This week we’re talking about carbon capture and storage, or CCS (sorry, these TLAs are not my fault).

Here’s why carbon capture and storage is a hot topic. If we could only capture the CO2 that is emitted when we burn fossil fuels, we could keep burning fossil fuels forever. Hooray – especially if you’re in any business related to fossil fuels, which is a pretty big chunk of our economy. Taking it one step further, if we could capture the CO2 that is already in the atmosphere, we could potentially reverse the earth’s global warming trend.

CCS is a fairly straightforward technology, and has been in use for about a hundred years. Billions of investment dollars have been going into scaling up various CCS processes for decades. CCS works best at the source of emissions, such as electric power plants and industrial processes (making steel and cement).

When I look at CCS from a thermodynamic, economic and technological maturity standpoint, it is a dead end. Here’s why:

  • First, CCS requires a lot of additional energy to remove CO2 from power plant exhausts, and even more from the atmosphere. Remember where that CO2 comes from: when we burn hydrocarbons (natural gas, coal or oil) we release a lot of energy, along with water vapor and CO2. It takes a lot of energy to re-capture the CO2.
  • Second, the extra energy is expensive. The efficiency of CCS power plants is about 40% lower than ordinary power plants. So the energy from these clean CCS plants costs 40% more.
  • Third, in spite of billions of dollars and decades of intensifying research, there are ZERO power plants or industrial processes in the world that are ready to scale up.

So why is there so much investment and interest in CCS? If the technology were to work at scale we could keep burning fossil fuels. I have nothing against R&D of various CCS technologies; maybe someday there will be a breakthrough.

The problem is that we are betting on a CCS breakthrough in the future, while continuing to burn fossil fuels now. While the fossil fuel industry lobbies for a CCS miracle, other more economic and workable technologies are not being deployed. It reminds me of a person addicted to smoking cigarettes, who knows about the risks of lung cancer, but keeps smoking in the hopes that science will find a cure before he dies.

I’m convinced that pursuing CCS as a solution to global warming will INCREASE our CO2 emissions over the next 20+ years. We would be on a faster, cheaper course to solve global warming by focusing on currently viable and scalable technologies.

To learn more about the science behind carbon capture and storage, their economic realities, as well as practical energy alternatives, please listed up to this week’s Energy Show.