Thomas Edison’s struggle to invent the lightbulb is legendary; he reputedly tested 3,000 versions before patenting the familiar incandescent bulb in 1879. Of course, his invention could not provide its own energy, so one might consider the next most important invention to be the power plant and grid that made the delivery of energy to homes and businesses commonplace in most of world.
Today, 137 years after Edison’s “eureka” moment, the consensus of the scientific community is that the production of electricity by the most common means available, the burning of fossil fuels, is contributing to the warming of the planet. Despite government support for and wider adoption of energy efficiency and renewables, the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has continued to creep up, reaching 400 parts per million in 2015, a level not seen on earth in millions of years.
Energy efficiency and renewables can only take us so far. Another essential piece of the puzzle is carbon capture, which is already in use in 15 large-scale venues around the world. Those facilities, together with another seven under construction, have the capacity to annually prevent 40 million tons of CO2 from reaching the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, the technology envelope is being pushed at Southern Co.’s Kemper County energy facility in central Mississippi. The project utilizes a new technology to convert low-grade coal to synthesis gas while removing much of its CO2 content, and uses it to generate electricity. The CO2 is then permanently and safely stored deep underground.
To be sure, groundbreaking projects like Kemper County are expensive, which leads some to ask: Why can’t we simply leave fossil fuels in the ground in the first place?
Despite significant increases in efficiency and renewable energy deployment, the world currently derives more than three-fourths of its total energy demand from fossil fuels — that cannot and will not change overnight. Meanwhile, fully one-third of the world’s inhabitants still do not have access to reliable electricity, and accordingly, world energy consumption is expected to increase by almost half over the next 30 years. Even with aggressive government policies to promote conversion to renewable energy, fossil fuels will likely supply much of that power. Their abundance, energy density and low cost ensure that.
And so carbon capture must be a part of the solution. It is estimated that, to meet the Paris Agreement’s 2-degrees Celsius warming limit by 2050, at least one-seventh of the reduction in carbon emissions must come from carbon capture applications. In real terms, that means today’s carbon capture capacity of 40 million metric tons must grow to 4 billion metric tons. Failing to build that much capture capacity may increase the costs of reaching the target by as much as 138 percent.
The continued development of carbon capture technology will only be possible with strategic action by the world’s governments. Every transformative technology or industry — railroads, space travel, cellular phones and the Internet — has relied upon some type of government involvement, whether it be regulatory mandate, direct investment or tax preference. The challenge is finding the right type of incentive or inducement, in the right amount, at the right stage of development.
Recent projects like Kemper are adding enormously to our understanding of carbon capture. We can be certain that future projects can be built more quickly, and at less cost, than their predecessors.
Timing is everything, and all evidence suggests that the next 10 years are critical to whether sufficient carbon capture capacity can be built to meet the world’s needs. Bold leaders in business and government should be commended for their foresight, and governments around the world should take note that future projects of this scale will only happen with their support.
Page is executive director and CEO of the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, a membership organization committed to capture and storage as an integral part of a low-carbon future. The institute’s membership consists of governments, global corporations, small companies, research bodies and nongovernmental organizations. It is headquartered in Melbourne, Australia, with offices in Washington D.C., Brussels, Beijing and Tokyo.