Monday, December 3, 2012

Carbon Capture and Storage Viability?

I had an argument with my friend over the viability of carbon capture and storage (CCS) at a dinner party Saturday night. To avoid public humiliation we'll give my friend the fake name Thor because nobody could really have that name. Thor has a phD in Chemistry. He's sensible and intelligent but he took the position that CCS is a farce and I immediately took the position that its only a few dollars a GJ and the only reason we aren't seeing it is cost. Thor is right and I am wrong but Thor is still wrong and I am still right because if I wasn't I'd have lost the argument. The biggest hurdle we all face in this battle and many others is the fact that reality is complex. So complicated is the world that we need to defer to scientists and engineers who make studying these things their life's work. Thor dismissed Carbon Capture and Storage as a farce based on what a smart guy he knows said. And I was too quick to take offense to that and react with my claim that the only reason we aren't capturing carbon is cost. Truth is I don't know much about CCS. Turns out after only 15 minutes of research on my part Sunday morning that there's a little truth to what Thor was saying and there's a lot of truth to what I was saying. Or maybe its the other way around? Its not straightforward. There are no published viability numbers and that means the numbers aren't pretty. I was quite wrong to think it was just a matter of a couple of dollars per GJ stopping us from localized CCS and an electric car future full of easy transportation solutions. Thor was also wrong that CCS isn't part of the broad base of solutions that will be needed moving forward. Its real. It works sometimes in certain situations and the mitigation effects can be fantastic but not anywhere and everywhere. You need to be careful where you store the CO2 and how. The viability of the site itself is crucial to the success of projects case by case. Just do your own search on carbon capture viability, cost, economics, whatever and you'll soon see that this is a huge field. Oil companies are involved. The Weyburn oil fields in Saskatchewan are semi depleted so to extract more oil (enhanced oil recovery) Cenovus have started injecting CO2 and it has greatly enhanced oil production. They are actually piping CO2 from the US to this facility and buying the CO2. Storing it in exhausted oil fields is one of the safest and easiest methods it turns out and there is no cost in this one case because it enhances oil production. There are many other examples of major investments in CCS going on worldwide. The ocean storage option has to be done at low depths (pressure resistance to absorption) and there are lots of issues. In some schemes CO2 leakage and re-emission is a problem that is being studied and has been for 20 years. 1700 people were asphixiated in Cameroon in 1986 when naturally sequestered CO2 rose up from a lake after a volcanic event. Mechanical sequestering does cost energy. One case I just read about said sequestering reduced overall capacity of one coal plant 25%. That doesn't make the coal plant useless. That does raise the cost and reduce the capacity. That was my point in our little debate. There is a cost associated with carbon capture and few are going to pay that cost if they don't have to. The lack of a carbon cost or proper regulation greatly restricts adoption of all things clean-tech. How can we compete against free?

Friday, March 23, 2012

CO2 from natural gas is not 50% compared to coal

RE:March 23 "Gas industry tackles issues on "fracking" Financial Post

Travis Davies of CAPP states that natural gas burns 50% cleaner than coal. What do we mean by cleaner? The reference is to carbon emissions. The article goes on to say ... AND natural gas emits less nitrous oxides and sulphurous oxides. Perhaps if the SO's and the NO's are included with the carbon and the shorter term pollutive effects are combined with the longer term CO2 effects them somehow we could say the overall effect of burning natural gas vs coal is 50% cleaner but this is all very misleading. There's more to it than just burning. Yes natural gas burns cleaner in terms of pollutants that exist in the atmosphere for less than 2 years but the reference and the bigger concern is the CO2. Natural gas is not 50% less carbon intense than coal even just in terms of burning it. The number is much higher and depends on the usage. Natural gas doesn't burn as hot so more energy from natural gas is needed to produce electricity compared to coal for example. When natural gas is converted to liquid natural gas and transported the carbon footprint jumps even further. The article talks about the lack of regulation in the natural gas extraction industry. Its the lack of enforced regulations that lead to sloppy practices where methane leaks from well heads especially between the fracking and extraction processes and some studies have indicated the possibility that when this effect is included in equivalent CO2 terms with transportation effects never mind LNG compression that in fact the case can be made that natural gas from fracking is no less carbon intense than coal. The loosely used fraction of 50% is very irresponsible. Its really a key number because if we truly could reduce carbon emissions by 50% using natural gas vs coal then we'd be very motivated to move forward in a mad rush to exploit this resource...sort of like we are in the western provinces with no pressure to enforce or improve regulations. If low cost natural gas is going to delay the movement toward a renewable energy future then let's at least stop pretending that the need for monitoring and enforceable regulations in this industry are not critical. You don't have to leak much methane from a wellhead before you negate all the equivalent CO2 benefits of natural gas vs coal or oil sands oil.

OIl and Gas subsidies do so exist!

