With oil and coal still on track to provide most of our future energy needs — especially in fast-developing countries like China and India — many see carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology as a vital strategy for keeping the economy humming without choking the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.
Britain’s Lord Nicholas Stern, author of the influential 2006 Stern report on the economics of climate change, asserts there is no way we can achieve the necessary carbon reduction goals without CCS. More renewable energy, improved efficiency and clean technologies are also part of the solution, he says. But without carbon capture and storage, they won’t be enough to get us where we need to be.
“We need everything here,” he said earlier this month during a meeting of the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute (GCCSI).
In fact, the technologies for capturing carbon dioxide out of power plant emissions and sequestering the gas in reservoirs deep underground, already exist. We know how to do it. The problem is, we haven’t yet found a way to do it in an energy-efficient or cost-effective manner. And until we do, CCS won’t be part of the climate solution envisioned by those like Lord Stern.
Just this week, Australian scientist and environmentalist Tim Flannery stated publicly that he no longer believes CCS is the answer to combating rising carbon emissions. He said he experienced his change of heart after speaking with researchers who are actually working on carbon capture and storage trials.
“Their argument was that it is economically unfeasible, and if it isn’t happening now it simply is not going to happen in the future,” Flannery said in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald.
US engineers Christine Ehlig-Economides Michael J. Economides reached a similar conclusion in a paper published last month in the Journal of Petroleum Science and Engineering. Their research indicates that underground geologic reservoirs would have to be five to 20 times larger than previously estimated to store any volume of liquid or supercritical (behaving partly as a gas, partly as a liquid) carbon dioxide.
That limitation, they wrote, “renders geologic sequestration of CO2 a profoundly non-feasible option for the management of CO2 emissions.”
So what is CCS: false hope or only hope? That question needs to be answered … and soon.
Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are fast-tracking research into metal-organic frameworks, a recently discovered group of materials with unique structural properties. The crystals pack a huge amount of surface area into a very small space — stretched out, a sample the size of a sugar cube could cover an American football field — which gives them the potential to act as “sponges” for a variety of different molecules.
A research team led by Berkeley Lab chemist Jeffrey Long aims to use robots to automate the process for creating different types of metal-organic frameworks in hopes of discovering one that can efficiently and cost-effectively soak up carbon dioxide. The team’s goal is to develop the right material in just three years, if the lab is successful in its quest to win a $3.6 million grant from the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).
Long says he hopes to find a material that can absorb carbon dioxide without decreasing a power plant’s energy output too much. Current carbon capture strategies reduce output by around 30 per cent. The Berkeley Lab team’s goal is to bring that down to 10 per cent.
The meters are also designed to let the region’s electricity provider eventually manage demand response and efficiency.
“Today, everything changes in terms of the future of smart grid communications, as TNMP’s decision completely validates using public wireless networks for residential smart metering,” said Stephen Johnston, SmartSynch’s CEO. “Commercial wireless carriers now realise the growth opportunity, and have radically reduced their pricing to make our solutions more cost effective than mesh network solutions.”
The $123 million smart meter project is part of a statewide effort to better match power supply and demand, and to make it possible to support dynamic pricing in which energy costs can be reduced when demand is lowest.
TNMP first tested SmartSynch’s meters with a pilot deployment of 10,000 units last year. The company reported that the meters enabled it to achieve a 99.96 per cent meter read rate across the test region. They also allowed the utility to remotely connect or disconnect electric service and receive real-time alerts to power problems.
“In the last 12 months, we have consistently achieved a near-perfect, uninterrupted read rate regardless of where the SmartSynch SmartMeter units were deployed,” said Neal Walker, vice president of Texas operations for TNMP.
TNMP adds the technology will help reduce work order costs and lower its carbon footprint as fewer trucks will be needed to go out on service calls.
Homeowners with the meters will be able to monitor and control their energy use via both the internet and in-home devices.
The latest prediction for where the world is heading in terms of energy use doesn’t exactly paint a rosy picture. But future reality is probably even less rosy than the outlook indicates, as it seems to be based on a few wildly optimistic assumptions.
The US Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) “International Energy Outlook 2010″ predicts that total world energy use will rise 49 per cent between 2007 and 2035, assuming no changes in today’s laws and policies (that’s a big assumption right there). That means that — besides all the other types of energy sources that will have to grow — liquid fuels production (both conventional crude oil and unconventional fuels like oil sands and biofuels) will need to increase from 86.1 million barrels per day in 2007 to a whopping 110.6 million barrels per day in 2035.
The EIA outlook predicts a good portion of that increased production will come from Saudi Arabia, which it says will increase its output from just over 10 million barrels per day in 2007 to around 15 million barrels per day by 2035.
Not bloody likely.
