Posted by: ericgrimsrud | August 27, 2016

Not to worry – BECCS will save our grandchildren! ??

Oh goody, goodly – we finally know how our planet is going to be saved from future degradation by global warming. It increasingly appears (see my June 2016 post entitled Post Paris Accord assessment) that our global leaders, such as those who attended the Paris conference in December 2015, think this will happen via a technology known as BECCS (Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Sequestration).  So, what is BECCS?  With the aid of the following figure, it can be easily explained:

BECCS

The basic idea is that we feed our power plants with biomass (wood, grass, plants, etc) instead of fossil fuels (coal, oil or natural gas) and install carbon sequestration apparatus to the smoke stacks of those power plants by which a large portion of the combustion product, CO2, is captured. That near-liquid form of CO2 is then transported via pipelines to voids deep in the Earth where the CO2 can be deposited and stored for many thousands or even millions of years.  In theory, this technology offers both power generation and a means of removing carbon from the biosphere.

The next question, of course, is will it work? Yes, it is true that each of the individual steps shown in the figure above have been demonstrated and shown to work on vastly smaller scales.  They are presently being studied and used throughout the world.  The remaining question, however, is whether or not BECCS can be scaled up enormously to a magnitude that could actually result in significant decreases in atmospheric CO2 levels over the limited period of time we have left for preventing the worst outcomes of greenhouse gas warming.

With such a massive BECCS system, a point of concern is that huge sections of arable fertile land and associated water supplies would have to be dedicated to making the amount of biomass required. It is estimated that the equivalent of one to three “India’s” would be required and these chosen biomass farms would preferably be located near both the associated power plants and the burial sites of the captured CO2 in order to minimize transportation costs and additional greenhouse gas emissions.

Upon learning just this bit about BECCS, you are perhaps already somewhat skeptical of both the technical and financial feasibility of this technology and I would expect you to be. Yet, if you have followed the debates and conferences concerning climate change being held throughout the world – such as the recent one in Paris – one definitely gets the feeling that we will be betting our futures on BECCS implementation by the middle of this century – when atmospheric CO2 levels will have soared well above the present already dangerous level of 401 ppm.

So the question then arrises, why are we headed in that direction – rather than trying ever harder to simply cut in our continuing emissions of CO2?  After all, we know how to do the former and know that it would work, but do not yet know very much about the feasibility of the latter.  Answers to this question seem to include the following:

  1. The Business as Usual (BaU) forces of the world and the USA especially like the BECCS plan because it allows continued use of fossil fuels in the up-coming decades. According to this plan, the additional CO2 that will be thereby deposited into the biosphere during the next few decades will simply be removed by bigger and better BECCS systems later, right? So easy to say while so difficult to do.
  2. And let’s face it, almost all of us want to do something for those “future generations” that we are always reminded of in climate change debates. Even though the BECCS plan does little of substance now, it does provide “a plan” and some hope for those future generations. That is, we will at least be offering our grandchildren something – even though they, and not us, will have to pay for it. And who knows, maybe “something will come up” by midcentury, right? Such as great improvements in carbon capture technologies or biomass production.  Of course, yet another description of what I am saying here is that we will be continuing to “kick that can down the road” – an activity our generation has become very good at.
  3. Also you should note that the closely related technique of CCS (Carbon Capture and Sequestration) is sure to be promoted as an intermediate stepping stone to BECCS in that it seeks the removal of the CO2 emitted by fossil-fuel-fired power plants (often referred to as “clean coal”). While this technique does not result in a net reduction of carbon in the biosphere, it seeks, at least, to be carbon neutral. Thus, CCS is the big hope for the continued use of fossil-fuel-fired power plants including those that still rely of our abundant supplies of coal. Never mind the facts that other pollutants, such as mercury and cadmium, are also emitted by coal-fired plants and that large quantities of the powerful greenhouse gas, methane, leak into the atmosphere in the mining and transport of natural gas to power plants.  It should also be noted that CCS has not yet been shown to be technically or financially viable on the large scale its proponents like to envision.

