Previously featured in The Hill on March 17, 2016
At a time of heightened global discussions about low-carbon energy, we should take stock of priorities. How can we secure affordable energy, a clean environment and a healthy economy for our future? In a word: Technology.
Recently Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) introduced a bill to further support just such innovation – the storage and use of carbon captured from coal and fossil fueled power plants as well as industrial facilities. The bipartisan bill already has 23 co-sponsors. A remarkable coalition of coal, oil, agricultural, and industrial companies; labor unions; researchers and environmentalists came together to support the idea.
Technology has always been the solution to deliver on our energy and environmental goals. Advanced technologies are available right now. High-efficiency low emissions (HELE) coal plants, what some call clean coal, are in broad use globally delivering major environmental improvement.
This state-of-the-art technology achieves efficiencies that translate to lower emissions with some plants delivering 25 percent less carbon dioxide than the oldest plants. When equipped with advanced controls, such plants achieve key emission rates 75 percent below the existing fleet. In short: a dramatic environmental success story.
Source: Peabody Energy1
The technology promoted by the Conaway legislation, called carbon capture and storage (CCS), could further prevent up to 90 percent of a fossil plant’s carbon dioxide emissions by storing carbon underground. In many cases CCS can be paired with enhanced oil recovery, simultaneously boosting oil production, improving energy security and reducing emissions – the very definition of a win-win.
In fact, the oft-touted Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that a global climate solution would be 140 percent more expensive without CCS. Plus, fresh ideas are emerging: the X-Prize Foundation, the same group that led the push for commercial space flight, is offering $20 million to inventors who can repurpose carbon emissions. What if we had the ability to recycle carbon into advanced building materials or low emission fuels?
Not to mention that coal remains a staple of our energy supply. The fuel is plentiful – over 110 years of coal production exist around the world – and coal is affordable and reliable. It will remain a substantial source of electricity for decades to come, even with greater use of natural gas and renewables.
Source: Peabody Energy2
We also can’t lose sight of the fact that over a billion people, one in six, still lack electricity. As the world rises from poverty, coal will remain desperately needed for energy access.
India has pledged to use advanced technologies as it develops its coal fleet. Yet if the world moved the current average global efficiency rate of coal-fueled power plants from 33 to 40 percent through greater use of high-efficiency technologies, we would achieve the equivalent environmental benefit, every year, of reducing India’s carbon dioxide emissions to zero. The eventual deployment of CCS technologies on those advanced plants would only further the environmental benefits while building on existing, reliable, infrastructure.
Source: US Energy Information Administration 3
So why aren’t we seeing more progress in and support for CCS innovation? Clearly a much more aggressive effort is needed in policy and investment.
In the months preceding the Paris climate discussions last year, U.S. Energy Secretary Moniz asked the National Coal Council to develop a report that would lay out a path to “level the playing field” for development of CCS. The secretary’s goal was to achieve policy parity between CCS and other low carbon options such as solar and wind.
That’s a tall order given that investment in CCS has been around $13 billion versus roughly $1.8 trillion for renewables since 2007. There are only 15 large-scale CCS projects in operation globally, including one in the power sector operating in Canada.
A constructive and conservative vision, which the DOE supports, would harness all of our nation’s energy resources, fossil fuels included. But like solar a decade ago, the most advanced forms of CCS still have a way to go before becoming commercially ready. Imagine where CCS could be if it received the same levels of dedicated support as renewables.
Conaway’s proposal would be a strong step to revitalizing America’s leadership advancing CCS by reforming an existing tax credit for storage. CCS has support from Congressional, environmental and fossil fuel allies. Sens. Bennett (D-Colo.) and Portman (R-Ohio) authored legislation to allow businesses to use tax-exempt private activity bonds to finance the high upfront capital costs associated with installing carbon capture equipment. A pro-CCS amendment to the Senate Energy bill garnered diverse support from Democratic environmental stalwarts like Sens. Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Franken (D-Minn.) to pro-coal Republicans like Sens. Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Capito (R-W.Va.).
These common sense reforms would boost American energy security, grow the tax base, and help commercialize low-carbon fossil fuel technologies. Instead of just saying no, environmentalists, private firms and government must roll up their sleeves and work together to drive growth and ensure a cleaner, more secure energy future.