For those of you who haven’t yet read oil industry expert Matthew Simmons brilliant 2005 book, “Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy,” let us quote:
“The original owners of Aramco were just as certain as the 1970s began that Saudi Arabia could easily produce 20 to 25 million barrels a day by the mid-1980s as the current owners and the International Energy Agency are about their outlook for the early twenty-first century. It took almost a decade of steadily increasing saltwater incursion and dropping reservoir pressures to lower this fantasy level for the original Aramco owners to about 10 to 12 million barrels a day, to be sustained only until the end of the twentieth century. Then, assuming no massive oil discoveries were made, twilight would begin as these great fields embarked on irreversible decline.”
That would pose a big problem for the global economy, as even the EIA report doesn’t predict renewable energy will be able to grow fast enough to fill the gap.
“Renewables are the fastest-growing source of world energy supply, but fossil fuels are still set to meet more than three-fourths of total energy needs in 2035 assuming current policies are unchanged,” said Richard Newell, the agency’s administrator.
The EIA outlook also underscores another reason that today’s policies must change: under the business-as-usual scenario, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are set to increase from 29.7 billion metric tonnes in 2007 to 42.4 billion by 2035. What that could mean for the climate isn’t something the EIA addresses, but rest assured the results wouldn’t be pretty. And all the energy efficiency measures currently under way won’t help.
“(P)olicymakers are most actively concerned with the energy intensity of the economy and carbon intensity of energy, which are more readily affected by the policy levers available to them for reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” the EIA outlook states. “(A)ssuming no new climate policies, worldwide increases in output per capita and relatively moderate population growth overwhelm projected improvements in energy intensity and carbon intensity.”
The grant will go to a joint venture led by the city of Stockholm and the Swedish energy company Vattenfall, which are working together to promote the adoption of electric cars. The government funds could enable the largest purchase of plug-in cars yet in Sweden.
“Today there is tug-of-war to become a prioritised country for the electric car producers and this grant will contribute considerably to putting Sweden on the electric car map,” said Göran Lundgren, who heads the electric car project at Vattenfall. “Before a market is established, electric cars are expensive to produce and to buy, and therefore initial support is needed.”
Ulla Hamilton, Stockholm’s environment and traffic commissioner, added, “Energy efficient and silent electric cars with low emissions are needed in the Stockholm traffic. Stockholm is a world leader in the use of environment friendly cars, to a great extent because of our previous purchasing of environment friendly cars. Now we hope that we may in the same way inspire more companies in Stockholm to switch to electric cars.”
“With this venture we hope to speed up the development away from dependence on oil and from the greenhouse gas emissions from the traffic in the cities,” noted Tomas Kåberger, director-general of the Swedish Energy Agency.
The grant-funded electric car programme will move forward in phases, with an initial fleet of 50 vehicles. Public- and private-sector customers who apply for electric cars by August will get the chance to recoup 25 per cent of the vehicle’s added cost — up to a maximum of SEK 100,000. Vehicle deliveries will take place later in the year.
Eventually, the programme aims to support the purchase of 6,000 electric cars, with future deliveries set for 2011 and 2012.
A study conducted before the grant found that more than 100 companies and organisations in the Stockholm area were interested in acquiring electric cars, with support for some 14,000 vehicles.
Based in Iceland, Greenqloud is a startup that claims to be “the world’s first truly green public compute cloud.” It’s an IaaS (infrastructure as a service provider) that’s fully powered by two clean-energy sources found in abundance in Iceland: geothermal and hydro power.
Founders Eirikur Hrafnsson and Tryggvi Larusson — the company’s CEO and CTO, respectively — plan to launch the beta version of their cloud service in the fourth quarter of this year. Even before it’s up and running, though, Greenqloud has garnered some significant laurels. It was named a second runner-up in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s 2010 global elevator pitch competition, selected as one of Iceland’s five hottest startups by the international SeedForum organisation and — just this week — picked as one of the 11 most promising cloud computing companies in GigaOM’s Structure 2010 LaunchPad competition.
“Being in Iceland there is obviously an abundance of geothermal energy and free cooling but Iceland is also a network hub with redundant low latency multi-terabit fiber connections to North America and Europe making it much cheaper to serve both markets at once,” said Hrafnsson. “Greenqloud’s APIs are compatible with the current cloud market leader so it will be easier to switch to 100% green cloud computing or to scale out to Greenqloud. It is Greenqloud’s goal to be the leader in GreenIT by making cloud computing carbon neutral and cost effective.”
Hrafnsson notes that, outside of Greenqloud, there are no truly green cloud computing service providers today. While the world’s data giants — Google, Apple, Microsoft and Yahoo! — have successfully worked to make their existing servers highly energy efficient, those servers are still powered mostly by coal or nuclear power rather than green sources, he says. On average, he points out, less than 15 per cent of their power comes from renewables.
“The Internet with cloud computing are becoming a big contributor to carbon emissions because of dirty energy usage,” Hrafnsson says. With users increasingly demanding green services — he points to the 400,000-plus Facebook account holders who recently petitioned the company to use more renewables — and cloud computing set to grow to a $150 billion market by 2013, Hrafnsson says he believes Greenqloud is well positioned to become Europe’s green cloud computing leader.
