Petra Nova, the largest carbon capture and storage facility in the world, recently came online in Houston, Texas. It boasts the ability to remove 90% of the carbon dioxide emissions from a nearby coal-fired power plant that is polluting the air. While carbon capture has been a reality for years, we’re just now beginning to see the technology’s full capabilities. There’s a growing push to put carbon capture to work, but is it a realistic way to safely keep emissions out of the atmosphere? What are the environmental impacts of this modern technology?
On the surface, carbon capture sounds pretty great. The process starts by isolating CO2 emissions at the source and then transporting that CO2 to a storage facility, usually located deep in the earth, all before that carbon can impact our atmosphere. We know we have to start getting serious about reducing our emissions and understanding the environmental impact they entail, so capturing and storing the CO2 seems like an ideal solution, right? Before we rush to name carbon capture the next big thing though, let’s dive into the exciting possibilities for this technology, as well as some very serious complications that may derail it.
The Success of Petra Nova
Now that Petra Nova is online, CO2 from the local coal factory will be pumped underground into nearby oil fields. Owners of worn out oil wells will be able to use the CO2 to boost their aging wells’ production. In the West Ranch oil field associated with Petra Nova, for instance, production is expected to surge from 300 barrels a day to 15,000.
Also crucial to the project’s success, the billion dollar operation was completed on schedule, and without going over budget—a huge win for an industry that has been designated as “too costly” to be widely implemented. But here’s where things get tricky. The U.S. Department of Energy actually chipped in $190 million in subsidies to make this project a reality. The financial prospects of opening a large-scale carbon capture plant look somewhat daunting without enormous government-backed subsidies, especially in areas of the world where there’s no oil to be pumped up from the ground.
Sustainability may be another hiccup in Petra Nova’s success. The firms who invested in the facility, NRG Energy and JX Nippon Oil & Gas Exploration Corp, were planning on 2017 oil prices hitting nearly double their current rate. Speaking with USA Today, Mauricio Gutierrez, president and CEO of NRG, mentioned that the project was designed with expectations of $100 a barrel oil prices in mind. When oil drops to around $50 a barrel, the project is only breaking even. With the price of oil hovering around $55 a barrel today, the project is clearly not as profitable for the firms as they were expecting it to be.
Most interestingly though, is that the popularity of carbon capture is being impacted by the fact that it’s in a gray area when it comes to environmental standards.
Why Carbon Capture Riles Renewable Energy Advocates
Earlier I mentioned that the Petra Nova facility is being used to pump CO2 underground to increase the production of oil nearby, helping to offset the costs of the carbon capture process. And that’s why many environmentalists are so wary about it.
Many environmental activists oppose the idea of carbon capture because it’s not actually working to slow down the production of CO2, it’s just capturing it post-production. It’s also being used to speed up the production of another type of fossil fuel—oil. That’s not exactly progress in the eyes of most sustainability advocates pushing for a switch to fully renewable, green energy.
Carbon capture is almost certainly going to be necessary for slowing the pace of climate change though, despite the negative voices. We simply don’t have enough renewable energy resources ready to replace our massive consumption of coal and oil. The International Energy Agency has predicted that by 2020, renewable energy could make up a quarter of our global power generation. While this step forward is truly astounding, the vast majority of our electricity is still powered by fossil fuels.
Interestingly, a report from researchers at Stanford and UC Davis found that renewable energy could potentially take the place of fossil fuels entirely within 20-40 years. The only caveat is that it would be a huge undertaking, requiring an enormous amount of social and political will. And, in the meantime, we’ll still need a way to slow the amount of CO2 entering our atmosphere.
Energizing Carbon Capture
Until energy consumers can fully make the switch to renewables, it’s vital to reduce carbon emissions. Carbon capture and storage technology is poised to fulfill that need. Just recently, we saw a major breakthrough at a coal-fired plant in India that may make carbon capture cheaper—and more sustainable.
In January, the Guardian reported that the Carbonclean plant had found a new carbon-stripping chemical capable of converting their CO2 into baking soda. The company claims to be trapping more than 66,000 tons of carbon per year at their plant in Tuticorin, India. While this is a huge breakthrough for carbon capture, it’s currently only being used at a small-scale plant. 66,000 tons sounds like a lot of carbon dioxide, and it is, but it’s a relatively small amount compared to the 1.4 million tons of CO2 captured by the Petra Nova facility.
The big news at this plant though, is that their new technology is allowing them to operate without a subsidy from the government, undercutting the idea that all carbon capture facilities need the government’s help. According to Carbonclean, the new chemical is more efficient, needs less energy, and is less corrosive than the current chemical in use. That allows them to produce baking soda that can be sold to a wide variety of industries, offsetting their costs for capturing the CO2.
Carbon Capture’s Outlook in the Energy Industry
According to the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, there are currently 21 large-scale carbon capture and storage projects either in operation or currently under construction, all scheduled for completion by the end of 2017. At the start of the decade, there were only 10 in operation. That’s a big leap. Add to that another 17 large carbon capture facilities in the planning and development stages and it’s clear that the technology is on the rise.
In a perfect world, we might be able to do away with our coal-fired plants altogether, but it simply isn’t feasible at the moment. Carbon capture and storage however, provides a viable interim solution for the immediate future. Third Party Energy Suppliers are also joining the cause by offering renewable energy products that ensure power customers are able to take advantage of eco-friendly energy technologies, whether that’s wind, solar, geothermal.
We live in an ever-evolving technological age. Carbon capture may not be ideal in terms of being environmentally sustainable, but it is a giant leap forward for companies generating, supplying, and distributing power as we continue to look towards a greener, more energy efficient future for us all.
If you’re looking for ways to keep your own carbon footprint low, get in touch with Liberty Power to learn more about our renewable energy products. With Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) from Liberty Power, you can be certain that you’re contributing to the demand for renewable, CO2 emissions-free energy. Go green today—and trust that the world will soon catch up with you.