U.S. should lead on carbon capture technology

Worldwide, the use of fossil fuels is growing rapidly, despite concerns about global warming


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This might come as unwelcome news, but fossil fuels are more important than ever in the United States and globally. U.S. gasoline consumption was at an all-time high last month. In New England, fossil fuels, primarily natural gas, supply more than half of the electricity and will remain essential for many years ahead.

Worldwide, the use of coal, oil and natural gas is growing rapidly, despite concerns about global warming. Coal use is growing fastest. In fact, while the U.S. is in the midst of a shift toward greater use of natural gas for electricity generation, much of the rest of the world is in the midst of a coal boom.

Since 2000, construction of coal-fired power plants in Asia has soared. Despite much wishful thinking to the contrary, a report from three prominent environmental groups on coal’s future shows that 1,500 new coal plants are in the construction pipeline, many of them already being built in economically developing countries like China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

No matter how you cut it, there will be no progress in the fight against climate change without development of technologies that make fossil fuels less polluting. Reducing carbon emissions globally is going to require some serious research and development. We need cheaper and more reliable solar and wind power, technology for large-scale energy storage, advanced nuclear power and great leaps forward in carbon capture and sequestration systems.

 

CCS, which literally captures carbon emissions from power plants for storage deep underground, is essential. While
CCS research and the demonstration of new technologies has been underfunded in recent years, something important has happened to suggest that may be changing.

A New England company, FuelCell Energy, based in Danbury, Conn., just got major backing from ExxonMobil to advance an innovative approach to CCS that aims to overcome one of the technology’s primary hurdles.

Using CCS with an existing coal or natural gas power plant currently requires a lot of energy, reducing the efficiency of the plant and the amount of power it can sell to consumers. CCS not only adds significant costs to the operation of the plant but treats the extracted carbon as a waste product.

FuelCell Energy takes a radically different approach. CCS is combined with fuel cells – devices that use chemical reactions to generate electricity. Instead of being discarded as waste, carbon emissions are converted into a fuel for use in generating more power.

This approach not only captures as much as 90 percent of the carbon
emitted from a power plant but it’s far more economical than current CCS technology.

Until now, the deployment of CCS technology has required significant government financing. But the goal of the ExxonMobil and FuelCell Energy collaboration is to come up with a process that is market-competitive, which is the key to widespread adoption. It’s going to take innovative technologies like this one to make a real difference in the climate battle.

Reducing emissions in the U.S. through expensive government support of renewables or costly regulation is not a replicable model for developing nations. They need low-cost, technological solutions to help them cut emissions while meeting surging electricity demand. So U.S. leadership in advancing CCS technology should be a high priority.

Currently government funding for CCS research and development falls considerably short of what’s needed. Far more can and should be done to achieve needed breakthroughs. While advances in wind and solar power is promising, even reason for optimism, it’s shortsighted to construct an energy and climate strategy that ignores the continued importance of fossil fuels.

V.K. Mathur is professor emeritus in the UNH Department of Chemical Engineering.

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