November 3, 2006

Carbon games
by Craig Volland

Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth and a spate of scientific news items over the past year have achieved a real surge of interest and concern about global warming. A recent MIT survey found that global warming is Americans’ number one environmental concern, and almost three fourths of us think that government should be doing more to deal with it.

So it’s fun to see what electric utility companies are up to. Something like a third of US heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions come from power plants that are run on fossil fuels. Coal burning gives off almost twice as much carbon dioxide as burning natural gas. Over 150 new coal fired power plants are currently on the drawing boards to meet what power companies say is a relentless growth of demand for electricity. A few seem to be taking global warming seriously.

Duke Energy Corp., one of the largest, has called for the federal government to go ahead and regulate carbon dioxide. Pacific Gas & Electric, another biggie, is supporting measures in California that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

What do these two have in common? They both own and operate nuclear reactors. Nuclear reactors do not give off greenhouse gases directly, though it takes a lot of carbon-based energy to make the vast amounts of concrete and the specialized materials that go into them. Meanwhile, the coal boys are talking about carbon sequestration as the answer to using America’s vast and very dirty coal reserves.

Now, coal that is buried beneath the earth is harmless. It is old plant life that gobbled up carbon dioxide millions of years ago, died and was covered up and pressurized. By digging it up again, all at once in terms of geologic time, we let the carbon genie out of the bottle. Hmmm, how to get it back in? At one time the oceans could absorb much of the new carbon dioxide but now they can’t keep up and are becoming acidic.

So it’s simple, first you un-sequester the carbon when you dig it up. Then you sequester it again by pumping the carbon dioxide back into the ground. The trouble is, one must first build a new and special type of coal burning plant called integrated gasification combined cycle, or IGCC for short. This concentrates and reduces the volume of the carbon dioxide gas and makes it easier to move it through pipelines and to pump it into geological formations.

Pieces of this process have been done already on a smaller scale, but the whole enchilada is unproven. That doesn’t really matter because it will cost 50% more to build such a plant compared to the old-tech pulverized coal power plant.

Before any of these IGCC/carbon sequestration plants are built, the grid will go, bingo, nuclear! And that’s what Duke Energy and PG&E are looking at. Once carbon dioxide is regulated, coal is as good as dead due to cost, and the nuclear power age is reborn. The CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric even attended a month-long course in nuclear reactor technology at MIT to get ready.

In the meantime, though, the coal boys will be selling other elixirs to divert our thoughts from the obsolescence of their technology. Take the algae reactor. Sunflower Electric is seeking a permit to build a 2100 MW pulverized coal power plant near Garden City in western Kansas that will be the largest new source of carbon dioxide in the US.

Sunflower Electric has also announced plans for an "integrated bioenergy center" at their power plant site. This project will include a bio-diesel fuel plant, an ethanol plant, a dairy and a meat processing operation. They plan to reclaim some of the 14 million tons per year of carbon dioxide from their coal plant by feeding it to algae. The algae will be fed to dairy cattle or used to produce bio-diesel fuel.

Now let’s get real. Growing algae can only be done during daylight, i.e. half the time, but the coal plants operate 24 hours a day unless down for repair or maintenance. Algae production will also be much reduced on cloudy and cold days. Efficiently growing algae can only occur on large surfaces where the individual plants can receive sunlight. This is not unlike the large surfaces needed for photovoltaic cells to produce solar power. To make any kind of dent in the huge quantity of carbon dioxide being produced at this power plant, the algae reactor would have to be huge and very expensive. It would need to be enclosed in winter.

Growing algae does not actually get rid of carbon dioxide; it only stores it temporarily. Making bio-diesel with it merely transfers the carbon to another form, which is burned, so that the carbon gets into the air anyway. Feeding it to cows also stores it temporarily. Within a few years the carbon, in the form of methane (also a very potent heat trapping gas) emitted from livestock lagoons, or from decay of dry manure, would be back in the air. Or the carbon would be emitted from systems treating the wastes from humans who eat the dairy products or hamburger (the fate of spent dairy cows). Let's not forget posterior methane pulses as well. Some very small amount of carbon would be stored for many years in humans but, alas, that too will finally be emitted to the atmosphere.

If Sunflower Electric could grow trees with their emissions that would be worth considering. Trees, depending on the species, can sequester carbon for centuries. But there's very little water in western Kansas. That's why there are no trees there to speak of. Sunflower Electric could pay to grow trees elsewhere. In fact that's one of the ways polluters in some other countries, that take global warming seriously, can offset their emissions under greenhouse-gas regulatory systems. If and when Sunflower announces such a plan, get back to me, if I'm still around temporarily storing carbon.

So what about the real solutions to clean power, like energy conservation and wind and solar power? I think these utility guys just can’t relate to anything that isn’t a big hunk of concrete, pipes, and exotic metals. Maybe a new generation of managers will get it. We’d better hope so.

By the way there’s a public hearing coming up on the draft permit for the huge Sunflower Electric Coal plant. It’s Nov. 16, 6 PM at the Kansas Union, Malott Room, level 6, 1301 Jayhawk Blvd, Lawrence, KS 66044. Come and support energy conservation and renewable energy, not obsolete coal plants.

Craig Volland is Chair of the Air Quality Committee of the Kansas Chapter, Sierra Club.


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