As bad news — in the form of thousands of barrels of oil and gas a day — continues pouring into the Gulf of Mexico, the oil company behind the gusher says it will put a half-billion dollars toward studying how the spill will affect the region’s marine and shoreline environment.
While $500 million is nothing to sneeze at, and the research will certainly be critically needed, we have to take the announcement with a very large grain of salt considering BP’s performance so far. By all appearances, it appears the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion that led to the leak was largely the result of a combination of lax regulation and corporate carelessness. And BP’s failure so far to stem the well’s flow into the Gulf pointedly shows how little the company was actually prepared for such a possible disaster.
BP officials say the new research initiative was inspired by the many questions asked during hearings on the accident in Washington, DC, last week. Among the areas of study the new fund will support are:
- How ocean currents are affecting the spread of oil and dispersants under water;
- How oil, dispersant-treated oil and dispersants themselves behave on the seabed, in the water, on the surface and on the shoreline;
- How the spill and dispersants are affecting life at the seabed, in the water, on the surface and What are the impacts of the oil, the dispersed oil, and the dispersant on the biota of the seabed, the water column and on the shoreline;
- How accidental releases of oil compare to natural seepage from the seabed (tell us if that one doesn’t sound PR-inspired);
- Whether the dispersant chemicals are helping the oil to biodegrade, or are making the spill worse;
- How tropical storms might affect the impacts of the spill; and
- How technology could be improved to detect oil, dispersant-treated oil and dispersants, and to limit the impact of oil spills.
How do you take this latest announcement from BP? Is it encouraging? Cynical? Desperate? Simply necessary? We’d like to know your take.
As you consider this, by the way, we thought you’d might enjoy checking out a campaign of a different sort from Greenpeace UK, which has launched a competition for the best rebranded logo for BP. You can browse the entries so far at Flickr.
Judging by the latest report from the World Economic Forum, it sounds as if the world’s infrastructure — highways, water systems, power grids, etc. — are being held together with chewing gum and baling wire.
The report, “Positive Infrastructure: A Framework for Revitalising the Global Economy,” finds there’s a worldwide spending shortfall of $2 trillion a year over the next 20 years between what’s planned and what’s needed to bring our infrastructure into 21st century repair.
“In almost all parts of the world the need for new infrastructure assets or the need to modernise obsolescent assets are stark,” the report states. “Fiscal stimuli programmes around the world structured in response to the financial and economic crisis of 2008-2009 provide an unprecedented opportunity to address this infrastructure deficit.”
According to the report’s authors, the following are included in their definition of infrastructure:
- Ports and logistics
- Electricity generation, including renewable energy
- Electricity transmission and distribution, including smart-grid-related technologies
- Urban mass transit
- Water treatment
- Wastewater treatment
- Digital infrastructure
So what’s the solution to upgrading all these systems? The report’s authors see the greatest potential for success in a new kind of public-private partnership. Rather than relying on the private sector to fill in gaps not covered by the public sector, this approach involves bringing the two together from the start of infrastructure projects so both can work together for the full life-cycle of each programme.
The authors also make a critical distinction between the infrastructure improvement needs of developing and developed nations. Developing countries, they note, need to focus on increasing the capacity of their systems. Developed nations, on the other hand, have to find ways to optimise the use of their existing infrastructure through, for example, congestion pricing on crowded roadways.
“Another consistent theme … was the need for infrastructure projects to be socially inclusive,” the report states. “Infrastructure projects where there has been an early engagement of various stakeholders have been far more successful than the ones where this has not been the case. This is particularly relevant when there are questions posed around society’s willingness to pay for infrastructure services and the benefits accrued to society as a result of some of these projects.”
While it summarises infrastructure needs on a global basis, the World Economic Forum report focuses on just four regions: Latin America, China, North America and India. The organisation plans to further study the specific needs of other countries such as Australia later this year.
Here’s a question: why would an organisation dedicated to publishing greenhouse gas emissions data not realise that traveling by plane unnecessarily contributes to the problem it’s supposedly interested in solving?
Cisco blogger James Martin recently wrote about how would-be travelers had to find different ways of conducting long-distance business when the erupting volcano in Iceland forced numerous airports to shut down. One of Cisco’s own executives — Marthin De Beer, senior vice president of the company’s Emerging Technologies Business Group — ended up using Cisco’s TelePresence to join a virtual press conference when his flight to Oslo was canceled.
Another stranded traveler happened to be Paul Dickinson, CEO of the Carbon Disclosure Project. Dickinson was supposed to have flown to Beijing to conduct three job interviews but instead was left grounded in London. So he too used TelePresence to interview the candidates virtually.
Now here’s the “duh” moment. Dickinson later told Fortune that, “I realise now that you can even appoint someone remotely. That’s pretty transformative.”
Transformative? A few years ago perhaps. Should be painfully obvious today, however, especially for an organisation that says it puts greenhouse gas reporting “at the heart of financial and policy decision-making.”