CLIMATE CHANGE ROUNDUP: Carbon Capture Swallows Power Output

By Published On: July 31, 2009

Capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide emitted by coal power plants underground raises the cost of the electricity produced by 60 to 70 percent, a House panel heard July 28. Sequestration is unlikely to be economical for the power industry until 2020 at the earliest, predicted Greg Spitznogle, American Electric Power manager of integrated gasification combined cycle and gas plant engineering. The problem, he explained to the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Climate Change, is that capturing the carbon requires about a third of a coal plant’s power output. Another problem is that the equipment needed to capture the carbon dioxide doubles the amount of land currently used by the typical coal power plant. “Some plants can accommodate this requirement, but many plants cannot,” said Spitznogle. “Consequently, companies may be able to deploy carbon dioxide capture systems on only a portion of a plant’s output due to siting constraints.” * * * * After 12 years, an experiment focused on forest growth and climate change is coming to a close, Oak Ridge National Laboratory announced July 28. Previous studies have focused on trees absorbing carbon dioxide, but the Oak Ridge experiment gives some attention to the fate of carbon in roots and soil. Under a Department of Energy-sponsored free air carbon dioxide enrichment experiment, known as FACE, researchers planted three plots of sweetgum trees as control sites and two plots of sweetgums that were exposed to increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere at 550 parts per million. That’s the concentration projected to occur in about 2050 if current trends continue. Researchers are beginning to analyze the trees, sifting through the soil to measure the amount of fine roots and to examine them further. This month, four to five trees per plot are being cut down for analysis. Throughout the experiment, researchers have measured the circumference and height, making projections about the weight of the trees, hypothesizing that increased carbon would lead to increased growth and thus a comparably higher mass. Now, researchers actually can weigh the trees and compare the estimates to actual masses. When considering how the forest stores carbon, trees often are assumed to store the most for the longest. However, soil lives longer than trees, so some researchers see it as a more obvious resource for storing carbon compared to wood. Even before the experiment officially ended, one hypothesis was confirmed when researchers saw that an increase in carbon dioxide leads to an increase in roots growing deeper into the ground. Ultimately, the results that come from comparing the control sites with the elevated carbon dioxide sites are aimed at helping improve the computer models used to project future climate, according to the lab. * * * * To link or not to link? That was the question the California Air Resources Board staff took up at a July 27 workshop on how to go about meshing the state’s developing carbon cap-and-trade program with other carbon trading markets. The two-hour meeting was long on questions, from whether linkage should be unilateral, bilateral, multi-lateral, or indirect to whether the state program should be linked only to national carbon markets or also to international markets in Europe and Australia or even foreign sub-national markets, such as one in New South Wales. However, while there were many questions, there were few answers from staff members, who admitted that pending federal legislation could soon make the matter moot. The Air Board is developing a cap-and-trade program, with the goal of putting it into effect in 2012. The workshop came as one in a continuing series of meetings aimed at gathering public opinion about how to design the program. * * * * Is cocktail party chatter about to make public policy history again? In 1974, it was economist Arthur Laffer who drew a curve on a cocktail napkin purporting to show that tax cuts could actually increase tax revenue by promoting economic growth. Dubbed the Laffer curve, the cocktail napkin became the symbol for an era of “supply side economics” Ronald Reagan ushered forth when he became President in 1981. Now the George C. Marshall Institute--dedicated to “science for better public policy”--wants to make a little history through cocktail party wit and wisdom. To that end, this week, the Institute released its handy pamphlet, The Cocktail Conversation Guide to Global Warming. It lacks the elegance of the Laffer curve, but with the weather hot, the Institute knows that every cocktail party conversation eventually may get around to global warming. So just what do you say? The guide promises “succinct replies” when the subject is broached. The Institute’s bottom line? “Natural sources of climatic change are poorly understood and inadequately measured. Until science better understands natural climate change, large uncertainties will remain regarding what part of past, current, and future climate change is due to human activities. Until science offers clearer answers to those questions, we are best served by actions to mitigate emissions without sacrificing energy use and by learning how to adapt to changing environmental conditions.” Needless to say, the Institute wants to help you get the party started with your very own “Party Pak.” It includes 15 cocktail guides, a pack of cocktail napkins, and matching swizzle sticks. Cheers! **** Californians’ support for the state’s climate protection law, AB 32, has slipped, shows a poll the Public Policy Institute of California issued July 29. While most of those polled said that global warming is a threat--47 percent “very” serious and 28 percent “somewhat” serious--the percentage of residents who categorize the threat as very serious declined over the past two years from 54 percent in 2007 to 52 percent in 2008 to 47 percent today. Residents are divided over whether the state government should take action to reduce emissions right away, with 48 percent backing immediate action. Those saying “wait” until the economy and state budget situation improve totaled 46 percent. In July 2008, when the plan to implement AB 32 was being discussed, 57 percent said the government should adopt it right away, compared to 36 percent who said they would rather wait. “Californians clearly support policies to improve the environment,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the institute. “But in the current economic climate their support has dropped a notch.” Baldassare also noted the partisan rancor over climate change in Congress--where the House of Representatives has passed the first federal global warming bill--may affect attitudes in the state. “On environmental issues where we saw more consensus in California, we’re now seeing more partisanship, and that may reflect the national debate,” he said.

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