So here we are in the new post-Paris Accord era – proceeding with BaU modes of operation and lifestyles – thinking that future generations will be able to develop techniques such as BECCS in order to remove the excess CO2 that first began to show up in about 1850 and is still being added today at an unprecedented annual rate of about 2 ppm. By 2050, the biosphere can be expected to contain at least 50% more carbon than it ever has had naturally over the last 3 million years.  It now contains 40% extra carbon. The last time our atmosphere had 450 ppm CO2 in it, the Earth was almost a “water world” with very little ice anywhere on it.  Therefore by BECCS, the plan is to remove over 500 billion tons of carbon (that is, 2,000 billion tons of CO2) from our biosphere and permanently park that carbon dioxide deep in the geosphere. That’s an awful lot of carbon to be removed – approximately equal to all of the carbon that has been burned, to date, in the entire Industrial Age. And if this endeavor is to be effective, it would have to be done relatively promptly, that is, during the remainder of this century.  Whether this “gift” of the BECCS plan to our grandchildren turns out to be anything of value to them or is presently being favored simply to soothe the consciences of those of us who will be allowed to continue our extraordinarily pleasant  fossil-fuel- driven lifestyles remains to be seen.

 


Responses

  1. One my readers sent the following email to me. “Eric, What are you trying to say? Will this work or not. You should be digging much deeper. Let us know what you find out.”

    This BECCS business is very complicated and involves so many aspects of science, engineering, agriculture, and economics that at this point one might need a crystal ball to see the probable outcome. In addition, I think I might not live long enough to clearly see if it is working, if it is tried. From the tone of my post, however, I hope you can see that so far, I am very skeptical of its success. In fact, its implementation might be harmful it is diminishes our efforts to cut emissions. To the best of my ability, however, I will be following all aspects of BECCS’s development and will report on this web site progress, or the lack of, in future months and years.

    At the same time, I will continue to promote large cut backs in CO2 emissions. No matter what we do in the future, enormous cut backs will be most helpful and very likely required if we are to succeed with any plans we adopt.

    Eric

    • I support carbon capture as long as it follows the Hamurabi model.

      You store grain in the “Fat Years” so that the people will have bread in the “Lean Years”.

  2. First off Eric, do you actually believe what you write?
    “The basic idea is that we feed our power plants with biomass (wood, grass, plants, etc) instead of fossil fuels (coal, oil or natural gas) and install carbon sequestration apparatus to the smoke stacks of those power plants by which a large portion of the combustion product, CO2, is captured.” 

    This whole plan sounds as stupid as the ethanol made from the food crop, corn, or the diesel from Palm oil. Ethanol causes engines to have problems even operating, plus it requires 6 units of energy to produce just 1.
    “Science News
    … from universities, journals, and other research organizations
    Study: Ethanol Production Consumes Six Units Of Energy To Produce Just One”
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/03/050329132436.htm

    8/28/2016 11:42 AM
    Ethanol fuel from corn faulted as ‘unsustainable subsidized food burning’ in analysis by Cornell scientistsubsidies http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/2001/08/ethanol-corn-faulted-energy-waster-scientist-says

    So, Eric, just how much biomass will it take to take the place of coal that at present we have coal-fired power plants currently fueling 41% of global electricity and, in some countries, coal fuels a higher percentage of electricity. You say: “With such a massive BECCS system, a point of concern is that huge sections of arable fertile land and associated water supplies would have to be dedicated to making the amount of biomass required. It is estimated that the equivalent of one to three “India’s” would be required….” I’m sure that you have read and believe Paul Ehrlich and his 1968 bestseller “The Population Bomb” which due to Norwegians like the late Norman Borlaug, who did more to alleviate hunger than any of your “alarmist” have ever done to elevate the human condition, made this book a work of fiction.

    Response from EPG: John, I share your skepticism concerning BECCS and, for some of the reasons you mentioned, also the production and use of ethanol as an additive to gasoline.


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