Could carbon capture and storage keep the lights on in a carbon-constrained future?

by Marlo Lewis on April 2, 2009

in Blog

Only if the costs decline dramatically, a recent Congressional Research Service report suggests, as I discuss here. Currently, the costs of carbon capture and storage (CCS) are too high to justify continuing investment in coal-based power–the source of 50% of U.S. electricity–under increasingly stringent caps or taxes on CO2 emissions.

In addition, the storage component of a CCS system must be very nearly leak proof or it will flunk federal environmental impact assessments. As Cal Tech chemist Nathan Lewis observes, “The collective leak rates of the reservoirs must be significantly lower than 1%, sustained over a century-to-millennium time-scale. Otherwise, after 50 to 100 years of sequestration, the yearly emissions will be comparable to the emission levels that were supposed to be mitigated in the first place.”

Finally, even if economical and leak-proof, CCS must overcome the NIMBY forces who seem bent on blocking any and all energy projects, from wind farms to desert solar concentrator arrays. According to an MIT report (see p. ix), the pipeline network required to transport all the CO2 from U.S. coal power plants to underground storage sites would rival the U.S. oil or natural gas pipeline networks in size. 

So, can CCS keep the lights on in a carbon-constrained future? Only if three conditions are met: costs fall dramatically, the storage sites are virtually leak proof, and NIMBYs get out of the way.

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