Stanford Study Says Renewable Power Eliminates Argument for Using Carbon Capture with Fossil Fuels

January 8, 2020

New research from Stanford University professor Mark Z. Jacobson questions the climate and health benefits of carbon capture technology against simply switching to renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Carbon capture technology is premised on two possible approaches to reducing climate pollution: removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere anywhere in the world, an approach generally known as direct air capture, or removing it directly from the emissions source, such as the smoke stack of a fossil fuel power plant.

Jacobson’s study, published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Energy and Environmental Science, concludes that carbon capture technologies are inefficient at pulling out carbon, from a climate perspective, and often increase local air pollution from the power required to run them, which exacerbates public health issues. Replacing a coal plant with wind turbines, on the other hand, always decreases local air pollution and doesn’t come with the associated cost of running a carbon capture system, says Jacobson.

Not only does carbon capture hardly work at existing plants, but there’s no way it can actually improve to be better than replacing coal or gas with wind or solar directly,” Jacobson said in a Stanford press release. “The latter will always be better, no matter what, in terms of the social cost. You can’t just ignore health costs or climate costs.”

Jacobson’s findings support an April analysis by Clean Technica, which found that “wind and solar are displacing roughly 35 times as much CO2 every year as the complete global history of CCS [carbon capture and storage].”

Carbon capture technologies are still in their early stages and are far from being ready to scale up globally while renewable power is already economical, with forecasts for further price drops and huge growth.

As Clean Technica’s Mike Barnard concluded, “CCS is a rounding error in global warming mitigation.”

Today, wind and solar, combined with battery storage, are cheaper than coal for power generation. The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a nonprofit that supports the transition away from fossil fuels, predicts that by 2035 even the glut of natural gas now flooding the world at record low prices won’t be able to compete with renewables for power generation.

Just this week the CEO of Australian power company Alinta said he expected to close one of its coal plants well ahead of schedule. His reasoning was simple. 

“Given my 25 years of industry experience, I’d certainly be backing renewables, pumped storage and battery over [high-efficiency, low-emissions coal-fired power] and carbon capture and storage,” Alinta CEO Jeff Dimmery told The Business Program in Australia.

Oil and Gas Companies Love Carbon Capture … and Carbon Taxes

The oil and gas industry has been a vocal supporter of carbon capture. The part that these fossil fuel companies presumably find so attractive is that it involves burning hydrocarbons — the product they sell — but in a way that theoretically doesn’t contribute to the climate crisis.

ExxonMobil asks on its website, “What If We Could Stop Carbon Dioxide Emissions From Power Plants?” It then goes on to suggest that carbon capture could make this possible. However, Exxon fails to acknowledge a simple, economical, and achievable way to stop the carbon dioxide emissions from power plants: use renewable sources. We have the answer to Exxon’s question, but the company probably won’t like it.

Carbon capture technology is also the basis of the mythical concept of “clean coal,” which purports that coal can be burned for power and all of the carbon from its combustion could be captured and stored somewhere for the long term, instead of being released into the warming atmosphere. While carbon capture and storage has been a failure on a commercial basis for coal plants (and still yields the toxic impacts of mining and burning coal), the global coal industry is still pushing this concept. 

Last year, Reuters surveyed 10 major power companies and found the vast majority have no plans to install carbon capture technology, despite the many tax incentives Congress has offered.

Carbon capture is definitely interesting, it just hasn’t made economic sense just yet,” Spencer Hall, a spokesman for utility Rocky Mountain Power, explained to Reuters.

At this point, carbon capture isn’t economically viable but remains a favorite option pushed by the fossil fuel industry. It’s not unlike another policy designed to reduce carbon emissions — a carbon tax.

California has one of the largest cap and trade programs in the world. Much like a carbon tax, cap and trade programs are designed to use market incentives to lower carbon emissions from sources within a certain area. A new report by ProPublica finds that California’s cap and trade system has failed to achieve its goals, and one of the main reasons is that oil industry lobbyists have worked hard to make the system favorable to their interests — while ignoring the climate consequences.

Any plan to reduce carbon emissions via financial incentives for the oil and gas industry are at risk of this same fatal flaw.

Enhanced Oil Recovery: Carbon Capture’s Dirty Secret

Using carbon capture technology with fossil fuel power plants in order to combat climate change has another major shortcoming: where the carbon goes once it’s pulled from smokestacks. Right now the vast majority of that carbon dioxide isn’t being stored in an underground vault; it’s going toward enhanced oil recovery.

In order to increase the production of older oil fields, the oil industry will sometimes pump large amounts of carbon dioxide into old wells, which helps squeeze more oil out of the ground.

Using carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels to extract oil and gas, which will then be burned and add more carbon to the atmosphere is not a climate solution. It is, however, another explanation of why the oil industry is such a fan of carbon capture — because it enhances oil recovery and oil profits.

Is Carbon Capture a Distraction?

Oil and gas companies, with help from the coal industry and the Trump administration, are still pushing carbon capture as a climate solution.

Media stories about the promise of carbon capture will continue to appear — like this recent story about the prospects for algae-based carbon capture and biofuels — and the oil industry will continue to promote the idea that carbon capture will allow for continued burning of fossil fuels without harming the climate or environment, which is technically impossible.

Technologies for direct air capture, such as turning ambient carbon dioxide into liquid synthetic fuels — which still only gets to carbon-neutral, not carbon-negative, emissions — are even more early stage than those for carbon capture at power plants, and their financial prospects are challenging, to say the least. But current efforts to clean up fossil fuels’ carbon emissions at the smokestack are blatantly uneconomical, even with existing beneficial tax incentives.

As the Post Carbon Institute’s Richard Heinberg wrote last year, getting to negative emissions using an array of carbon capture technologies without curtailing economic growth requires something of a “magic show.”

“I call these solutions ‘magic’ because they are unlikely to accomplish much in the real world except to distract our attention from the necessary work of cutting emissions,” wrote Heinberg.

Main image: Cheshire coal power plant, Ohio. Credit: Peggydavis66CC BYSA 2.0

Justin Mikulka

Justin Mikulka is a freelance writer and audio and video producer living in Trumansburg, New York. He holds a degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Cornell University.

Tags: carbon capture and storage, renewable energy transition