March 23, 2012
Re: Oil and gas industry does not receive federal subsidies by Tom Huffaker of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

I checked the facts in this article and found that the Greenpeace sponsored report being dis-credited is in fact a report on the economic effect of subsidies not on the existence of subsidies. 63 subsidies in total in the form of tax breaks and reduced royalties are mostly intended to increase exploration and development . The Canadian federal gov't provided 1.38 billion and provinces shared the balance of the total of 2.84 billion last year. There is no disputing these facts in either competing report. The study Mr Huffaker quotes that supposedly debunks the Greenpeace sponsored report argues the effect of subsidies not the existence of the subsidies. The CAPP is consistently guilty of mis-stating the facts about the effects of our continued overusage of fossil fuels and why? There is no threat from renewables, not with natural gas prices at all time lows. If the fossil fuel industries truly want to be more transparent they first need to stop pretending that the issues don't exist. Its not their fault we're burning up the planet. Its a collective problem and we need to work together to right the ship for the next generations. Let's stop pretending oil and gas exploration isn't subsidized by government in an attempt to keep fossil fuel costs down so we can all enjoy the benefits of burning up the planet today in exchange for frying our children tomorrow!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Low Cost Natural Gas

The following piece was actually published in a newspaper. I'm learning to tone down the rhetoric.

FP Letters: ‘Low cost energy is Achilles’ heel of sustainability movement’

Special to Financial Post Feb 14, 2012 – 11:20 AM ET

Low electricity prices and extremely low natural gas prices in Canada mean that the majority of even the most viable clean tech solutions available to Canadians are not very attractive economically. In BC for example, a standard 6 square meter solar hot water heating appliance with 100 gallons of storage for a typical home costs 70 to 100 times more than the energy it is expected to deliver annually in natural gas dollars. There’s no better way to reduce hot water energy use in the home aside from reducing hot water use through conservation.

It’s not easy to find a sustainable appetite for many clean tech solutions like this. The low cost of energy is the Achilles’ heel of the sustainability movement.

The mistake has always been to try to do too much too soon. Converting Canada’s electricity grid to 100% renewable is a lofty goal that feels like a great idea but we have barely begun applying cost effective clean tech solutions appropriately. By starting the process aiming at 100% renewable electricity we automatically force ourselves into the most expensive solutions.

Instead we need to create a political climate where the financial incentive to pursue clean-tech initiatives exists starting with the most cost effective. Then we need to support development efforts along with demonstrating and quantifying competing technologies. As an example consider that only 2% of all public pools are solar heated yet this is one of the most proven and cost effective solar energy schemes available. In so many ways we have not yet begun. The major reason we have yet to begin is the low cost of fossil fuel and electricity in Canada. When we jump too quickly toward a bold far reaching solution we miss out on the low hanging fruit like solar swimming pool heating.

Ontario’s FIT for PV (photovoltaics) systems is a big success. Ontario Hydro pays $0.80/kwhr for electricity generated with PV. Electricity consumed normally costs $0.08/kwhr. This ten fold cost imbalance on the shoulders of ratepayers and taxpayers indirectly creates an economic climate where the energy from a PV system covers the mortgaged capital cost of the installation. It’s a wonderful program and a big success but compared to the cheap electricity its quite a costly endeavor.

Ontario slipped the program through the same way BC established a small carbon tax but these were challenging political tasks and now that we have an ongoing recession, there is even less appetite for this kind of energy policy elsewhere in the country.

In fact BC’s new energy policy relieves BC Hydro of the requirement to be self sufficient. Through simple regulation premier Christy Clark has assured British Columbians of lower cost electricity and ensured more jobs in the fracking and LNG industries. More natural gas to Asia does mean less coal burned globally but this works against Canada’s own goals toward energy sustainability. The focus politically is on jobs and the economy and a sustainable energy policy is taking its usual seat at the back of the bus.

The obvious first step is to level the playing field somewhat by addressing the fact that fossil fuels have the environment as a free dumping ground for their pollutants. A carbon tax would be very helpful of course and many have tried including Stephan Dion, leader of the federal liberal party, just before his political demise.

A far easier sell to the public would be the removal of subsidies for oil and gas exploration. This would create volatility in the energy marketplace. Energy price volatility is what the sustainability movement needs. Clean tech solutions are not volatile. They are an insurance policy against volatility. When a home is built sustainably it is sustainable for 100 years and conversely if it is built without sustainability in mind, its likely to stay that way for 100 years.

When we include some longer term thinking with some volatility we have a formula for a much quicker uptake of all things clean tech. Energy price volatility creates enormous long term financial incentive for a sustainable building approach. The reason Germany has a stronger clean tech industry is their electricity is ten times more expensive. Financial reality has provided the necessary motivation for energy consciousness and a culture of sustainability. A carbon tax bringing our electricity costs up to theirs would not go over well here. The risk that energy prices could go much higher could serve the same purpose.

We all want to act sustainably but with gasoline less expensive than bottled water, how can we blame anyone for drinking it up. Step one is to recognize the realities of the marketplace and come up with a realistic approach to energy policy that factors in the environment as well as our collective sustainability goals. We could all do our part by trying to get past the notion that the luxury of cheap energy is somehow a birthright of all Canadians. Then it would be OK for politicians to resist the oil and gas company lobbyists who fund politics in Canada in exchange for their subsidies. Without oil and gas exploration subsidies the resultant energy price volatility would do as much for the clean tech industry as energy prices that actually reflected their effects on the planet.

Ken Wright is President of Burnaby, BC-based Hot Sun Industries Ltd, a manufacturer of solar thermal technology

Posted in: Energy, Your Energy Tags: clean energy, Hot Sun Industries, Ken Wright