Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Stop digging

I should probably comment on our PM's so-called carbon policy. Basically, it's probably doomed. Let's start with this: carbon capture and sequestration, the lynchpin of the Tory plan, is a blind alley. There is no real reason to believe that emitting carbon, capturing it, and storing it is ever going to be cheaper than not emitting carbon in the first place. Let's start by taking IGCC coal plants -- ones that don't capture and sequester. Only capital costs for these plants have been going through the roof, to the point now where coal, once the "cheap" fuel, is now more expensive than wind or natural gas. In West Virginia -- coal country if there ever was -- the estimate for this "cleaner" coal power comes to a whopping $3,500/kW of power, which is closing in on nuclear pricing. Adding a carbon tax or a requirement for sequestration is obviously going to add to these costs.

Interestingly, the earliest beneficiaries of the death of coal will probably be natural gas plants. Most of the gas plants we've built in the last decades are peaking plants, meaning that they only run for a few hours a day. But there's no physical reason why they couldn't be run longer as the economics become more favourable: before we build a single new nuclear plant (or wind turbine, or solar plant) we'll be cleaning the air by putting coal out of business and running gas plants longer. Of course, we'll be paying more money if we burn coal or not, so let's at least get the clean air, right?

The other point is that Canada's natural gas industry is facing a rapid decline in the next few years, so that increased use of natural gas will mean increased reliance on imports -- probably, in this case, liquid natural gas imports from Russia or Qatar. But the energy balance of LNG is so bad that it's effectively as CO2-intense as coal, or worse.

So: coal is becoming too expensive to use, natural gas is about as bad (expensive and carbon-intense) and oil just hit $109/barrel. The only sensible option is to just stop using carbon fuels.

Instead, our government is handing out hundreds of millions of dollars to coal and oil companies in the hopes of creating a continent-spanning network of CO2 pipelines, all of which will need to be far more reliable than our current gas infrastructure if they're going to be really effective from an environmental standpoint.

It's actually emblematic of the choices presented by Thomas Homer-Dixon (channeling Joseph Tainter) in The Upside of Down: societies can choose to invest energy/time in complex solutions, until the complexity starts to overwhelm them, or at a certain point they can invest in simplicity, retrench, and invest in less failure-prone, less complex solutions instead. Oddly, Homer-Dixon supports carbon capture technologies, which makes me wonder if he's read his own book. Carbon sequestration seems, to me, to be a classic example of an investment that will a) not pay the kinds of dividends we need, b) be extremely complex relative to the alternatives, and c) not be resilient the way the 21st century will need technology to be.

Any dollar spent on sequestration will be one dollar less spent on renewables and efficiency. And in a watt-for-watt comparison, sequestered carbon is probably cheating us out of several more dollars worth of carbon-free energy. Why we would make that choice is beyond me, but hey, it's the Canadian government.


Anonymous said...

There is no real reason to believe that emitting carbon, capturing it, and storing it is ever going to be cheaper than not emitting carbon in the first place.

Maybe in Canada you folks have some crazy way of legislating your economic policy, but here in the US something as banal as a negative cost-benefit analysis is never going to stand in the way of stupid plans like this.

More specifically - the hidden "benefits" have to be tallied in to the total due to the perverse nature of our democracy. While it may be true that it is cheaper to no produce carbon in the first place, it is probably also true that the more expensive carbon sequestration plans will generate more jobs and money for interests who pull the legislators' strings.

Coal companies love it because it gives them a place to sell coal. Labor unions that support coal miners love it because it means more jobs. And that means that in the US "both sides" will be in favor of it - because in the US there are only two sides to any question and if "both sides" agree then anyone who objects is on the fringe. (That's what we get for not having a functional Green party).

Democracy is not a great vehicle for doing what is right - it's great at doing what's popular. And carbon sequestration is certainly popular with the right people - and not unpopular enough to block it. Perhaps Canada doesn't have these problems - but I think to some degree they're inherent to democracies. (Though the fact that you guys have a Parliamentary system might mean that there's some hope that at least SOMEONE will be speaking up against the obvious downsides.)


Adam said...

The problem with global climate change is the whole gloabl thing. If Canada transitions off coal, that would provide a small downward pressure on its price, and cause others to just buy more coal and burn it anyway. The problem of saving a few dollars on power generation is that we then go spend it on something else that's wasteful (imported food/goods, larger cars/roads, etc).

There are two ways to stop CO2 levels (and other pollution) from going up due to the burning of fossil fuels, at least as I see it:

1. Leave the fuels (coal, oil, gas) in the ground and don't burn them at all.

2. Find a way to remove the CO2 from the atmosphere (or oceans) and keep it "sequestered" somewhere.

I see sequestration as a complete necessity, even if it's currently an almost nonexistent technology and costs far too much energy to do, because there is absolutely no indication that most nations will forgo using the most concentrated usable energy on the planet (fossil fuels). For large scale carbon capture, it might take more energy than we gained putting in in the air and oceans on the first place, so suffice it to say I'm not encouraged.

The best reason to promote alternative energies, to me, is that they are almost necessarily local, and therefore areas can become less reliant on the upkeep of the power grid everywhere else. In a few decades, being able to keep the phones/lights in local areas (be they countries, provinces, or counties) will likely be crucially important.

Anonymous said...

I've seen estimates for the final cost of invading and occupying Iraq ranging from 2 trillion to 7 trillion. I wonder just how far 2-7 trillion dollars would have gone in creating the technology and infrastructure in order to start to move away from fossil fuels.

It would be a lot of wind turbines and solar plants. Both of which could have used surplus energy to produced and stored hydrogen for use when the wind wasn't blowing or it was night.

With such infrastructure in place we would also be one step closer to being able to use hydrogen for transportation since we would have a ready source of it.