Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Carbon capture

It's WAY too early and I have no way to judge how well this sort of technology actually works.  The idea of carbon capture seems like a downstream band-aid—you know, first create a big problem and then hope you can mitigate the worst effects.  Anyone who has read Elegant Technology knows that my favorite environmental solutions involve redesigning processes so the problems are not created in the first place.  But since we are a LONG way from those ideal solutions, who is to say that interim "bridge" technologies like this one aren't a good thing.

What is most interesting about this story (for me) is that this pilot project is being done in Norway.  The Norwegians are an historically poor people who lately have found themselves to be seriously rich.  They have lived a long time in the shadow of their much more technologically superior neighbors and had to listen to their scorn.  And the ugly thing about their new-found wealth is that it involves adding to the carbon in the atmosphere.

This project (if it works) solves a bunch of problems simultaneously.  It addresses the carbon dioxide problem (not solves—addresses).  It is as technologically sophisticated and leading edge as anything being done by the Swedes or Germans.  And it proves the Norwegians can invest their new-found oil riches in something more useful and interesting than credit default swaps.  No wonder they are so proud (see the bold-faced paragraph below.)

'Norway's Moon Landing' Massive Carbon-Capture Facility Spawns Skepticism and Hope

By Gerald Traufetter   05/11/2012

The world's largest facility for filtering carbon dioxide out of industrial emissions was inaugurated in Norway this week. While some see it as a godsend in efforts to reach environmental targets, others find the technology too dangerous and expensive.

A promise stands at the entrance: "Catching Our Future" reads the slogan Tore Amundsen hurries past.

Still, it doesn't exactly smell like a clean future here in Mongstad, on the west coast of Norway, where a sweet-and-sour odor fills the air. "That comes from the refinery over there," says Amundsen, pointing to a spitting gas flare. "After all, we're in Europe's second-largest crude-oil port here," he adds apologetically as he shuts his helmet's visor.

Amundsen is headed for a part of the stinking refinery sheltered from the wind, where two towers surrounded by a maze of pipes jut into the sky.

"This is where we're capturing the future," he says. At this moment, he is so proud that he abandons his typical Scandinavian restraint. He raves about the plant, calling it "a one-of-a-kind facility worldwide."

Amundsen is the director of the CO2 Technology Centre Mongstad (TCM). The plant will filter out 85 percent of the climate-damaging carbon dioxide from the emissions of the adjacent gas-fired power plant and refinery. After that, plans call for the CO2 to be permanently stored in gas caverns. The process, known as carbon capture and storage (CCS), has never been tested on such a large scale.

On Monday, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and European Commissioner for Energy Günther Oettinger attended the official inauguration of the new CCS plant. Stoltenberg has characterized the plant as a milestone on the road to a climate-friendly future, calling the project "Norway's moon landing."

Of course, this is a slight exaggeration. Saving the global climate from the warming effect of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is a massive task. It gushes from steel mills, cement factories and chemical plants. But the most damaging thing to the climate is mankind's thirst for cheap energy. "Climate-friendly wind and solar energy won't be enough," says Amundsen. Statistics compiled by the International Energy Agency (IEA) back his assertion: In China alone, the amount of electricity produced by burning coal has increased six-fold over the last 20 years.

At the same time, scientists note with some urgency that total greenhouse-gas emissions must be cut in half by 2050 from their 1990 level. This, they say, is the only way to stabilize the average global temperature at 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above current values. Amundsen believes that the technology in his plant can help the world solve this dilemma.

It's no accident that the CCS plant is located in Norway. There, scientists already envision a transcontinental circulation system. In their model, future pipelines could pump carbon dioxide from Central Europe to Norway's fjords, where it would help force natural gas out of underground deposits. The gas, in turn, would then be piped to gas-fired power plants in Germany. It was the appeal of this vision that prompted the Norwegian government to invest almost €1 billion ($1.3 billion) in the Mongstad test plant.

Other countries are also looking into ways to achieve an emissions-free future. One of the Persian Gulf states is currently planning to build a 700-megawatt gas-fired power plant outfitted with CCS technology. And China is investing billions in a pilot plant that will use coal to produce hydrogen, which in turn will be burned to generate electricity, thereby making it possible to capture the carbon dioxide before combustion.

But as promising as this all sounds, carbon-capture techniques are controversial, especially in Germany. Climate activists fear that energy companies merely want to use them to keep their old coal-fired plants in operation and obstruct other projects using renewable energies. Ecologists warn that the carbon dioxide could leak from underground storage sites. And politicians are afraid of citizen opposition.

A bill designed to promote CCS technology in Germany failed last year, prompting Vattenfall, the Swedish energy giant, to furiously scrap its plans for a 300-megawatt pilot power plant in the eastern state of Brandenburg. The search for permanent disposal sites has practically ground to a halt.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted an energy summit at the Chancellery last week, she mentioned CCS only once -- as a cautionary tale of how politics can torpedo climate-protection technologies.

Amundsen, the TCM's director, is undeterred by the opposition to his plant. "The realities will soon convince politicians," he says. more

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