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The promises and pitfalls of carbon capture

Extreme weather events, like Superstorm Sandy that just drenched the northeastern coast of the United States, often refocus the public’s attention on climate change. With Sandy, there were no straightforward connections, partly because it’s hard to connect climate change to a single weather event. Nevertheless, the storm may leave the US public more willing to tackle some of the challenges of climate change.

One of these big challenges is mitigating carbon emissions. Industrial development, power plants, and transportation integral to our modern society all release greenhouse gases that capture heat from the sun and warm the planet. The production and consumption of energy accounts for the majority of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, 91 percent of which is made of carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fossil fuels.

In a world dependent on oil, coal, and natural gas, global emissions of CO2 will continue unless we improve energy efficiency and continue replacing some of those fossil fuels with some combination of nuclear power and renewable energy like solar and wind power. Another option for emission reductions involves preventing coal-fired power plants, cement plants, and steel mills from emitting carbon dioxide in the first place. Carbon capture systems grab carbon dioxide from the flue gas and concentrate the pure CO2. Pumping that gas underground could permanently store the carbon in places other than our planet’s atmosphere.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies could be part of our low-carbon energy future. Calculations from the International Energy Agency estimate that the cheapest suite of emissions reductions technologies operating by 2050 includes a 14 percent contribution from CCS. If that scenario played out as imagined, CCS would capture about 123 gigatonnes of CO2 by 2050. Currently, 16 operating or planned large-scale CCS projects will collectively capture about 0.03 percent of that CO2 yearly by 2015 (36 million metric tons). Most of that gas comes from natural sources or existing industrial processing streams. Only a few projects, like Boundary Dam in Canada and Kemper County in Mississippi, apply CCS to power plants.

Taken together, current CCS projects may not look like they’re on track to help reduce global carbon emissions as there are so few industrial-scale capture projects—particularly on power plants. But these projects are necessary baby steps for scaling up CCS technologies. Every capture plant and storage project is an opportunity to improve and develop the technology for the future while curbing CO2 emissions today, says Charles Freeman, a researcher at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state.

Click here to read more from this November 28 ars technica article by Melissae Fellet.

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