
But say it were true: the proper role of public policy in cases like this is to create the conditions necessary for technology to scale quickly. Adam Browning brought up the example of the integrated circuit a while back, and it’s worth asking how successful Texas Instruments would have been if it hadn’t invented the IC at precisely the time the U.S. government was building both the Minuteman missile and the Apollo launch vehicles. And Spain, and other countries with large and growing wind sectors, have found success due to well-executed policies that have allowed those industries to scale up quickly.
Prof. Homer-Dixon argues that there’s green hypocrisy at work here: we support subsidies for renewables but not for CCS. That would be hypocrisy, except the argument is (usually) not over what the proper tools for policymakers are: the argument is what it has always been, an argument over the proper goals.
I want to stress that I’m pretty sure Prof. Homer-Dixon and I agree on the long-term vision: an energy system powered by renewables, with a substantial amount of energy storage, can not only be cleaner and better but also more resilient. Our disagreement is on what could only be a generations-long detour in to the blind alley of CCS technology, when the proper objective should be to aim for the system that we actually want.